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Oiling The East Cape Economy

Posted on April 28, 2000

By Peter Dickson, The Mail & Guardian

Johannesburg, South Africa — When he’s not an international peace mediator, former South African president Nelson Mandela is extending the olive branch back home in a revolutionary farming project designed to boost rural income opportunities and create jobs.

Mandela’s home at Qunu in the Transkei is one of several pilot projects under way across the Eastern Cape in a R2-million, three-year provincial government scheme to test the feasibility of large-scale African olive production for the export market.

Mandela has 200 cultivars growing at Qunu as part of the drive to produce an estimated 250 000 required for a major olive oil processing plant to be financially viable. “They are growing very well,” says Eastern Cape MEC for Agriculture and Land Affairs Max Mamase, the brain behind the Mediterranean-inspired move.

Mamase, who has also introduced the cultivation of hemp, bee farming and the production of mozzarella cheese from goat’s milk, has hired a team of Italian experts who are busy setting up an olive tree technology school at Mtiza.

In a province where unemployment stands at 49% and the rural population is almost entirely dependent on state pensions and welfare grants for survival, Mamase says the biggest challenge is creating “income producing opportunities” and jobs.

He says olive oil farming does not require huge investment and even farmers in remote areas can rely on high-quality production from plantations as small as 10ha.

He says that if the pilot projects succeed, the bulk of the processed oil will be exported.

Mamase notes the domestic table olive market is estimated at 2E000 tons a year and that current production does not even meet half the demand, with South Africa importing the oil from Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal.

Inspired by his father, a Peddie bee farmer, Mamase has also spent R250E000 setting up bee farms across the province with a return of R17-million from export honey — and the potential to create 1 800 jobs — and also commissioned the University of Fort Hare to research, with selected goat farmers, the production of mozzarella cheese from goat’s milk. Mamase says the mozzarella project should be “up and running” by June and will incorporate Italian technology.

Mamase’s biggest agricultural gamble — the Eastern Cape production and processing of hemp for the European market, which could create up to 20 000 jobs — is paying off after only nine months since the launch of the pilot crop at the Dohne Agricultural Research Institute and at Addo, Mtiza, Libode and Qamata. Harvesting was completed this month and the local hemp, Mamase says, especially at Libode in the Transkei, is “outstanding”.

Analysis by Dohne and the Agricultural Research Council, backed by French and American experts, is in progress and Mamase expects a report on their findings by June.

Bisho will then apply for a licence to operate a nursery before land is made available for commercial farming to begin in September 2002.

That, Mamase says, is when global hemp sales are predicted to top R3-billion and “by which time we will have the legislation we need from the Department of Health [separating the crop from its illegal cousin cannabis], which wanted to take me to court because I went ahead” with the pilot project.

“I couldn’t wait,” Mamase explains, “it was the planting season.”

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