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The long road to grape success

Asking his son what he’d like to do when he was older was the moment that changed Warren Bam’s life.

At the time, Bam was working for a neighbouring fruit farm in South Africa, like his father before him, and he had always had a passion for farming. But the pre-1994 apartheid system in South Africa made it impossible to run his own business.

“I was talking to my son who was nine years old at the time, and I asked him what he’d like to be when he grows up. And he told me, farming,” he says. For many fathers and sons, that could have been an innocent conversation about future plans – but not for Bam, who explains: “Farming in South Africa is a white, male-dominated business. There are no emotions with that, it’s just how it is.

“When my son told me that, that’s when I realised. This boy of mine would like to go into farming. The best thing I can do is start my own business and give it to him. That was my biggest driver.”

Warren Bam
Warren Bam grows grapes on 25 hectares of land close to Cape Town in South Africa

Six years’ on and Bam is one of the only non-white organic grape growers in the Western Cape area of South Africa, with 25 hectares of grapes (known as table grapes to differentiate from the vineyard varieties), located about two hours’ drive from Cape Town.  

His grapes, including the popular black variety Sweet Sapphire, are mainly exported to the UK and sold by various retailers, including organic veg box company Riverford.

Bam’s initial route into farming came about through a family connection and the son of his father’s former employer. “He discovered that I’m very interested in farming. That was my passion during all these years, but I couldn’t study agriculture because of the apartheid system in South Africa,” he recalls. “Out of the blue he made me an offer and invited me to work with him. I was working in construction management at the time, so it was like music to my ears.”

Before long, he was running the family’s whole grape and blueberry growing business – but moving from employee to business owner still wasn’t an easy step. It was after the conversation with his own son that he finally plucked up the courage to approach a neighbouring landowner, who wasn’t using his own land and water access.

Bam doesn’t hold back in speaking about the inequalities in his country, but what mainly comes across is his own determination to succeed in a business that he’s clearly passionate about.

“We had a new government at that time who wanted to change the landscape, and they made available some funds for people like me,” he says. “I started with 13 hectares, and the funding was a grant, which was amazing as it really pushed me in the right direction. There are other non-white farmers, but in table grapes my situation is unique. I’m the only one who 100 per cent owns the business.

“I had no challenge in the business side of things, I was running their whole farm. I knew exactly what to do and how to do it. I planned out every last detail in my business plan, from import costs to the number of forklift trucks.”

Grape workers
Sweet Sapphire grapes are known for their unusual elongated shape and sweet flavour

For Bam, a 49-year-old with a booming laugh and a sense of humour, a big incentive was the chance to work for himself. “I don’t want to ask people, I want to make the decisions. If I’m late for work, it’s my responsibility,” he explains.

Does he feel more respected now he runs his own farm? “It is exactly that,” he says. “I am treated with respect. In the past, other farmers would still question my ability to farm, even though I was making more money than them. When I started up on my own, suddenly they started treating me differently.

“The colour of my skin is still the same. I feel the same. I don’t know why you have to own a business for people to respect you.”

Growing and exporting organic grapes across the world would be achievement enough for some, aside from obstacles he faced as a black farmer. But Bam doesn’t see his success like that.

“People always ask me: how do you feel about your success, compared with other non-white projects in South Africa?” he says. “There’s nothing successful about this, success is where I am today, compared to where I should be.

“I should have been further down the line with hectares. I couldn’t have gone into farming earlier because of the apartheid system we had. I would love to be bigger and supply more markets. At this stage, I should have 60-70 hectares. I don’t see myself as successful. It works for me and it pays the bills, but success is where I’m supposed to be.”

Nowadays, Bam does own a farm that he can pass on to his son, who, aged 15, wants to study agriculture at college. “He loves spending time with me on the farm, hopefully that will continue. I also told him that if he doesn’t want to do farming that is fine with me, he should do something that he loves,” he says.

As he reflects on the new possibilities for his child’s future, you get a sense that it’s choice, and not just land, that is the real reward.

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