Mavis Mathabatha is an entrepreneur with big plans, plans which will always be informed by the spirit of philanthropy.
She has already started exporting her now famous and highly nutritious Moringa oleifera – or "miracle tree" – products overseas, but she has no intention of selling these to her own community; they will get them for free.
It was through her philanthropic work that Mathabatha, 53, discovered the remarkable Moringa tree and she is now intent on promoting it as one of the best herbal and all-natural nutritional supplements, especially for children.
In 2005, Mathabatha, a former teacher, founded Sedikong sa Lerato ("circle of love"), a feeding centre for vulnerable children and those from households with a combined monthly income of less than R3 000.
Before she opened the centre, Mathabatha visited Tooseng village in the Ga-Mphahlele area in Limpopo where she came face-to-face with the sad realities endured every day by a large portion of her community.
"At the time mortality rate was high with people dying from HIV/Aids especially, and the number of orphans and child-headed households was on the rise. There were also big families whose combined income from social grants was still too small to feed them properly and so we also brought in their children and fed them," says Mathabatha.
"In most cases children were going to school hungry or going to bed on empty stomachs, and most of them were visibly malnourished."
Sedikong sa Lerato is now a second home for almost 300 children aged between one and 18. The centre is far from fancy. From a distance women can be seen attending to pots on the fire in the open air, surrounded by red, dusty ground. Others are busy chopping vegetables and washing fruit. The site is bare but for two corrugated iron sheets and a covered area where most of the food preparation takes place, but all the cooking is done on the fire outside. The most dominant feature is the Moringa trees. As well as those planted at Sedikong sa Lerato, more trees – about 6 000 – are planted elsewhere in the village.
The centre is a twice-daily stop for children in the village – and for many children this includes weekends. During the week they pass by for breakfast before school and get their last meal here after school. The centre also doubles as an after-care facility that helps children with their homework and gets them involved in sports.
As she was feeding the children, Mathabatha worried about their health and fortuitously discovered the Moringa tree in 2006.
"Two months after I started adding fresh Moringa leaves to the children’s food, those who were malnourished started to blossom. I met good people who flew me to Canada on several occasions where I was mentored on how to plant and process Moringa trees. All I knew was that Moringa boosts the immune system, but over the years I learnt all its secrets and had my products lab-tested by the SABS and academic researchers, who all cleared it for human consumption and confirmed its amazing nutritional value."
Mathabatha is aiming to become a large, international Moringa exporter by 2016. She is still packaging the dried and powdered leaves, and tea bags, manually, but she sees a large scale factory in the future. Her community, however, will be life beneficiaries of her vision. Mathabatha has already given away 7000 Moringa trees to families in the area: "My aim is to see every home in South Africa with a Moringa tree. I also go to other communities sharing how best they can use this miracle tree."
But upscaling will not be easy as Mathabatha runs Sedikong sa Lerato and feeds its children from the proceeds of her Moringa sales: "Sometimes I do not have petrol and so catch a taxi to get to the centre to ensure the children are fed. We may not have much, but we give them love and all those happy faces give us great pleasure and fulfilment."
Her good work has not gone unnoticed. Mathabatha received the 2013 Inyathelo Award for Philanthropy in Food Security, as well the 2013 Limpopo Female Farmer of the Year. She was previously named 2011 National Female Farmer of the Year, as well as the 2010 Woman Entrepreneur of the Year, all of which proves that some trees, if propagated with philanthropy, can bear personal as well as nutritious fruit. (Poloko Tau, City Press, South Africa)