In 2009, prompted by the world shortage of skills in fossil casting, and together with the Origins Centre of the University of the Witwatersrand, Ifa Lethu invited youth to attend a Fossil Casting workshop. Little did they know that on Thursday April 8, 2010, scientists would announce to the world that 9-year-old Matthew Berger, son of renowned paleoanthropologist Professor Lee Berger, had discovered the bones of a new hominin species that lived almost two million years ago. Nor could we anticipate the frenzy caused in 2015 when Prof Berger and his team announced the discovery of Homo Naledi to the world. This has thrust paleontology and South Africa into world focus
Fossil Casting is listed by the South African government on the National Scarce Skills List, and the Foundation realized it could offer young people an opportunity to learn a skill in great demand.
“The highly successful collaboration between lfa Lethu, which manages South Africa’s largest creative entrepreneurial development effort and the Institute for Human Evolution in developing a fossil casting programme had its origins several years ago through a small grant from the United States Embassy. This grant allowed a training program to take place where young artists and creative practitioners from disadvantaged backgrounds underwent skills training in casting and mould-making.
From this first class of students, two young men were selected for additional training and to form the foundation of the initial casting program. Through these humble beginnings the casting program, in ongoing cooperation with lfa Lethu has grown from strength to strength and not only created jobs, but also spawned a number of commercial opportunities for South Africa’s rural youth and imparted a sense of community pride, and public awareness into Science. This growth in awareness has spread from humble beginnings to both national and international recognition as the work of this program has received media and scientific attention and word has spread of its success,” said Prof Berger.
Two of Ifa Lethu’s fossil casting students – Boy Louw and Bongani Nkosi – were offered employment by the University and, indeed, were part of the team that worked on Australopithecus sediba. They have since gone on to create their own business. Further advanced training has been completed by additional Ifa Lethu students who have gone on to be employed at other institutions.
Today, with the business training, design, packaging and distribution expertise funded by Ifa Lethu, William Ngqongna and Wilfred Bilankulu have started their own small business to commercialise their fossil casts for international distribution.
Prof Berger continues: “The programme has quite literally revolutionized the way in which casting of these objects is done, and allowed the wide-spread distribution of these important World-Heritage objects.
The South African Government has funded a further distribution of heritage casts to major partner museums and countries and giving planned for later this year include ltaly, France, Mauritius, England, Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia to name just a few.
Additionally, the programme has trained individuals whom now produce scientific grade casts for research purposes and these casts reside in institutions, Museums and laboratories around the world.”
With initial and ongoing funding of this project by the US Embassy and the Transnet Foundation in South Africa, this program has reached international acclaim and provided secure, stable and sustainable economic independence for many of its graduates.
Bongani Nkosi, age 27, was as learner at the very first Fossil Casting workshop held by Ifa Lethu in conjunction with the University of the Witwatersrand in 2009.
His skill was such he was offered an internship by Wits, followed by permanent employment – where he remains until today.
As a now experienced caster, Bongani enjoys teaching new learners this skill. He is the sole breadwinner for his family of three and has a dream to become a paleoanthropologist.
Fossils for Africa nellmapius, Mamelodi
Wilfred was one of the first batch of learners who attended the first Ifa Lethu/Wits University Fossil Casting workshops in 2009.
After the initial workshop, he and Wilfred Bilankulu registered a co-operative called Fossils for Africa.
They design moulds into any form that will enable them to create products, which are sold at tourist shops and the Cradle Of Humankind, as well as Museums.
William is transferring his knowledge and skills to the next generation and lives with his family of four. He is 26.