STORIES FROM THE FIELD
Masilakhe - Let Us Build
“Five years ago I came to this farm as a seasonal worker to learn,” recalls 27-year-old Zanele Mkokeli. “And I have learned a lot.” Today Zanele supervises 20 women pruning grape vines and cultivating orange trees at Rietkloof Farm in the Western Cape’s lush Piketberg Valley. She is also a member of the cooperative that now owns the farm.
A generation ago this would have been unthinkable, as nearly all the Western Cape’s fruit farms were owned by whites. Most still are. But in recent years the South African government has purchased properties as they came on the market, and then leased them to new black owners. In 2011, the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR), as part of its land redistribution program, purchased Rietkloof -- a 300-hectare farm that employs 37 permanent workers, 112 full-time, and additional part-time seasonal employees, totaling between 500 and 600 people.
Over the years, the government has learned a number of lessons, including the new owners’ need for technical assistance to organize cooperatives, and business skills development. Members often need help enhancing their productivity and profitability, and expanding markets. And so, after purchasing the farm, the DRDLR brought in BONO Farm Management, a 50 percent black-owned company that provides investment capital and trains land redistribution beneficiaries to set up cooperatives and own and operate the farms.
The new cooperative named itself “Masilakhe” (“Let us build” in Zulu). BONO has worked intensively with the members, retained the farm’s previous manager, Lourie Nel, and appointed a talented cooperative member, Rubert Persens, as assistant manager.
New cooperatives like Masilakhe also require working capital, and often have difficulty accessing it. Lourie noted, “People have no finance to run farms until the income is in.” They are low-income black borrowers without a credit history. And the DRDLR does not transfer land ownership until the cooperatives are profitable, ensuring that they do not fall prey to speculators. Masilakhe needed help in accessing credit. With the R10 million guarantee Shared Interest facilitated in September 2015, the cooperative was able to obtain a R15.8 million loan to purchase new vines, make necessary improvements on the farm and hire additional workers.
BONO introduced Masilakhe to “fair trade” buyers in Europe. While “fair trade” certification commands a higher price, it requires additional investments. These include conserving and composting soil and reducing chemical fertilizers and pesticides (the farm, for example, has replaced anti-snail chemicals with geese). They also set standards for employees’ living and working conditions and limit overtime work.
Shared Interest’s South African partner, Thembani, introduced BONO to Masisizane, the fund launched for development purposes by Old Mutual Finance, an arm of one of South Africa’s oldest and largest insurance companies. Shared Interest’s guarantee of the loan to be repaid over five-and-a-half years will enable Masilakhe to purchase and plant 109 acres of new vines for black, white and red seedless grapes – much in demand in the Middle and Far East, and the European fair trade market. Without a guarantee, Masisizane would have charged the farm interest of 13.95 percent. With the guarantee, the rate will be 9.95 percent. The cooperative will not be expected to begin to repay or service its debt for two years, during which time the newly grafted vines are projected to produce their first harvest.
The cooperative has already begun to impact its members’ lives and aspirations. When Masilakhe received its first “fair
trade premium” it set up a box for suggestions about how to spend the money. Proposals included a clinic and a recreation center. But the winning suggestion was a day care center, for which the cooperative purchased materials, and which workers built with their own hands. Today the center cares for all of the farm’s preschoolers.
The workers also take pride in their new skills. “Working here I am happy,” explains Zanele. “I learned to supervise and train my team. After I explain things to them, they must sign a paper saying they understand.” This is a challenge, because sometimes people range in age from 18 to 60 years old, and speak Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikans, English, and even some languages from Zimbabwe. “But I have learned, and sometimes now the managers don’t even come with me when I teach my team.”
Rubert was raised on the farm, where his parents worked. When the cooperative was formed, he was a truck driver, who had done many jobs, ranging from picking grapes to fixing machines. Recognizing his aptitude and operational experience, BONO is training him to run the farm and has enrolled him in courses on financial management, supervision, and how to meet fair trade standards required by Rietkloof’s overseas buyers.
Rubert noted, “Before I couldn’t say anything. Now I can say a lot of things. I can say what I think.” He looks forward to the time when “All the grape vines and citrus trees will be in full production.” He also thinks ahead to the futures of his 12- and 16-year old children. “I dream that my kids will go further than their father. They are studying and they will do bigger things.”