His sharp blue eyes sparkled with vision and determination right until the end. Frank Taylor, Matsubutsubu, passed away on April 4, 2020, at the age of 84. He dedicated his life to the research and development of Botswana’s abundant natural resources, focused on those that could generate an income for rural families.
He often started work before 5am each day, developing his latest ideas into projects and more projects. His tireless energy awarded him his nickname, ‘dust devil’, or ‘little whirlwind’.
Frank arrived in Botswana in 1964. Born in Cape Town, he supported one of the first archaeological expeditions, led by Lone and Jalmar Rudner, to the remote Tsodilo Hills. Botswana enchanted him, so different from the racialised society of apartheid South Africa.
After his expedition, he turned down his father’s invitation to manage the large family farm in Cape Town, and instead returned to Botswana.
He found work as a store manager for Ngami Trading Company, stationed for some time in Sehitwa on the edge of the then-expansive Lake Ngami. Having grown up on the seaside and being a fish lover, it didn’t take long for him to begin developing the fishing industry, distribution and logistics. Transport at that time was an arduous challenge for perishable fish produce, where a journey from Maun to Francistown took two days. But that did not stop him.
He met his wife-to-be Margaret, who had arrived from England in 1965 to teach at the new Gaborone Secondary School. He instantly fell in love, and proposed on the old Matlapaneng bridge in Maun. He told her to return to England and consider his proposal for a year before she said yes.
They eventually married in England in 1968. He drove his new wife back to Botswana in a Land Rover. They settled in Francistown and he began work with Botswana Game Industries, buying hides and other wildlife trophies from traditional hunters, selling them to South Africa and overseas.
For Frank, this inspired his vision for transforming Botswana’s natural resources into wealth for its people.
Nonetheless, Frank became increasingly uncomfortable with Botswana Game Industries’ pursuit of profit, instead of a fairer distribution of earnings for the hunters and artisans. He chose to leave the game industry in 1972 to join the late Patrick Van Rensberg at the Serowe Brigades. With the philosophy of ‘education for production’, he set up a tanning workshop.
Apprentices produced a range of leather items, with profits recycled into the training programme.
Once again, however, he disagreed with the business model. This time, he found that the equal sharing of income meant that those who worked harder could not benefit from their extra effort. An independent thinker, he decided instead to start up another project in the way he thought best.
So, in 1974, he travelled to Gabane, a picturesque village set against a hill. Despite being close to the new capital of Botswana, it gained little from Gaborone. With the promise of creating job opportunities in Gabane, Kgosi Pule allocated him land on the edge of the village to start up Pelegano Village Industries.
He moved his family, by then with two young sons, Michael and Peter, to a rented traditional homestead while he started construction. He chose a spot for their house a little up the hill, ignoring the advice of elders not to risk the wrath of Kgwenyape, the mythical two-headed snake that lived in the hill.
Having been an archaeologist, a store master, a fisherman, a wildlife trophy trader, and a tanner, it was now clearer where his heart was. Entrepreneur and self-described ‘ideas man’, Pelegano allowed Frank to fully invest his time in developing opportunities to support local people to reduce their hardships in health, education, nutrition and income.
Working with the traditional leadership, Pelegano Village Industries became a production centre, selling chicken, sorghum meal, bricks, crafts, metalwork, and woodwork. Many people fondly recall being sent to Pelegano as children to fetch chicken livers for relish. Through Pelegano, a generation of young men and women learnt skills and earned an income.
Gabane became their home, and Margaret and Frank had another son, Christopher (Moeng). Equally, Margaret has been strongly involved in the affairs of Gabane. She taught for many years at the Gabane
Forty-five years later, Pelegano still flourishes. It now stands as a set of self-owned enterprises that continue to provide employment. It also earns funds for a community trust, which sponsors home-based care, Gabane Young Fighters football team, and other activities in Gabane.
Over his life, Frank travelled to many parts of Botswana recording plants of commercial value in collaboration with local communities. In 1982, he undertook the first countrywide survey of veld products with commercial potential for the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. This was a springboard to establishing Veld Products Research and Development (VPR&D), headquartered in Gabane.
It is through VPR&D that Frank worked extensively with like-minded people on wild plants. He canvased the support of numerous donor agencies to finance projects that provided opportunities for rural communities as far Zutshwa and Hunhukwe in Kgalagadi District.
He also solicited partnerships with overseas universities to conduct research on the nutrition and planting requirements of many wild fruits of Botswana such as morula, mogorogorwana, mmilo and mahupu (truffles). As a founding member of VPR&D, Frank also remained a Board Member to his last day.
In 2007, Frank formed his own company to develop foods from wild plants, named WildFoods. It took hard work, patience and perseverance to get the company into operation with staff trained, equipment installed and people in villages across eastern Botswana harvesting and supplying morula fruits.
In 2008, WildFoods won a prestigious award – PhytoTrade Africa Natural Product Award - as a business that demonstrated commitment to developing ethical and environmentally sustainable products with natural ingredients. Marula Stix were proudly served in lodges and on Air Botswana.
He pioneered on, with a staff complement of 11. What they lacked in financing or marketing experience, they made up for with passion creating a value-chain that would link rural people with consumers worldwide. They also produced morula jam, sold in supermarkets, and served in schools across Botswana. The success of these products ensured that the rural women harvesting and selling morula fruits could afford healthcare, school uniforms and housing improvements. “We can really have a big economic impact for Botswana’s small subsistence farmers,” he would often say.
Never content with single projects, Frank turned his attention to setting up a national network to support large-scale processing and marketing of veld products and advocate for greater government investment in this sector. In 2017, he established the Botswana Natural Products Association.
With four organisations to serve, there were not enough hours in a day. Frank resigned his position as a Board Member of Pelegano Village Industries, contracted out the WildFoods factory to young entrepreneurs, and focused his last years on re-building VPR&D and supporting the Botswana Natural Products Association. This work remains unfinished.
Over his life, he never tired. His eyes remained fixed on a goal that never faded, just as the sparkle in his blue eyes. At times his immense vision and energy made him impatient with those who worked with. Despite becoming a Botswana citizen in 2004, he always regretted not having taken the time to learn Setswana properly. Nonetheless, his sharp sides were balanced by his deep generosity, spurred by his strong Christian faith. He inspired and mentored many along his journey.
It was not Kgwenyape that eventually snagged Frank, but another resident of the hill, the humble scorpion. Perhaps ironic, considering that he dedicated his life to Botswana’s natural resources. He fought in hospital for a full three weeks, but sadly did not recover.
He leaves behind an immense legacy of knowledge on indigenous plants and their economic value to rural communities. He has spurred on a network of people and organisations that will forever cherish his dedication to people, community development and nature conservation.
His wife Margaret, three sons, three daughters-in-law and nine grandchildren survive him.