Visionary entrepreneurs who see the future of a vibrant domestic market for South Africa’s macadamia nut harvest are increasing in numbers, with agri-processing innovations offering a wide range of employment opportunities topped by niche marketing opportunities in both the local and overseas markets.

In test kitchens from as far north as Limpopo province to the southern-most tip of KwaZulu-Natal, the macadamia nut is finding itself in melt-in-the-mouth recipes, being squeezed and squashed to release its smooth, golden oil or being crushed to produce the most delicious nut butter.

And little goes to waste. The shells are burned to heat the water used in the drying bins, or to make biochar and water filters, while any processing by-products, such as macadamia oil cake – rich in protein and fat – have potential for use in an array of applications, from animal feed to cosmetics.

When Wedgewood CEO Paul Walters sits down with a frothy, steaming cappuccino to relate how the business has jumped on opportunities and dealt with the challenges presented by the Covid-19 lockdown, he kicks off by talking about his mother and founder of the company, Gilly Walters.

Wedgewood CEO Paul Walters stands in the company’s built-for-purpose macadamia-processing facility due for re-commissioning later this year.

The story is well known, particularly among the foodie community in KwaZulu-Natal. Gilly was a farmer’s wife who used her love of cooking to supplement their income when her husband, Taffy, was stricken with cancer. She sold her delectable goodies at the weekly Pietermaritzburg farmers’ market while also catering for soirées in her home, often attended by up to 100 people.

It was when the entrepreneur decided to try her hand at making nougat that she came unstuck. It tasted good, but the consistency was, at best, gooey.

Six months of trial and error and the rest, as they say, is history.

Twenty-two years on, Wedgewood Nougat and a delectable range of biscuits, ice creams and chocolate-coated nuts – or macalettes – are enjoyed all over South Africa and beyond. The production of the delicious treats creates employment for 100 people, some of whom are highly qualified food safety scientists and technicians. Long gone is the farmhouse kitchen, trestle table and cash box.

A box of macalettes – or chocolate-coated macadamia nuts – destined for the high-end domestic and international markets.

The brand is now heavily invested in innovation and ready to take the gaps offered by South Africa’s flourishing macadamia industry.

Wheeling his chair swiftly across the screed floor, Paul pulls up a graphic on his laptop screen. “Look at these figures. With the anticipated growth in the annual macadamia harvest and the gap between macadamia and almond prices, the industry has to invest in new ideas to drive demand and keep kernel prices high in years to come.  Wedgewood has invested into adding value to the confectionery and commercial grade kernel market.”

The former conservationist-turned-nutcracker and nougat pot-stirrer turns the conversation to what he calls their “hospital plant”.

Toolmaker Michael Baker, left, and head engineer Richard Geddie, who are responsible for the upgrade to the Wedgewood macadamia factory operation outside Howick in KwaZulu-Natal.

“With up to 98% of South Africa’s approximate 50 000 ton crop exported each year, little of the harvest remains for domestic consumption. What we are doing is asking farmers to sell us their on-farm select-outs and damaged nuts or smalls. This includes cracks, floaters, those with stinkbug or nut borer damage, darks, immatures and matures. Unsound kernel represents about 5% of South Africa’s crop, and we have set up a purpose-built hospital plant to carefully select out commercial and confectionery-grade kernel from these out-of-spec nuts.”

Previously, he said, farmers would either bury or burn the unsound nuts or they would appear in the informal market.

“It is very exciting being involved in a young and growing macadamia market where opportunities for innovation are largely untapped. Driving innovation and our brand into the macadamia sector, where we see loads of opportunity both for domestic consumption and export, is an absolute joy.”

Food Safety Quality Manager Janet Beaumont demonstrates how to use the hand-operated nut-oil extractor to test rancidity levels of the macadamias in the Wedgewood recipes. The factory is FSSC 22000 certified.

And a walkabout of the factory outside Howick in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands shows just how much the “lean start-up” entrepreneurs are prepared to put their money where their mouths are.

“This is still a family business. My brother Jon and I have been joined by our wives Zoë and Fran and an old school friend, Ryan Hooker,” Paul says as he points to workmen in the throes of installing an array of shiny, stainless steel equipment for nut drying and sorting.

In a nearby workshop, head engineer Richard Geddie and toolmaker Michael Baker work on machines, some bought second-hand, which will drive the newly developed factory processes.

Further along the row of buildings the rich aroma of warm macadamia oil fills the air. “This is our new lean start-up,” Paul says. “I can’t say too much about it now, but we have partners with whom we are working and it’s very exciting.”

What Paul will speak about, though, is the launch of the Wedgewood Emporium at the Piggly Wiggly lifestyle centre on the Midlands Meander.

Former restaurateur and chef Jenny Pretorius tempers white chocolate in the Wedgewood test kitchen outside Howick in the Midlands.

The store, with its blush, gold and claret colours and soft lighting, is filled with be-ribboned boxes offering shoppers a range of nutty, chocolate and nougat delights: from organic peppermint oil and sea-salt chocolate-covered macadamias to nougat biscuits and another new innovation, strawberry-flavoured nougat, the first in a range of flavours still to come.

But, for the two red-headed children in their corduroy dungarees and takkies, it’s the farm-style nougat ice cream they’re after.

With two generous scoops on crispy hand-made cones wrapped in black napkins emblazoned with the gold Wedgewood bee, they settle on a nearby bench. “Yum!” the one says. “Mmm!” the second agrees, taking a generous lick of the treat. The children settle against the sides of the bench, their legs swinging back and forth as they contently savour the nutty, honey-sweet ices. Yum, indeed!