The former Free State department of agriculture head of department, Peter Mbana Thabethe, conducted “desktop research” to identify a dairy farm in India whose model would be adopted to establish the Vrede dairy farm project – which failed.
Thabethe opted to adopt the model of this dairy farm despite it not being the largest milk producer in India and that it relied on buffalo for its produce.
On Thursday, Thabethe took the stand at the commission of inquiry into state capture to give testimony related to the failed project, which involved Gupta-linked Estina Pty Ltd.
Thabethe told the commission that while conducting his “desktop research” he had compared the operating models of dairies from Switzerland, Germany and India, settling for a dairy called Paras based in India.
Paras reportedly later partnered with Gupta-linked Estina Pty Ltd.
Thabethe said the department he headed was of the view that the model Paras used – collecting milk from small farmers – would work best in the Free State where small milk producers were going under due to “excessive costs”.
Thabethe said the model would help small dairy farmers and bring on board black smallholding farmers, and establish a processing facility in the province.
Evidence leader at the commission, Advocate Leah Gcabashe, said it was unimaginable that a department of agriculture would rely on a “desktop research” or “Google” for a project which would cost millions, questioning the quality of this research.
“Should I be concerned about the quality of the desktop research that you say you conducted?” Gcabashe questioned.
The commission also heard that Thabethe had requested permission from the office of then-premier Ace Magashule to travel to India to the dairy he had identified and to meet with “a strategic partner”.
Former Free State agriculture and rural development MEC, Mosebenzi Zwane, indicated to Thabethe that he would be accompanied by Ashok Narayan, who later was part of Magashule’s advisory council, the commission heard.
Thabethe’s department paid for Narayan’s flight to India despite him not being a government official and not possessing any expertise in the dairy industry, the commission heard.
The commission also heard that Thabethe had said that R17 million would be needed to cover the costs for the completion of three dairy plans.
Thabethe said the plans would be costly because feasibility studies needed to be completed, as well as environmental impact assessments, business plans, water allocation, and designs for those dairies, which would need experts.
Thabethe’s testimony will continue on Friday.