The strawberry farming initiative at Corobrik’s Rietvlei factory near Pretoria is bearing fruit – and the latest achievements not only include a successful harvest that regularly makes its way to leading retailers but also the formation of a trust that will give members of the local community who are working on the farm an opportunity to share in the profits.
The project’s origins go back to 2008 when then factory manager Heinrich von Wielligh met with Dominic Cullinan to explore local economic development opportunities in farming on unused Corobrik land that might involve local communities. Robbie Carswell took over as factory manager in 2009 when the essence of the project had been agreed and says what has actually been achieved over the past two years speaks for itself. The project has created 30 permanent jobs for members of the surrounding community where unemployment is high. A further 100 casual jobs are created during the busy harvesting season. In season at least 1000 crates – which comprise four punnets of strawberries – are harvested per day and there are expansion plans for the future.
“It is hard to believe that, a few years ago, the area that now yields crops was an unproductive piece of land without an immediate purpose. It is hugely rewarding for Corobrik to be a part of what is a remarkably successful community upliftment project and to see locals’ seizing the opportunity to forge better lives for themselves and their families,” he said.
Although actually empowering locals was Corobrik’s primary aim, Carswell said that, because it employs people from the surrounding community, the project also played a part in securing Corobrik’s mining licence as did Corobrik’s committment to eradicating alien vegetation that involves the employment of local people to cut and burn these plants on Corobrik land.
While the Rietvlei strawberry operation started out with just five hectares, it soon increased to 10. Today, 30 hectares are being farmed with the possibility of increasing this considerably as the project continues to grow. The venture hinges on a three way partnership between Corobrik (which supplies the land, water, electricity and management input), Sunherbs (a neighbouring farming operation) and the staff trust. Corobrik supplies the land and water, Sunherb’s stake is 60 percent and the staff trust owns the balance. Ownership is granted to staff who have worked a minimum of three years. Breakdown of shareholding is done by skill, team leaders and skilled personnel such as tractor drivers receiving more than general labourers. All staff receive a yearly ‘special’ payout based on profits.
Farm manager, Petrus Thapedi, who is one of the representatives of the trust, has been farming strawberries for 30 years and understands the process intimately. He is currently working with others towards setting up a similar project at Corobrik’s Springs factory.
Vegetables are also grown in the off season. Courgettes, patti pans and fennel are harvested and taken to the Sunherbs operation where workers wash them and clean them and then stack them in crates to drip dry. When dry, they are packed and then put into a cold room for delivery the following day. Packing is done six days a week and delivery seven days a week.
April 2010 saw the first strawberries being harvested. In addition, fresh herbs, baby marrows and patty pans are now being grown for local sale as well as export to Europe and the Middle East.
Apart from allowing the use of its land, Corobrik has also supplied the water for irrigation which is one of the most critical parts of growing strawberries. Water is pumped from the four dams at Corobrik’s Rietvlei quarries and then into a drip and micro spray irrigation system.
Carswell said this was a win-win arrangement as the three quarries that are mined for the raw materials to manufacture bricks needed to be dry for mining. Now that the farming project is running – the water that is removed is put to good use.
Cullinan said that Corobrik’s commitment to the project has been phenomenal. “Ever since we approached Corobrik with the idea of farming on their land, they have gone out of their way to make this project a success. Buildings needed for the project have been constructed from bricks produced at the Rietvlei factory. They are also behind our vision to ultimately increase the area under cultivation to as much as 120 hectares.”
This release has been distributed on behalf of Corobrik. For more information contact:
Corobrik – Robbie Carswell on 083 447 0785
Sunherbs – Dominic Cullinan on 011 206 8955