The history of establishing black farmers in South Africa has often been littered with failures, the success stories far and few between. Now, however, one of the leading companies in the South African fruit industry is using a new fresh approach to work with black farmers in partnership on the road to success.
Stargrow Development, a subsidiary of the Stargrow Group, has taken up the task of making a real difference in transformation in the fruit industry and is working on a micro and macro level to achieve this.
“We focus on farms and land already under black ownership where we are able to strong relationships with growers rather than being prescriptive about what should be done,” says Michiel Prins, chairman of Stargrow. “When we proceed, we do so together in trust towards one another.”
Prins says in order to be effective one needs to build up mutual respect and learn to listen and understand the needs of black growers. “We have skills, knowledge and materials to contribute but can never be successful if they do not have the trust in us to embrace us.”
Stargrow Development is currently involved with a number of growers and communities where significant new orchards will be established. One of these is the farm Waveren near Wolseley, where Ismail and Phirdy Motala have been farming for the past twelve years since relocating there from Guateng.
Ismail Motala is a well-known figure in agriculture and in the fresh produce business. He is, amongst other things, chairperson of the Deciduous Fruit Development Chamber (DFDC) and the Deciduous Fruit Industry Development Trust (DFIDT), as well as chairperson of the Western Cape region of the African Farmer Association of South Africa (AFASA).
He admits that entering fruit production in the Cape after living most of his life in Gauteng was an eye-opener. “I like to call it a synergistic relationship rather than partnership as the word partnership has many connotations. As a small new producer, it is very difficult to enter the economy on a higher level and having a synergistic relationship allows us to enter into the economy as equals to larger growers.
“We have access to the best and newest cultivars, the best technology, a corporate business approach and the ability to purchase inputs at prices that are afforded to large businesses”
He explains that Stargrow Development is trying to develop a model that will work for black growers across the country, allowing them to become part of the mainstream fresh produce business and value chains.
At Waveren, the best of entrepreneurial spirit meets the modern science of fruit growing. The farm lies just outside the town of Wolseley, a region which is considered to be prime land for the production of pears. It is surrounded by the majestic Waaihoek, Witzen and Waterval Mountains. It is part of the region named ‘Land van Waveren’ in 1699 by Governor Willem van der Stel in honour of the Waveren, a prominent Amsterdam family to whom his mother was related. Given history which speaks firmly of Dutch influence, it is telling of the new future awaiting for this region that there is now also evidence there of a greater transformation of the South African fresh fruit business.
Prins and Motala have been developing their relationship over a period of five years and the work to transform the farm started two years ago.
“The first thing we needed to accept was that this is pear country and we should focus on this,” says Ismail.
Old stonefruit and other fruit orchards were removed and 20ha of new pears planted. The new orchards consist mainly of Packhams Triumph and Forrelle, along with the new early blushed pear, Celina, the commercialisation of which Stargrow is managing in South Africa.
“What we bring to the party is trees from our nurseries, technical and other skills which we have developed over many years as well as participation in our value chain which includes international marketing,” says Prins. “We work with Ismael on a daily basis and our support team is on the farm to help where they are needed."
“This is now a multi-million project and it speaks of the commitment from both sides,” notes Motala. “True empowerment works both ways, not from the top down. This is why we are confident that what we will develop here is a model that other black farmers can follow.”
Prins says Stargrow Development is in the process of planning similar projects with other black farmers in the Western Cape. “On a macro level we are also engaging with communities in areas of high potential for fruit growing in other parts of the country, but these projects represents another challenge altogether.”
He outlines that it is one thing to provide land to people, but in almost every case the recipients struggle to access funding to develop their orchards and to carry the project forward. “It is a constant struggle! We have to work together to access funding sources, while at the same time ourselves investing in trees, technical support, advice and other services.”
Messrs Motala and Prins says it is a mutual beneficial relationship, with clear deliverables on both sides.
Waveren’s new pear orchards were planted in the winter this year and have so far showed amazing growth. “With Forrelle and Celina we have two top high-end category blushed pears who are performing extremely well, and this will give a tremendous boost to the chances of success."
Part of the relationship is the transfer of experience, technical knowledge and key information about the whole process from the orchard to market.
“Ismail’s son, Taariq, is now working alongside with Stargrow’s advisor at Waveren, Gerhard Meyer, and is likely to be the next generation of fruit farmer in Het Land van Waveren,” says Prins.
Not to be outdone, Phirdy Motala, apart from putting four children through school, has a thriving bee and honey business which not only produces a range of honey products, but also provide bee-hives for pollination of fruit orchards. “I went to bed one night in Gauteng, and the next morning woke up on a fruit farm in the Boland,” she says.
Waveren is entering an exciting new period of transforming its orchards and building on a partnership which both partners say will reverberate far away from the beautiful valley below the mountains.