From workers to farmers in South Africa

The Heiveld Co-op was founded by 14 small-scale farmers of the Suid Bokkeveld community in 2001. The cooperative now has over 50 members and Fairtrade has helped them establish their independence.

11 January 2012

'Getting together and forming our business has taken a lot of sacrifice from our members, and we feel proud when we reflect on our achievements.'

The Cedarberg region, about 400 km North of Cape Town, is a dry, sandy and rocky area. A visitor might think that nothing of value could grow in this inhospitable climate. In fact the apparently infertile soil provides ideal conditions for wild rooibos, or red bush tea.

Rooibos is the blood of the people of the arid Cedarberg. Apart from live-stock farming, growing rooibos is an important economic activity in the region. But not everybody benefits equally from the sale of the precious beverage.

Legacy of Apartheid

The legacy of Apartheid persists today with many black people still struggling to earn a decent living. Even though some black people have small farms of their own their only way to earn a living is to work for others on the big plantations. Black people were banned from organizing into cooperatives under Apartheid. This meant they could not organize themselves to collectively sell their produce. Years after the first democratic elections in 1994, many black small-holders still don’t have access to the market and have to sell their tea to local traders at very low prices. Without export licenses, their own machinery for processing tea and market knowledge farmers are in a weak position.

Heiveld established

'A few years back we had no contact with markets... All of that has changed thanks to our co-operative, the network of trading partners that we have developed, and the improved prices that we now receive for our products.'

It was against this backdrop that a group of smallholder farmers set themselves up to trade. With the support of two NGOs and the dedication of its 14 founding members they established themselves as a cooperative in 2001. Today Heiveld Cooperative represents the first successful example of a black owned exporting business in the Cedarberg region.

Soon after its humble beginnings Heiveld began to grow. Through the cooperative, women were able to sell their produce and earn their own income. Community members were encouraged to sew the bags that the tea is sold in. For the first time farmers and their family members assumed managerial tasks and were trained in accounting, electronic data processing and other areas

Fairtrade certification

Things were going well but Heiveld wanted better access to the international market. ‘When FLO set Fairtrade Standards for Rooibos production in 2003, we immediately applied for certification’ explains Hendrik Hesselman, the Chairperson of the cooperative. A few months after applying, the Heiveld cooperative became Fairtrade certified.

By selling Rooibos tea to Fairtrade importers, the income of the farmers’ families tripled from around one Euro per kilo to around three Euros. ‘There is a huge difference from when we sold to the large farmers. In the past the link between buyer and seller was missing – the buyer just gave whatever price they wanted.’

Becoming independent

‘Fairtrade changed this’, explains Lionel Louw, Board Member of the Heiveld Cooperative. Besides improving the farmers’ incomes the main goal for the Cooperative was to become independent from the local traders and neighbouring big farmers. The Fairtrade Premium made this possible. For the first time they were able to buy their own equipment, like tea chopping machines, which meant that they didn’t have to use the facilities of other farms in the area any longer.

The biggest breakthrough was the was the construction of the cooperative’s own tea-court, a primary processing facility where raw green tea is finely chopped, fermented and subsequently dried. In the first five seasons following its formation, the cooperative rented a tea court from a large-scale commercial farmer. However, access to the tea court was insecure, and the owner made it clear that it was a short-term arrangement. In 2005 he withdrew the facilities from Heiveld. Fortunately the cooperative were prepared. They had been saving the Fairtrade Premium to pay for the construction of their own tea-court on a piece of land secured from one of its members.

The first phase was completed in January 2006, shortly before the start of the harvest season. Barry Koopman, the Tea Maker and Treasurer of Heiveld explains, ‘Having its own tea court has freed Heiveld from dependency, and has enabled the organization to start creating the sort of infrastructure that it needs to maintain the high standards that we have established for our product. It has also contributed to the pride that members feel in the organization’.

‘We are a small organization based in a very isolated part of the country. Our members farm in very demanding environments often separated from each other by miles of wild and dry countryside. We usually communicate face-to-face when we meet, and sometimes over our rather unreliable phone lines. Getting together and forming our business has taken a lot of sacrifice from our members, and we feel proud when we reflect on our achievements. A few years back we had no contact with markets, and little understanding of other cultures. All of that has changed thanks to our co-operative and the network of trading partners and friends that we have developed, and the improved prices that we now receive for our products.’

There are now 54 members and the cooperative continues to grow.  With its high quality product and strong management, the future for Heiveld looks promising. For more information about Heiveld, you can visit their website.

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