Diversification and expansion on the cards as Nalitha Fishing thrives in Hout Bay

Bonga Mavume’s entry to the fishing industry was via a corporate job with the Oceana Group, but the landmark Sea Harvest/Viking Fishing transaction in 2018 gave him the opportunity he needed to start and grow his own company. Today, only eighteen months after its genesis, Mavume’s Nalitha Fishing is diversifying and thriving in Hout Bay.

Bonga Mavume has worked in the food industry since graduating from university in late 1990s, but he and his wife Vatiswa have always run businesses outside of their corporate jobs.

“We’ve always been entrepreneurs,” says Mavume. “We used to wake up at five-o-clock in the morning and buy shoes to sell them. We would sell clothing and bags; we’ve owned shops in Langa. We’ve done a lot of things but we’ve never given ourselves a chance to focus on something full-time and now that we’re doing that, I’ll be honest with you, I won’t change this life for anything.”

Mavume’s enthusiasm for his role as managing director of Nalitha Fishing is visible. He is as comfortable in the frenetic processing environment of the company’s Sentinel plant in Hout Bay as he is on the adjacent quayside where he is working with local craftsmen to refurbish and convert the small pelagic vessel Water Baby so that it can participate in the tuna pole fishery.

“After spending plus-minus R250 000, this guy (Water Baby) is back into the ocean,” he says, brimming with enthusiasm for the carpentry, glass fibre repairs and electronic upgrades that are underway on the vessel. “But for me, the most beautiful part of this is that you’ve got another eight people who are going to be employed, who are going to work on this vessel full time, catching tuna, and during off-season we’ll find them something else to do.”

Although its interests in the hake deep-sea trawl fishery form the backbone of Nalitha Fishing, its Sentinel factory is the hub where Mavume is able to work with individuals and fishing companies to process and pack a wide range of seafood products. Sentinel is one of only two companies in Hout Bay to be certified by the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications as HACCP compliant – a minimum requirement for exporting fish to the European Union. The factory also provides a home for Benguela Tuna, a trading company in which Nalitha Fishing owns a 50 percent share.

“We have retained the skills in the factory,” says Mavume. “We have highly experienced workers. They can fleck snoek like crazy, or if we’ve got an export order for PQs (prime quality, fresh hake), everybody just jumps in, they know what to do. We produce things here that some of the bigger businesses struggle to, purely because we’ve got experience, and the attitude and willingness.”

During the latter half of the year the factory becomes so busy that Mavume wishes he could expand it, but he knows that fishing is a seasonal business and subject to cyclical fluctuations in catch. However, the innate uncertainty that characterises fishing all over the world is far less of a concern to Mavume than the looming fishing rights allocation process (FRAP) that will roll out this year.

“2020 is key in that we expect the DEFF (Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries) to make the right decisions,” he says. “We have made investments with borrowed funds because we were encouraged to change the dynamics in the fisheries sector. So, we hope that the government will look at the companies, small and big, and have a clear policy and clear criteria that decides who gets allocated rights.”

As a 100 percent black-owned business, with hard investments in vessels and processing assets, Nalitha should be well-placed to benefit from FRAP, but Mavume is concerned about the uncertainty that continues to surround the process.

“It’s the end of January,” he says, “we don’t know when and we don’t know how (FRAP will unfold). We are positive because we should be in a good position – we tick all the boxes. Are we worried? Are we concerned? I would have to say ‘yes’ at this point in time because there are no clear guidelines.”

In spite of the uncertainty around FRAP, Mavume is optimistic about the prospects for Nalitha Fishing, which he is already diversifying and is eager to grow:

“Although it’s early days, if the fish continue to swim and the markets stay where they are, we should be able to make a success of it…” he says. “We’re waiting in anticipation (for FRAP). We like what we do and we’d like to continue to do it for a long time. We’re hoping the right decisions will be made.”