BD: Tell us about growing up in Grabouw
BJ: Taking into account that Grabouw is the central hub of the Elgin valley which is the largest fruit exporter in Southern Africa one would imagine that agriculture would affect my life at one point or another whether I liked it or not, so I chose to embrace it. In fact it made sense to me that in a traditionally male and white dominated industry it would be an exhilarating challenge for me as a black female to attempt to enter that market place. As a young child I had a competitive streak, I suppose as one of seven children it could be expected as I always had brothers and sisters around to compete against. The highlights would be beating older brothers and sisters at games and I guess these little games sunk in deeper than I realised.
BD: Your father worked on a farm, did you ever work on agriculture farm or you just tagged along?
BJ: As young kids, when my dad worked with fynbos and dried flowers our jobs were to make sure that the bunches were the correct size, so I guess I was a quality control checker from a very young age!
BD: Is this where the love for farming came from?
BJ: I would say the love for farming came from just being out in nature with my parents taking in the sights and smells, and just the fact that no day was like the day before. They say the smallest things in life sometimes make the biggest difference, and one memory that I remember more fondly than any other from that period in my life is a small little white flower that my dad referred to as “snesies”. My father would surprise me every night with a bundle of “snesies” exactly the size of my little hand. I can’t articulate it, but this memory comes up time and time again when I think of where it all started, as a child it brought me happiness but through my career as an adult the memory would drive me to try and find that innocent beauty and happiness in those moments.
BD: One would imagine you would have fallen in love with wine but you took a different direction isn’t it?
BJ: It is in fact my passion for winemaking that gets me out of bed in the morning, hops is a very unconventional crop unlike grapes in South Africa, and that triggered my fascination with this very small ingredient that is so powerful in the end product. It shares with wine the unique characteristic of determining the flavour and aroma of the beverage that the consumer will enjoy.
BD: After finishing matric, you wanted to study more but money was an issue. What did you do?
BJ: Funds were very limited, as two of my siblings were still completing their tertiary education which led me to approach local farmers in the area to try and find someone who would sponsor me so that I could further my studies. After knocking on many doors my efforts yielded disappointing results.
BD: What kept you going when you found door after door closed?
BJ: I realised that a closed door meant that I haven’t knocked on the right door yet.
BD: Finally, you ended up at Dr Paul Cluver’s doorstep. Firstly, how does a young agriculture worker’s daughter end up there and why him?
BJ: I literally went from farm to farm, so you could say it was purely coincidental unless you’re the type of person that does not believe in coincidence. Whilst my dad was at work, I borrowed my sisters’ car, asked a teacher, Mr Pullen, to drive me and my mom around and so the fundraising hunt began. Soon after entering the gates on this particular farm I was introduced to Paul Cluver Jnr, who appeared fascinated by my drive and decided to call in his father Dr Paul Cluver, who listened to me and what I wanted to do and achieve in life. At that stage I had I no idea who the old man was that was willing to listen and help me. All I knew was that he was willing to listen and I felt that was all I needed. He funded me to study viticulture and oenology at Stellenbosch University. But more importantly, he believed in me.
BD: We know the work he has done with Thandi Wines. Would you say he is a visionary?
BJ: I would say he is ahead of his time in terms of his world view and his vision for the future of this country.
BD: So how did he help you?
BJ: He took away all the anxiety that I experienced during that frantic hunt, I believed I could do it but financially it was such a burden. He took my CV glanced over it and said we could go home, relax and that he would make a phone call that should take care of it. It was a little surreal, I wasn’t quite sure if I should restart my efforts but the next day I got the call… Every time I tell this story it still seems surreal.
BD: What was the experience like studying at Stellenbosch? Were you able to fit in?
BJ: Apart from meeting my husband, it was some of the best years of my life where I met lifelong friends. Stellenbosch is an interesting place, it is more than what it appears to be on the surface, and once you find your comfortable space it can be an experience of a lifetime.
BD: Who offered the opportunity to work at SAB?
BJ: I got a call from a recruiter; still don’t know how or where she got my number, next thing I knew I was reading up on hops like you cannot believe and was on a plane to George.
BD: So you fell in love with Hops…
BJ: I would say so, the historical significance of hops and the unique manner of cultivating the crop in South Africa sparked a love affair and a bit of an obsession early on in my career.
