BEE: an investment in people

Three years down the road and Rekopane Estates MD Peu Bezuidenhout has no regrets about entering into a BEE partnership with his farmworkers. He urges farmers to embark on BEE and explains what he would do differently the second time around. Annelie Coleman reports.
Issue date : 22 August 2008

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One of the most successful BEE partnerships in the Northern Cape, Rekopane Estates is situated on the banks on the Orange River near Kanoneiland, 25km west of Upington. It incorporates the farms Naftali, Monte and Summerdown on a total of 528ha. Some 170ha has been planted to grapes, of which 80% is exported as table grapes, while the rest is used for the dried fruit and wine industries. T he company has recently diversified into citrus production, a harvest of 80t is expected this season, and it also cultivates herbs and roses.

BEE at Rekopane is about investment in people, says managing director Peu Bezuidenhout. “It’s satisfying to see how the farmworkers have developed and grown as co-owners since entering the partnership in 2005. They always understood farming, but now they’ve taken on responsibility for the increased profitability and long-term survival of the company. They have a much better understanding of the inner workings of our industry, productivity has increased dramatically and absenteeism has significantly decreased. The shareholders have taken ownership for their future as well as that of the company.”

Peu is the majority stakeholder, owning 75% of the shares in Rekopane Estates while the farmworkers hold the rest through the Lorethlabetse Trust. The Tswana word means “the sun has risen for us,” and the trust is managed by a team of seven trustees elected by the workers. The Rekopane board consists of two directors and the management team. Peu is the managing director and the trust’s chairperson Jack de Wee is co-director. Shareholders become managers he workers’ growth and development has propelled many of them into middle and top management. “Many shareholders are employed as secretaries, wage clerks and production managers, elaborates Peu.

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“We value education and training highly and have an ongoing training programme in place, which was financed by, amongst others, the Capespan Foundation and the Fairtrade Trust, because Rekopane is fully BEE-compliant. We can now largely supply in our own human resources needs.” he workers’ socioeconomic circumstances have also changed for the better. Rekopane is the first local agricultural company to receive the prestigious UK Investors in People certification because of its focus on development and empowerment. “premiums we receive by marketing our products under Fairtrade are channelled directly to the workers and used to finance sporting facilities, crèches for 45 children and a number of shops on the farm,” explains Peu.

“The shops are managed and staffed by the workers, which has created another 14 jobs. Because the permanent workers live on the farm, it’s more convenient for them to have shops close by.” Rekopane also qualified for certification with the local Waitrose Foundation, which was created three years ago to improve farmworkers’ circumstances. Money generated by the sale of products marked with the foundation’s logo is spent on projects that directly benefit farmworkers. Rekopane recently received R120 000 from Waitrose, which will be used to build soccer and netball facilities.

Do things differently
“Rekopane is a prime example of successful BEE and I have no regrets. But in retrospect, there are things I would do things differently if I had the same opportunity again,” admits Peu. “When the process started, we were left with no choice but to include all the permanent workers, according to Land Affairs’ directive. I would have preferred to hand-pick the people I was partnering with and allocate the shares differently.” “It seemed unfair that all workers, irrespective of the number of years on the farm, were allocated an equal number of shares.

If I could have had my way, the shares would have been divided according to each individual’s years of employment and overall contribution to the farm. But Land Affairs claimed that route would have made it impossible to divide up the money.” Land Affairs contributed R6,5 million through the Land Redistribution and Development Programme (LRAD), while Standard Bank also backed the project with a loan. Rekopane was then valued at R56 million, but Peu still had to provide security. “Grape prices were at an all-time low back then,” he recalls, “so it was economically challenging. It seems as if the authorities are quick to provide the money to get BEE projects off the ground, but the support afterwards is virtually nonexistent. We nevertheless persisted and survived.”

Wrong perceptions
“Our biggest obstacles were misconceptions and unrealistic expectations,” says Peu. “The new partners in the business, especially the younger ones, were under the impression that their status as workers would dramatically change and that everyone would have a say in the running of the business. In reality, the farmworkers remained workers – the only change was that they received dividends at the end of the year. It took a lot of effort to practically implement this and explain the inner workings of our business to them.”

The Rekopane management team also had to handle conflict between permanent and seasonal workers. “The fact that permanent workers earned considerably more, as well as the privileges they gained as co-owners, caused untold troubles. It led to prolonged Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration cases and even political unrest,” Peu says. “Labour relations became strained. However, the worst teething problems are over now and morale and levels of understanding have improved markedly.”

Profit – the bottom line
“If you have not yet entered into a BEE partnership, you must start planning immediately,” Peu advises. “All farmers in the country should have done it by now, but it’s not too late. BEE makes good business sense. We don’t have to look for markets to sell our produce; we’re offered markets for being BEE-compliant. He says their products are articularly popular in Europe and the UK where supermarkets take social responsibility seriously.

These businesses are hesitant to stock any products from developing countries that could even remotely be connected to unfair labour practices. Peu says they are the preferred supplier to leading supermarkets such as Tesco in the UK, amongst others. “It would have been much more difficult for us if we hadn’t gone the BEE route. It’s a reality in the new South Africa and we saw it as a means of compensating a loyal workforce that’s been vital to our company over the past 25 years,” concludes Peu. Contact Rekopane on (054) 591 9000 or fax (054) 491 9001. |fw

Gert Cloete, production manager and shareholder

It’s an honour to be a co-owner of Rekopane Estates,” says Gert. “It would never have happened without the farsightedness of Peu Bezuidenhout and his family. I now have financial security, security of tenure and the means to build a sound future for myself and my family. My job is to manage production processes. The ongoing training programme at Rekopane has given me the opportunity to grow and develop professionally.

I’ve completed a number of courses such as viticulture, human resource management and occupational health and safety. My main objective at Rekopane is to contribute to increased profits, which will benefit all of us in this business. It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme. Some shareholders thought being a co-owner meant getting rich and that they were suddenly all managers at Rekopane. But co-ownership means co-responsibility.”

Michelle September, chief wage clerk and shareholder

“I have lived on Rekopane all of my life, but never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would become a co-owner of the company,” says Michelle, pictured here with her daughter Mitzico. “My grandparents settled here 35 years ago as teachers at the mission school on the farm, and I’m still living in the house they built. My career started at the vehicle lot where I manned the diesel pumps. I then moved to the occupational health department, took literacy classes and eventually ended up as chief wage clerk. I’m a single mother and Rekopane Estates’ BEE partnership has given me the chance of a lifetime to provide for myself and my child.” “All of us at Rekopane now have a sense of security and ownership. I am dedicated to the long-term future of the company.”

Surine Bezuidenhout, manger of Rekopane Roses and Herbs

Rekopane Roses is managed by Peu’s wife Surine and the business has created seven additional permanent jobs. Twenty-one rose cultivars are grown on the farm and sold to local businesses, guesthouses and restaurants. At least 20 varieties of herbs are grown and used with roses in nosegay posies. Herbs are also sun-dried, processed and marketed through Kalahari Dried Fruit and local farm stalls.