Meet our head horticulturist, Finn Rautenbach

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A passion for conservation, a talent for growing food and a vision for the future of South Africa’s botanical resources led Finn Rautenbach on his winding path to the Drakensberg Mountains. Now this young conservationist sits at the green heart of the Afrigetics family. Finn’s job description is ‘Head Horticulturist’ at Afrigetics’ pioneering farm in Silver Hill, and the 24 year old Knysna native looks like the job was made just for him.( He is right at home on Kamberg’s grassy slopes, in the shadow of the Drakensberg Mountains. 

Finn Rautenbach has the heart of a hippy, the sun-freckled smiling face of a farmer and the vocabulary of an academic. He admits that his green fingers are genetic and conservation runs in his blood; “I grew up on a small subsistence farm in Rheenendal, bordering the Knysna forest,” he says, “we grew the vast majority of our own food and from a young age I was instilled with a respect for the land and its plants”. Finn gained a BSc in Environmental Science from Nelson Mandela University in PE, where he had particular interest in Botany and Geography. After graduation, he quickly found his “conservation calling” in restorative agriculture. This specific branch of conservation ecology focuses on the health of the landscape, while growing crops. Restorative agricultural promotes soil health, and the use of cover crops and composting, in order to mimic nature.

Finn’s magical spiral garden at the George Botanical Gardens

Finn’s love for indigenous flora grew tremendously while managing the Garden Route Botanic Gardens, in George. A mentorship agreement with the production nursery at Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens helped him master horticultural practices specific to propagating medicinal plants. “I learnt a great deal about our local flora and our connectivity to it,” says Finn. The relationship between humans and plants grew as a theme in Finn’s plant philosophy. “South Africa has this fascinating cultural heritage linked to the use of plants,” says the horticulturist, “honouring this indigenous knowledge and using it to its full potential is vital for our cultural integrity.”

The Southern African flora represents an incredible medicine chest, he explains, with over 3000 plants regularly used as herbal remedies. Thousands of years of traditional use have resulted in an intimate relationship between indigenous people and plants. Finn explains that ‘this incredible herbal wealth’ can be utilized to help people earn a sustainable living. The young conservationist believes that if we understand our place as custodians of nature, we can prioritize conservation practices while uplifting communities. 

A chance meeting in the surf with Afrigetics CEO Steve Hurt, lead the pair to compare their love of African botanicals. “We share a strong moral and ethical imperative to conserve our South African medicinal plant heritage and to realize its potential,” says Finn. “Simply put, I love growing plants and Steve loves making them into medicine,” smiles Finn.

Speaking about medicinal plants is home territory for Finn, like millions of South Africans he grew up using traditional South African herbal medicine. “It was wormwood for a coughs and colds, and aloe for burns and stings in my house,” he says. “Few people know that South Africa is the third most biodiverse country on the planet,” he explains, “we have only 2% of the global land area, but a whopping 10% of all plant species”. Our forests, thickets and grasslands are hold a first-aid kit for the 21st century and have phenomenal potential for commercialization. However, increased wild harvesting and vast habitat destruction have resulted in a massive decline in some species.

Pelargonium sidoides, the powerhouse immune boosting, antiviral and anti-bacterial medicinal plant being cultivated for Afrigetics Botanicals.

With their values firmly aligned, Steve and Finn set out to identify some modern solutions for growing medicinal plants. One of Afrigetics flagship plants is Pelargonium sidoides. This little shrub has been used as a traditional remedy for coughs, colds and respiratory tract infections for generations. Recent clinical trials have shown the active ingredients to be highly effective in treating viral and bacterial infections. Due to its promise in treating COVID 19 and bolstering the immune system, wild harvesting of the plant has soared. This rising demand for Pelargonium root has depleted wild populations, threatened sensitive ecosystems and threatened the income of local communities who harvest it. 

In an effort to provide long-term sustainable opportunities for local communities as well as a reliable source of plant raw material for the phytopharmaceutical industry, Afrigetics Botanicals established a Contract Farming Programme in the Kamberg Valley, KwaZulu Natal. Finn believes that this programme has the potential to turn the valley into a ‘world-class centre for sustainable medicinal plant cultivation’.

Rautenbach is tasked with establishing a state of the art Tissue Culture Laboratory in collaboration with Stellenbosch University. This patented micro propagation technique involves growing tiny pieces of Pelargonium sidoides in a sterile nutrient medium. The laboratory will produce hundreds of thousands of genetically identical Pelargonium plantlets. “These genetic clones”, Finn explains, “will have the specific active compound composition desired by pharmaceutical industries.” In contrast, wild harvested plants can produce inconstant yields and variable active compound profiles. “The plantlets we propagate in the lab, will be sold on to local growers. When the plants reach maturity, the root material will be purchased back from the farmers.” 

This key element of Afrigetics’ Contract Farming Programme will offer a lifeline to rural farmers. “Engaging local communities as partners in conservation is crucial,” describes the young horticulturist. “The Kamberg region has high levels of unemployment and food insecurity, we have a great opportunity to offer real socio-economic benefit,” he explains. 

In addition, Finn will manage an on-site farm; growing and harvesting Pelargonium and feeding the raw material into the processing facility. This is perhaps the element of Afrigetics’ business which Finn is most excited. Growing pelargonium here offers him the opportunity to marry his knowledge of restorative agriculture and permaculture. “I’m really looking forward to designing horticultural systems based on ecological integrity,” says Finn.

Finn’s vision for Silver Hill Farm is to grow, harvest and process Pelargonium into a finished powder all in one facility. “This ‘farm to pharmacy’ philosophy,” he explains, “will guarantee the surety of the supply chain, enabling us to lower our carbon footprint and empower the local community.”  

 

Finn Rautenbach is a man living at the confluence of his passions – people, plants and the planet. “If we can make a success of growing Pelargonium here in KZN, he say we have the potential to have a beneficial impact on nature, people’s health and their pocket. It will help to ensure that wild plant communities remain intact and the custodians of South Africa’s botanical wealth derive a living from their heritage.

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