When Thabo Mavundza’s academic journey to become a medical doctor took an unexpected turn, the South African agricultural industry was gifted with a bright young mind. A bold and forward-looking agricultural engineer, Thabo leads Westfalia Fruit Africa, a multinational supplier of fresh fruit and related products. Peter Mashala met Thabo in Tzaneen to learn more about his journey.
Thabo Mavundza left his home in Mavalani village in Giyani, Limpopo, in January 2005 with the intention of returning a few years later as a medical doctor. Little did he know, life had other plans for him. Instead, he became an agricultural engineer, a career choice that today sees him leading Westfalia’s biggest business unit.
Thabo Mavundza is head of agriculture at Westfalia Fruit Africa and leads many other industry bodies, such as the South African Institute for Agricultural Engineering (SAIAE), the Engineering Council of South Africa, and is a non-executive director at the South African Avocado Growers Association.
In his role as head of agriculture at Westfalia Fruit Africa, Thabo is responsible for the overall operations of farming (fruit production), commercial nurseries, packhouses and engineering. This includes the management of Westfalia Fruit’s joint ventures.
At only 35, Thabo heads the agriculture department of this major global supplier of fresh fruit products and processed avocado products. He was appointed to this position in 2022 after serving for years as its head of engineering in Africa.
Westfalia Fruit Africa has direct operations in South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya, Burkina Faso and sources fruit from Zimbabwe, Tanzania and other avocado producing countries, with production on more than 3 000ha of orchards.
“This new role has been a huge and challenging transition. One can never be 100% ready and I am excited to continue to learn, develop and hone my leadership skills,” says Thabo.
A resultsoriented gogetter, Thabo is also president of the South African Institute for Agricultural Engineering (SAIAE), chairperson of the Tzaneen Irrigation Board, committee member of the Engineering Council of South Africa, a non-executive director at the South African Avocado Growers Association, and chairperson of the Advisory Board of Bioresources Engineering at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
The life of Thabo and his brothers was typical of a village upbringing in Giyani. “I still have fond memories of growing up in the village, herding livestock and going wild fruit hunting with other boys,” says Thabo.
His family wasn’t wealthy – but because this was common among many families in the village, Thabo didn’t grow up feeling poor. It was only when he grew older that Thabo realised his parents were struggling financially. This was his motivation to achieve outstanding grades at school to obtain a bursary and study at university.
After matriculating from Mavalane High School with a distinction in 2004, he was awarded a bursary from the Limpopo Department of Health to study medicine.
“Becoming a doctor was my childhood dream, harnessed and encouraged by my family,” Thabo recalls.
He was preliminarily accepted to the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and, with bursary in hand, Thabo left the village in January 2005 to start his studies in a far-off province. He was stunned when he learned that he was too late to register and that the first term for medical students was well underway.
“I was shattered because I secured a bursary, but I couldn’t study,” Thabo recalls. Thabo had no intention of heading back home. He looked for alternative courses and found the Science Foundation Programme, a bridging course for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“I couldn’t use the bursary for this programme but my family stepped up for me. Fortunately, they were able to secure a loan to help me register and find temporary housing,” he recalls.
It wasn’t long before he realised how challenging it was to study far away from home. “I also found it difficult to survive month to month when I had little to no money. It was difficult for me to get by on my parents’ R150 per month,” he explains.
Although Thabo performed exceptionally well at the end of his first year, he still did not secure a spot to study medicine.
He was devastated to be denied his dream for the second time. However, this was the moment when his life took a different turn. Thabo learned about an opportunity to study agricultural engineering in a governmentfunded programme.
“Professor Jack Smithers, who at the time was head of the UKZN School of Bioresources Engineering and Environmental Hydrology, convinced me to enrol. I didn’t know what an agricultural engineer was but I wasn’t leaving empty-handed,” he laughs.
Thabo soon met Prof Timothy Simalenga, who headed the professional development programme at the Agricultural Research Council Institute of Agricultural Engineering (ARCIAE). The programme not only funded his studies, but also paid him a stipend. This programme required Thabo to work at the ARC in his holidays.
“I met Johan van Gaas, who was the head of agricultural engineering at the institute, in June 2006 when I was in Pretoria.”
Thabo was placed in the farming mechanisation department and began to understand and grow interested in this field. After graduation, Thabo was snapped up by the ARC, where he worked for about a year before moving to the Mpumalanga Department of Agriculture, Rural Development, Land and Environmental Affairs for two years.
When he joined the department, the engineering unit did not exist. They were the first to start it – which provided Thabo with many opportunities to learn.
“Having just launched the land reform programme Masibuyele Emasimini, the department bought a lot of tractors and implements, only to realise that they had no engineers to assist them,” he recalls.
In November 2012, Thabo was appointed as workshop manager for Westfalia’s engineering department. “I pitched up for my first day of work wearing a brandnew suit and shiny shoes. I was taken to a field where an excavator was stuck in the mud to help get it out!” Thabo laughs.
It took Thabo some time to adapt to a totally different environment and culture. “The situation was difficult at times, to the extent that I considered leaving,” he explains.
It took about four years before Thabo made a breakthrough – and by the end of 2016, his abilities were clearly evident to his superiors. His responsibilities grew, and he could no longer remain the workshop manager solely focused on engineering.
As his focus shifted, he began grooming some of the general workers to perform specialised work. With the help of Sizwe Magagula, the HR manager at the time, Thabo started an AgriSetaaccredited learnership programme for young artisans.
“Through this programme, we brought in students and mentored them. Eighteen of these students work for Westfalia today,” explains Thabo.
In 2018, Thabo was appointed head of engineering for Westfalia (Africa). In this role, he was responsible for all the company’s engineering needs: from irrigation systems to servicing and maintaining infrastructure. This unit employs over 90 people across the African operations, in Mozambique, South Africa and Burkina Faso.
A highlight for Thabo was designing the low-flow irrigation system in-house. “Several companies use this system now. The system is designed to irrigate a large area at once. Instead of irrigating block by block, we are now able to irrigate the whole farm at once, which saves a lot of time.”
Where trees were previously fertilised by hand, the updated irrigation system enables fertigation, improving production efficiency. The system was created in Israel, Thabo says.
CLIMBING THE LADDER AND CONTINUOUSLY LEARNING
With an inquisitive and outgoing nature, Thabo started exploring business aspects outside of his engineering expertise. He became interested in water use management and became aware of some shortcomings in the business.
“Despite our efforts, we were not fully compliant, and it would be my mission to bring us up to speed,” he explains. It was at this time that Thabo began participating in the activities of the water boards, irrigation boards, and water user associations in Tzaneen.
He was later elected chairman of these three associations. He began working with other infrastructure bodies dealing with roads and electricity. His involvement with different organisations led the company to develop stronger relationships with its stakeholders, particularly with government departments that were strained.
He also participated in community meetings and became involved in community work. Westfalia has become more involved in local communities too and offers skill development, bursaries, and other social programmes.
“In addition, we now work with communities that hold claim to land owned by Westfalia. The company decided not to fight the claims but to rather work with local communities to hand over the farms while continuing to farm in partnership with the new owners,” explains Thabo.