This week a relatively unknown dairy company MilkAfric dispatched 15 young Batswana to Florida, USA to train in dairy production at Alliance Dairy in conjunction with the University of Florida. This development has sparked interest from the nation at large not only because it brings hope to the already concerning food insecurity but also because people are already wondering what MilkAfric is all about and the brains behind it.
Philemon Matibe is a 49-year-old Zimbabwean born agronomist who has been in the farming business for 31 years now. Coming from a farming family, it was only natural that Matibe choose the field which he labels as his first love and passion. After completing his apprenticeship in Zimbabwe, the young Matibe started working as a farm assistant, a position he held until he was made farm Manager a few years down the line. His love for the sector also saw him getting agricultural training in the United Kingdom, South Africa, the United States of America and Australia. As an outstanding farmer, who did the best he could to grow the agricultural sector in his native country; empowering people in the process, commercial farmers nominated him to contest for a parliamentary seat in the 2000 General Elections under the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) ticket. This, it would seem, would be the beginning for all Matibe’s problems.
When Robert Mugabe’s government announced that it had won the elections in most areas including where Matibe was standing, the charismatic farmer did not accept the results and decided to challenge his electoral defeat at the county’s high court. “I was the first black Zimbabwean to sue Robert Mugabe,” Matibe said. A fortnight before the matter was heard however, a mob raided Matibe’s farm, forcing him, his family and 80 farm workers to flee the area. Fearing for his life, he sought asylum in America, where he settled in Texas and did a bit of farming. The urge to return home however took over. However because he could not go back to his home country due to his past differences with the government of the day, he chose to come to Botswana to settle and pursue his dream of being an agricultural baron. “Botswana was naturally my first choice because of its outstanding track record of upholding democracy and the respect of the rule of law,” he said.
MilkAfric’s flagship business operations are about to commence at Lobatse Dairy Estates in Boswelatlou farms. According to Matibe, all the necessary resources are already in place save for dairy cows and the Auto Rotor performer which is the core component of the milking parlour. The Lobatse dairies will accommodate about 2000 milking cows with each providing about 30 litres every day, according to Matibe. He said that MilkAfric has been granted biosecurity license. This, he said, is an arrangement where the dairy farm is completely sanitised and barricaded to restrain un-regulated movement of bovine and human through it, hence limiting chances of any contamination to the core produce which is milk. According to Matibe, MilkAfric will produce its own natural organic pastures on the farm at Boswelatlou. All dairy cows, he said, will be subjected to zero grazing. The milking parlour, which is to be sourced from a German farm equipment manufacturer - GEA Farm Technologies –, will be one of the most advanced Milk parlours in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Auto Rotor performer incorporates all the latest technologies into already proven design. The technology, according to Matibe, allows a farmer to milk more cows in less time. Because of their strict specifications the Germans are expected to arrive in Lobatse soon to assemble this high performer machinery and then everything will be good to go. MilkAfric is also working hand in hand with a South African farm, where superior genetics from the USA and Europe are through artificial insemination being used to make up the perfect milking cows to start up production. The commissioning of the dairy farm is expected to be June or July and with everything in place, he said, the annual milk production is expected to increase rapidly in the years ahead. As it is MilkAfric has signed a strategic milk supply agreement with Parmalat Botswana. Throughout all this MilkAfric will be working in conjunction with their Technical partners Alliance Dairies in Trenton, Florida and the University of Florida. The two are to provide support to MilkAfric via satellite connection and will also give expert input whenever required. The 15 students who left this past week for training are part of this partnership.
Speaking at the students’ send-off at the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport former Vice President Ponatshego Kedikilwe hailed the decision by MilkAfric Natural Dairies to set business in Botswana, saying it will go a long way in boosting the Agriculture sector and the country’s food security. “MilkAfric could have chosen any other country in the region but they rather chose to invest here, they need appraisal for that,” Kedikilwe said. He implored the 15 students to use the 12 months that they will spend in the USA to represent the country well and meet responsibilities expected from them not only by MilkAfric and the Ministry of Agriculture but the nation at large. “Please do not fail us, make sure you deliver on the mission,” said Kedikilwe. He noted that the students have been bestowed with leadership privileges that should be able to bring change in the field of Agriculture.
Although in starting MilkAfric various challenges in many facets and forms presented themselves to Matibe, the charismatic agropreneur is pretty much sure he never in his life expected a bulk of these challenges to be a hostile treatment from his neighbours. That, in his view, was tantamount to racism. MilkAfric had entered into a Private Public Partnership (PPP) with Lobatse Town Council, which involved the latter providing MilkAfric with a piece of land (remainder of lot 1 in Boswelatlou). This land, which had been sitting idle, is surrounded by farms. The neighbours it would seem were hell-bent on making his life a living hell or if not to see to it that his noble project failed. Due to his neighbour’s queries and protests he had to re-do the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) three times, on technicalities. He also had to appear in court nine times.
One Louis Herbst as the first applicant, Herbst Feeds (PTY) LTD and Haggisis (PTY) LTD dragged Matibe, Lobatse Town Council and the government to court. Their bone of contention was that they had the right to continue using a road that passes through Matibe’s dairy farm despite its strict biosecurity requirements. After a long struggle and arguments in court which at some point amounted to one applicant claiming that the land in fact was not the property of the state but belonged to Cecil Rhodes and the British South Africa Company the matter was dismissed owing to the fact that “it is fundamentally irregular and untenable owing to defective affidavits and incompetence of claims”.
According to Matibe, MilkAfric will use Botswana as its spring board to the African market. MilkAfric, according to Matibe, has ambitions of being a Sub-Saharan enterprise but said they want to first start in the SADC region. MilkAfric also has plans to work with local small holder farmers, who will be given milking cows that produce less than 30 litres of milk a day. Some of these farmers, he said, have already been identified by the Local Enterprise Authority (LEA. The road to starting MilkAfric according to Matibe was not a rosy one. Although he praises the government of Botswana; government departments and Lobatse town Council he notes that he met serious ‘man-made setbacks’ which he says were the main reason why his dream of supplying was delayed for close to ten years.