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DEVELOPMENT-AFRICA: Retailer Creates Jobs With Green Practices

Johan Eybers

JOHANNESBURG, Aug 15 2008 (IPS) - Seven years ago, 54 subsistence farmers in the Umbumbulu district on the KwaZulu-Natal coast of South Africa were struggling to feed their families. They could barely pay their children’s school fees.

Organically grown baby spinach Credit:  Johan Eybers/IPS

Organically grown baby spinach Credit: Johan Eybers/IPS

They seemed to have no hope of breaking out of the cycle of poverty. Their only source of survival was the crops they planted to feed themselves. But since forming the Ezemvelo Farmers’ Organisation (EFO) in 2001, their lives have changed dramatically.

Some of the farmers have been able to send their children to university, to buy vehicles and even share their wealth with the rest of the community. Membership of the EFO has now grown to 200 farmers, of whom 70 percent are women.

Dr. Albert Modi, a crop scientist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal who initiated the project, says organic crops were the key to their success. The farmers know how to produce food organically, without training.

‘‘They have always produced their crops naturally – without the use of artificial pesticides, herbicides or fertilisers. These farming methods ensured that they automatically complied with the criteria for organic food set out by Frisco, an international organic certification agency.’’

Their production practices have secured them a position as major supplier of organic foods to one of South Africa's most prominent large retailers, Woolworths Holdings (not to be confused with the UK-based Woolworths).

Modi says the five-year working relationship with Woolworths has had a major effect on the people of Umbumbulu. They have become more self-sufficient and confident. ‘‘They are extremely proud of the quality of their goods.’’ He senses a new ‘‘purpose and hope and something to build on for the future’’.

A similar project has been created in Beaufort West in the semi-desert Karoo region of the Western Cape province of South Africa. The Hydroponics project produces organic herbs for the fresh pesto products that are sold in Woolworths stores. Hydroponics refers to the art of growing plants without soil.

The project was started as an experiment by South Africa’s statutory Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and has since grown into a viable business. Future expansion includes the construction of an additional greenhouse floor area equipped with state of the art computerised irrigation and climate control systems.

According to Bernadette Brown, project co-ordinator at the CSIR, the expansion will provide at least 80 additional job opportunities and inject an annual wage income of more than two million rand (about 278,000 dollars) into Beaufort West.

‘‘The project has already brought new energy to the town where unemployment is high and opportunities are severely limited,’’ says Brown.

Woolworths also imports organically grown vegetables from other African countries, such as Kenya, which are sold with the same promise of having been grown in a way that ‘‘supports sustainable farming and preserves the environment’’.

The company has invested in the establishment of commercial organic cotton farming in the country. The first yield is currently being harvested in the rural province of Limpopo.

This came after Woolworths introduced a clothing range to the South African market made from organic cotton in 2004. Before investing in organic cotton farming inside the country, it had to import all its organic cotton.

Woolworths is now the world's third largest consumer of organic cotton, behind huge U.S. corporations Wal-Mart and Nike.

In South Africa, Woolworths has a reputation for healthy food and quality clothing, catering for the white middle class and growing black middle class.

It was the first retailer to introduce ‘‘sell by’’ and ‘‘best before’’ dates on its perishable foods more than a decade ago, followed by the introduction of organic foods in the local market in 1999.

Woolworths now refuses to sell eggs from caged hens. Its dairy range is guaranteed free of growth hormones.

In 2007 Woolworths announced the removal of hydrogenated oils from its products and this year it has already reduced the amount of sugar in its 100 percent juices by 79 tons.

Simon Susman, chief executive of Woolworths, refers to these achievements as their decade long ‘‘good food journey’’ that has since expanded to environmental and social responsibility issues. ‘‘Saving the planet and sustainable growth has now become our next big business consideration,’’ he says.

Woolworth's introduced its ‘‘good business journey’’ on April 19, 2007. It is an ambitious five year plan to change the way the company does business and address sustainable growth in the context of the changing social and environmental needs of South Africa.

As part of the plan, the retailer has adopted a ‘‘badger-friendly’’ honey policy, ensuring that all honey sold in Woolworths shops nationwide has been produced without harm to honey badgers. The policy was introduced after bee farmers were killing honey badgers indiscriminately and the small predators were becoming endangered.

When it was discovered that the hives could be raised out of their reach, Woolworths demanded that this alternative method be used at all farms that produce the honey it sells.

Another issue is that of predators on meat-producing farms. Farmers are still killing predators like leopards, jackals, eagles and vultures. Woolworths, among other corporations, donated a hundred thousand rand (about 14,000 dollars) in 2007 to the Landmark Foundation for the development of an environment for the production of ‘‘predator-friendly lamb’’.

The aims are to promote the capturing – rather than killing – of these animals and to secure their release into other areas. The foundation also seeks to implement biologically sustainable farming practices.

These initiatives helped Woolworths to win international recognition this year. It was named Responsible Retailer of the Year at the World Retail Awards held in Spain in April. The award is designed to celebrate corporate responsibility and reward companies that set new world-class standards of good practice in areas of employment, sourcing, environmental policies and fair trade.

Nominees in the category included C&A Europe (Germany), Carrefour Group (France), Sainsburys (UK), Tesco (UK) and The Warehouse Group (New Zealand). Last year's winner was UK-based retailer Marks and Spencer.

According to the judges of the Retail Award, what impressed them most were the stringent targets Woolworths has set for itself with its ‘‘good business journey’’ plan.

It incorporates a series of challenging targets and commitments, including social development, enhancing Woolworths’s environmental focus and addressing climate change.

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