In a career spanning more than 25 years in different industries, Mary-Jane Morifi has tackled some of the toughest socio-economic challenges facing business in South Africa


At BP South Africa, she was part of the leadership team that negotiated one of the first broad-based black economic empowerment deals in the oil industry, bringing the Mineworkers Investment Company and the Women’s Development Bank into the boardroom with a stake in one of the region’s largest oil companies. The empowerment deal placed a share of BP’s ownership in the hands of mineworkers and black rural women.

At Anglo American Platinum, Morifi realised that building community halls and clinics was an insufficient response to deep-seated poverty in mining host communities and labour-sending communities. She persuaded the leadership and board of Anglo American Platinum to invest in a radical programme to put a stake in the ownership of the world’s largest platinum company in the hands of mining communities and labour sending areas. Project Alchemy is a multi-million rand broad-based empowerment deal, which resulted in the establishment of an umbrella trust—The Lefa la Rona Trust—and a series of community development trusts through which poor and rural mine host communities became the third largest shareholders of Anglo American Platinum. Project Alchemy is unique in extractive industries for empowering people directly affected by mining and for preparing them for life beyond the life of the mines.

With an impressive track record in both oil and mining industries, Morifi has recently moved to Tiger Brands—one of South Africa’s largest and most iconic food companies—to confront what may be the biggest challenge yet of her career: food insecurity.

In the most recent General Household Survey, released in May, Statistics South Africa reported that 22.3% of households surveyed reported inadequate or severely inadequate access to food across the country. That’s more than one in five South Africans.

“South Africa is a prosperous, middle-income country,” Morifi says. “With all of the progress we have made in alleviating poverty over the past 25 years, it shocks me to think that one in five South Africans lacks adequate access to food,” she adds.

So what can the producer of much-loved consumer food brands like Albany bread, All Gold Tomato Sauce, Oros, Koo, Jungle Oats, Crosse & Blackwell Mayonnaise and Beacon Chocolate do to address chronic food insecurity in South Africa? Tiger Brands already does quite a bit to address hunger in South Africa, with some creative solutions for those facing critical food needs. At a basic level, the company provides free food to some of the poorest of the poor. Last year, Tiger Brands supplied 52 000 food parcels to some of the poorest households, while providing these families with skills and knowledge to start their own food gardens and small social enterprises.

Tiger Brands also focuses on addressing the nutritional needs of learners all across the country. For the past five years, the Tiger Brands Foundation has run a school breakfast programme at 92 no-fee schools. By June this year, they had served 50 million breakfasts to date.

“This model has been so successful that the Department of Basic Education is very keen to adopt the model for their own lunch programme, where there are food monitors, all of them women, who ensure the quality of food prepared and make sure that the meals served are nutritious. We also provided 30 of our schools with kitchens, whereas previously they had to prepare food in makeshift kitchens, some of them having to cook on fire on the ground,” she says.

As important as initiatives such as these are in providing food to hungry people in need, Morifi acknowledges that these are not long-term or sustainable solutions. She believes that the company can still do much more.

“There is a big difference between providing food parcels to poor people and creating sustainable food security for all.

“Give a woman a fish and she eats for a day. But teach her how to fish and give her a fishing boat and nets, and she will not only eat for a day, but she will also feed her whole family, and probably invest the surplus in her children’s education and healthcare.’ Morifi says.

In her new portfolio at Tiger Brands—Group Executive for Corporate Affairs and Sustainability—Morifi is already exploring new ways to broaden and deepen the company’s strategic approach to sustainable socio-economic development.

She explains that Tiger Brands is one of South Africa’s largest consumers of agricultural products—nearly 2 million metric tonnes per annum—and that approximately 65% is produced locally here in South Africa.

“Of that total, Tiger Brands purchases 23 000 metric tonnes of agricultural produce from black smallholder farmers. That’s only 1% of all the fruit and vegetables we use in making popular brands of tomato sauce, canned jams, and baked beans, for example,” she says.

The company wants to expand the role of black smallholder farmers in the supply chain and has enjoyed considerable success so far with tomato farmers in the far north of the Limpopo province.

Morifi speaks with pride about the Tiger Brands Small Holder Farmer Development Programme for approximately 92 farmers in Limpopo, North West, and Gauteng. Approximately half of the new entrants into the programme this year are women, who aspire to become successful commercial farmers.

“We provide these farmers with off-take agreements to guarantee the purchase of their crops. We supply them with the correct cultivars, fertilisers and seeds. And we hire technical advisors to coach and mentor the farmers in case they encounter difficulties. The model is working quite well,” she explains.

This year, Tiger Brands had contracted to purchase 6 000 tonnes of tomatoes from black smallholder farmers. But with inputs and technical support, the farmers produced a bumper crop of 11 000 tonnes instead.

“It’s quite exciting that this is the first year that these farmers have been able to produce a profit from their farming activities with support from Tiger Brands.

“Our ambition is to increase the volume of tomatoes we purchase from black smallholder farmers by 33% over the next four years—to increase their revenue from R23 million to R100 million by 2021. If we support and grow black smallholder farmers, we not only increase food production in this country but we expand the range of business opportunities for those previously excluded from the market.

“This project helps break traditional stereotypes about who a commercial farmer is. It’s no longer just older white men.

“Through projects like this, there are now more opportunities for young people and black women in commercial agriculture. We see the potential to use this programme to make the agricultural value chain a fashionable alternative for a new generation of commercial smallholder farmers,” she says

Morifi is a champion of women’s empowerment and inclusion. “When you have diversity in your business, you have diversity of thought. By bringing in a diverse workforce, you become quite powerful in bringing in new ideas and innovative problem-solving. I firmly believe that if you empower women, you can develop a nation.

“I’ve made it my passion to create a consciousness around women’s issues. I believe that all women who have made a success in one way or another have a responsibility to create ‘a spider web’ for other women to succeed as well.

“Throughout my business career, I’ve made it a priority to mentor other women and to create a culture where women in business can learn from each other and model success. My aim is to establish The Tiger Women’s Network, which will bring female employees together to network, learn from each other and build a support network of like-minded people who have the same kind of ambitions to succeed,” she says.

Morifi knows from first-hand experience the role the collective power of women plays in transformational change. Before joining Tiger Brands, she took time off from her business career and worked with a small circle of women to raise more than R1 billion for the construction of the new Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital. Morifi was the head of the global fundraising campaign for the hospital.

“I worked alongside Graça Machel, Bongi Mkhabela, Nana Magomola and a number of other strong women, and all of us had one thing in common—a deep desire to make Nelson Mandela’s vision to provide quality healthcare for all South Africa’s children a reality. In building a hospital from scratch, this small group of women gave meaning and expression to that vision. I am so proud of what we have been able to accomplish together,” she says.

Three days after the launch of the new hospital, Morifi joined Tiger Brands to embark on the newest chapter in her impressive career.

“In my own role at Tiger Brands, I see myself as someone with one foot firmly inside the company and the other on the outside in the broader society,” Morifi concludes.

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