Miners see gold in a rose

Roses and mining have little in common. But Goldfields, the giant mining company, has ­established the Living Gold rose farm near its Carletonville mines. Gwenda van Zyl finds out about the corporate social investment project that has become a highly successful business.
Issue Date 25 May 2007

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Roses and mining have little in common. But Goldfields, the giant mining company, has ­established the Living Gold rose farm near its Carletonville mines. Gwenda van Zyl finds out about the corporate social investment project that has become a highly successful business.

The first thing you notice when visiting Living Gold rose farm is all the smiles – these people are happy. And so they should be, as Living Gold was established to meet their employment needs, and has become a profitable business that currently exports flowers and top grafts to 15 countries.

Living Gold was established in the ­Khutsong area near Carletonville, Gauteng, by Goldfields’ East Driefontein mine as its corporate social investment project. As part of the mining charter, to keep its mining licence, every mine is required to create a sustainable project that provides jobs to the miners’ relatives. According to export and post-harvest manager Steven Kilonzo, the company was created in 2003 with a capital outlay of R100 million – 60% of which was contributed by Goldfields and the other 40% by the IDC.

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Today, Living Gold provides direct jobs for 320 people. Living Gold is the largest rose farm in SA, and is the only Proudly South African-accredited flower farm in the country. In terms of international accreditation, ­Living Gold is Flower Label accredited and is currently pursuing accreditation by EurepGAP, a private sector body that sets voluntary standards for the certification of agricultural products around the world.

The flower farm has two components.
The first is the propagation unit which, according to Kilonzo, is the largest and most sophisticated in SA. It produces top grafts which are transplanted in greenhouses to grow cut flowers.
Over one million of these plants have already been exported to countries such as Ethiopia and Botswana, and are sold on the domestic market.
The second component is cut-flower sales. Living Gold’s growing unit consists of 10ha (10 greenhouses of 1ha each) of fully climate-controlled greenhouses, which produce an average of 21 million to 22 million stems per year. Because the facility is climate controlled, it ensures a continuous and consistent supply of high-quality flowers 12 months a year. “This is a competitive advantage over some of the other rose producers in the country which have to vary their quantity according to the seasons,” Kilonzo says.

Miners to flower farmers
To set up the company, international ­expertise was used to develop appropriate skills among the workforce. People who had ­predominantly been exposed to mining now had to become experts in agriculture. ­Kilonzo says, “The skills transfer involved in this project was intense as we were training people who had ­seldom seen a rose, let alone imagined that you could make a living from a rose, to now develop the skills to grow a high-­quality flower that could be sold to florists and other top-end industries.”

It seems the intensive training has paid off, with Living Gold winning many prizes, including being the runner-up in the 2005 Gauteng Exporter of the Year award. “Our roses are sold in 15 countries – we export to America, Japan, the UK, Scandinavia, Italy, France, Hungary, Bulgaria, Australia and we sell to the domestic market,” Kilonzo says.

Top grafts are sold to countries such as Ethiopia and Botswana, where they are used to establish cut-flower plants. The rose plants are grown in climate-­controlled greenhouses under hydroponic drip irrigation. Decomposed, processed coconut husks are used as growing ­medium for the plants to anchor their roots, and a computerised drip irrigation system ­provides water and nutrients to the plants. “By fertilising through drip irrigation, ­nutrients can be fed more precisely than by ­placing fertiliser in the soil,” Kilonzo says.

Roses are harvested three times a day, and over 100 000 stems are harvested every day. When the roses reach their pick stage, trained workers cut the roses and place them in buckets at the end of each row in the greenhouse. “If you harvest them at the pick stage, they can last for 14 days in a vase,” Kilonzo explains.

Some 90 roses are placed in each bucket, which are then collected and transported by tractor to the cold storage room where they must stay for a minimum of four hours and a maximum of 48 hours. Kilonzo explains that by cooling the roses, ­respiration is slowed down, which makes the flowers last longer. It also makes the flowers more hardy and enables easier handling.

The buckets are then taken to the post-harvest grading room where ­workers remove the leaves from the bottom of the stems, size and grade the roses, and then sort, bunch and pack them – either in cellophane for local sale, or in corrugated cardboard boxes for export. “It is a women-driven business, with 59% of the employees being female. They are trained to handle planting, disease and pest control, fertigation, irrigation, harvesting and day-to-day maintenance, sorting, grading and packing,” Kilonzo says.

All the workers at Living Gold are offered incentives and they constantly run performance competitions. Kilonzo says this creates a competitive, yet ­positive, ­environment to fast-track their skills. “The intention is to grow to critical mass – we want to increase the facility to 100ha and employ 1 500 people, with 65% of those being women.
Our aims are job creation and poverty alleviation,” he added. “But we cater to a top-end industry, locally and internationally, and because we are not just philanthropic, but market-orientated and commercially viable, we have been able to keep a sustainable business going, and have paid R22 million into the local community in the form of salaries and wages.

So an initiative that was designed to provide jobs for a ­community highly dependent on mining has turned into a successful business.” Contact Living Gold on (018) 788 8500. |fw