BD: You then did a Master’s Degree. Why? One would assume, a degree, let alone honours is enough for a poor farm girl from Grabouw!
BJ: It was never about the qualification, and up to this day it isn’t. It has always been about striving to get to a place where I can fully live out my ambitions, where I can fully express my opinions, be heard and make a change in my life and the life of others and at the end of the day live a full life without regrets. The degrees were merely the tools that I needed to build the little platform that I wanted to shout from.
BD: And you haven’t finished your fascinating journey. Tell us about the Awethu Project opportunity.
BJ: I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart, and my dream was to live the farm life and to play a leading role in the societal challenges that we face in agriculture. I’ve always wanted to drive a business with the potential to bring positive change that has both impact and is meaningful in the long term. Last year a hop farm came up for sale and I instinctively knew that this was my chance, the Awethu project and SAB started looking for an ideal candidate to take up the commercial hop farm that was put on the market by its previous owners, they knew it would be an enormous challenge since the candidate would have to effect substantial operational change in order to succeed where the previous farming operation couldn’t. At that stage they approached me, I realised that this juncture would be make or break the dream that I always had. At first I realised that it might not be the easiest of routes to take because failure was as much a reality as success, but that’s when I told myself that even stage performers get butterflies, the butterflies just mean that you’re about to do something extraordinary.
BJ: I’m learning that the societal challenges run deeper than one could ever imagine, but just because it’s bigger than you can imagine doesn’t mean that small changes can’t make an impact, and so I’m learning to look at things from the very basic level. I’m also trying to teach myself that nothing I do is in vain, I just might have an effect on someone without realising. I’m also learning that success is not always measured in the traditional sense, so I’m trying to teach myself that even when I fail at least I’m learning. I’ve realised that sometimes patience is more important than quick wins.
BD: You now own a farm. How does this make you feel? What do your parents say?
BJ: Again I would say the farm is merely an instrument in an attempt to realise certain ambitions, to shout a little louder and affect change in others’ lives a little more. I think my parents are a little overwhelmed with all of this. I think to them it might have all seemed like the wild fantasies from the overactive imagination of a child in their eyes.
BD: What are you producing on the farm?
BJ: We are producing 21 hectares of niche and commercial hops and a range of other diverse commodities that we are still experimenting with.
BD: Do you intend to grow your production, own more farms?
BJ: Well I first want to pay off my debt! From a growth perspective I suppose that would be rational, but at this stage I don’t have any concrete plans. In the short to medium term my goal is to do this properly and make the current operation a success. I’ve always approached challenges in a similar fashion, what the future holds will naturally unveil itself once you’ve completed your current task to the best of your ability.
BD: You could have given up at the first closed door after matric, you could have been happy with a first degree, honours would have been a bonus and a Masters something to crow about in the community, what kept you going to this point in your life?
BJ: To be frank fear of poverty is a real thing, we don’t have to sugar coat this one . Very early on in my life I realised that nothing in life that’s worth it comes without sacrifice. Faced with two options the difficult one that requires more sacrifice will also be the one that will make you stand out more.
BD: If you had to talk to all the young ladies in Grabouw today, who are in the situation you were in 10, 15 years ago, what would you say to them?
BJ: Perseverance… real deep seated perseverance. Always treat failure like water off a duck’s back because that’s exactly how insignificant failure truly is, only the successes matter, the only purpose failure serves is to fuel future success. It’s not really that important where you come from or how you get there, just get there. Hold yourself accountable no one else and remember that pride sometimes just gets in the way of progress.
BD: Have you gone back to Dr Paul Cluver? What did you talk about?
BJ: I met up with Dr Paul Cluver in their tasting room a couple of years ago before starting my thesis to thank him and discuss my plans to attempt another degree. I also offered to return the favour by offering my services in any capacity that he deemed fit. I didn’t understand it then but in his infinite wisdom he advised me to complete my degree whilst pushing forward with the career path that I was on at that stage. Up to this day I cannot say that I have returned the favour to Dr Cluver but my only hope is that my story makes him proud, inspires others and that I can do the same for someone else one day.
BD: Thank you. Your story is an inspiration right across the country