Fruits of love
De Keur Estate (Pty) Ltd is a long established family run agricultural business, producing first class agricultural produce and high quality customer service since 1934. Director Danell du Toit tells Africa Outlook more about how the business has adapted following the 'farmworker spring' last November.
Writer Ian Armitage
Project Manager Eleanor Watson
A family run agricultural business, the De Keur Group has a long history - since 1934 in fact - of producing first class agricultural produce and there are currently two separate businesses under the De Keur umbrella: De Keur Estates, which produces a wide range of fruits and vegetables, and De Keur Packaging, the packaging facility.
The group specialises in top "quality fruit with a short supply chain".
"If you look at our production operation, we currently have five farms on which we produce," says Danell du Toit, whose grandfather founded the business. "Of those farms, De Keur itself is where the name of the company originates and it was purchased in 1934 by my grandfather Charl du Toit (Tippie). In 1973 we purchased a second farm, Leeuwrivier and in 1981 Rocklands. Both of these farms are also situated in the Koue Bokkeveld area."
In 2008 De Keur purchased two additional farms – Môreson and De Hoop – in the Wolseley area. This was specifically designed to "add earlier varietals" and "expand the De Keur's product offering to meet customer demand," explains du Toit, who adds that the business is continually planning for the future.
"If you look at a typical fruit tree its life cycle lasts anywhere from 15 to 30 years and therefore there is a constant need for renewal of the orchards. During this time the market requirements can also change significantly so it is imperative to look at expansion from a marketing perspective to determine customer demand in the future. From a production perspective there is an aggressive approach to expand on the existing farms in order to continue to service clients with high quality, relevant produce," she says.
From a packing perspective, De Keur's Packaging facility, which is based in Ceres, packs all of De Keur Estate's fruit, as well as offering contract packing options to other South African producers. There is also a vegetable packing facility on the Rocklands Estate and Môreson farm where all of De Keur's vegetables are packed and processed for their respective markets.
"At the fruit packing facility in Ceres we are planning on increasing the existing capacity for two reasons: Firstly in order to service our own expansion plans on the farms, and secondly, to ensure that there is adequate capacity to continue the partnerships with our contract packing partners," explains du Toit, who was excited by expansion plans. "We are definitely investigating various marketing options, including partnering with certain companies on a long-term basis to ensure a sustained client base and true partnership approach."
During the course of our discussion, we kept coming back to the unavoidable - the much publicised 'farmworker spring' in November 2012, which rocked the agricultural sector in the Western Cape and cost millions of Rand in lost production and vandalism.
The experience is one from which many lessons have been learnt and De Keur is looking forward to a bright future.
"I think for our region and the agricultural industry as a whole it was a very low point. On our farms we did have unrest and lost millions of Rand to vandalism and lost productivity. The relationship between employer and employee was definitely damaged by these strikes and will take time to mend itself. Obviously when the unrest started it was a wakeup call for everyone involved and it has taken time to regain the trust between the employer and employees. But, what came out of it has been extremely positive in that the people have stood together, stood up, moved forward together and addressed the issues."
Subsequent to the unrest, the government announced in February 2013 an increase of 52 percent in the rural minimum wage to R105 per day. The new minimum wage came into effect on the 01 March 2013 and it has had an effect on De Keur's operations and will likely have repercussions down the road.
"Fortunately a big portion of our workforce was already above the new minimum wage so it was only certain workers that had to be adjusted to meet the new wage standard," du Toit says. "We've done the costing and it is an immense amount of money that was all of a sudden needed that you hadn't budgeted for previously.
"I believe one of the things that doesn't always come out in the media is the additional benefits that farmworkers receive, completely separate from their wages. I can only speak on behalf of our own company, where all the housing is provided at no cost, inclusive of services like removal of rubbish, provision of water, maintenance of buildings and so forth. At De Keur Estate we have a proud heritage of looking after our employees. We identified the need for baby-care and after school-care facilities at De Keur and Rocklands. Today these facilities are thriving, with very positive feedback from parents and teachers. In addition we have adult literacy programmes for our employees who did not have the opportunity of completing secondary school. There is a full-time nurse on our staff, who attends to the primary healthcare needs of our employees and liaises with doctors where and when necessary. We promote and sponsor various sporting teams from each production unit to participate in the local football, rugby and cricket leagues – two of our football teams played each other in the regional finals recently, while one of our choirs were regional finalists. De Keur Estate has also assisted some children of employees who wanted to further their studies at university. Perhaps our proudest export in this regard is Breyton Paulse, one of the most-loved South African rugby players who played 64 Test matches for the Springboks and grew up on the farm De Keur."
Farming is cyclical, some years are good, some years are bad, and you are essentially gambling with nature. Outcomes are uncertain. And it is a global market. Agriculture is subsidised in many other countries. The wage increase presents challenges in these respects too.
"Seasonality can make things like the minimum wage difficult to manage – some years are better than others," agrees du Toit. "In principle I'm not against a minimum wage, since measures are required to protect the most vulnerable of our workers and society. A minimum wage does however force the employer to look at the workforce differently. You start to look at how productivity can be increased without increasing the number of workers and you look at mechanisation options. So, your whole outlook on your workers changes with the change in minimum wages."
She believes there was a political element to the strikes. "It wasn't our permanent workforce that was the driver behind it – it was predominantly seasonal workers that led the strikes. And although we believe there was a political element, we can't ignore or dismiss what happened. It was a wakeup call for the industry and the region. What has come out of it is that we have made a concerted effort to improve relationships with our workers and put systems and processes in place to ensure that as we go forward, we address issues before they escalate."
Now, all are looking to a bright future. This has been a spectacular year for fruit production in the region in general.
"The quality of the fruit has been above average; and our yields per orchard have been fantastic, much higher than forecast; and this combined with excellent market conditions - locally and internationally plus the exchange rate, means it's been a good year for farming in the greater Ceres area," du Toit says.
De Keur Estate is family-owned and managed. Brothers, Charl and Gys du Toit joined their father, Tippie, on the farm in 1967 and 1972 respectively and together they have been a formidable team ever since. Currently, they are joined by three of Charl's children; as well as Gys's son and son-in-law.
There are many advantages to a family business, but certainly also challenges.
Fortunately, in most instances the challenges can be channelled to become positive forces for business growth and success.
"It is easy to work with a person when you know them inside out. But it does bring its own challenges, especially from a succession planning perspective," says du Toit.
What does she feel is the secret to the firm's success? "I will credit most of our success to the people who have led the business since 1934: Firstly, our grandfather, Tippie and after him my dad, Charl and uncle, Gys. They have always managed the business with integrity, always believed in trusted relationships with suppliers and clients, and they are known for treasuring their relationships with all of their employees. They believe people are their best assets as without them you can't do anything. Promoting honesty and openness within the business, grounded in strong faith, they ensure everyone knows what is happening and when it is happening. Definitely also part of the success lies in our supply chain and our partners in that chain. Many of the contracts and partnerships we have aren't necessarily written contracts; but rather "gentlemen's agreements" based on trust. We deliver fruit and vegetables to some clients whom we've been delivering to for decades without a contract in place because there is a trust relationship in place.
"We are proud of our history, our heritage, and the "De Keur family" and I know the dream of the next generation is to continue this fantastic legacy to ensure a bright future for De Keur Estate."
To learn more about the business visit www.dekeur.co.za