More Impact for the Future of Food

With a passion like ours in a country like ours, there's no end to the impact we can make…both by providing more food and by empowering more people! For Dave Thomson, our Group Economic Development Executive, food and people go hand in hand – and as one of SA's leading food producers, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to do more.

ONE chatted to Dave to find out how we can sustainably empower communities across the value chain, and in so doing, sustain our own business into the future.  

Firstly, what is your background in the business and how did it position you for what you're doing now?

I joined the business in 2008 to run a rehabilitation project in Nkomazi for small-scale growers (SSGs) who had got into difficulties on their farms and were no longer able to supply cane to our mills. On the basis of our success in this space, we were awarded R100 million by government in 2012 to rehabilitate other small-scale growers and failed land reform projects in the area. It became a part of our DNA to mentor community growers and land reform beneficiaries in the sugar business, which we've had great success in doing. Partnership and collaboration are at the heart of our approach, and there's great potential for a similar strategy to broaden ownership elsewhere in our value chain. That's part of what I am looking at in my current role.

What do you mean by empowering communities, and why is it necessary?

To secure the future of our business (that is, people buying the food we produce, and us being able to produce it), we have to look at securing the communities that contribute to our value chain. This means having a positive economic impact on the communities involved in the food system, right from growing the raw materials (in our case sugar and chicken) to their being consumed by people. Obviously we do so directly by providing jobs, but we also do so indirectly – such as by partnering with government to help implement development policy, or looking at ways for communities to gain a greater share of the value we create.

How has a partnership approach helped drive empowerment of small-scale cane growers, to take one example?   

SSGs farm on communal land and share a lot of resources, so there have to be proper rules governing the way things work, otherwise things fall apart. When I first joined the business, there was a breakdown in relationships and governance amongst the SSGs in Nkomazi – so we had to first work on the 'rules of the game' before looking at technical issues like irrigation rehabilitation and crop production.  To do that, we had to drive and improve relationships with the grower communities and we opted to use an external social partner to facilitate this process. Interestingly, the farmers themselves chose Lima Rural Development Foundation, and Lima helped change the type of conversation that was happening between us and the community. The focus shifted to how we can work together to achieve a common goal: more cane, which means more money to growers. In due course we formed two joint-venture services companies with the SSGs: Akwandze Agricultural Finance and TSGRO. Assisted by the financial and agricultural support services these two companies provide, our Nkomazi SSGs were able to sell R295 million worth of cane to our Malalane and Komati mills in 2017, representing nearly 16% of our total cane supply.

What is the potential for partnerships like this in other areas of the business?

Using a similar partnership-based philosophy, we are starting to explore a number of other areas where communities can play a greater role in the value chain. Partnering and networking with other stakeholders can also assist us on the food side as we look to strengthen the nutritional profile of our products and find relevant ways of meeting our consumers' needs.

What is the main challenge affecting our nation that we can help address as a business?

As a nation we have to find ways to feed more people with less resources. As a business, our task is to find ways of doing so by playing a responsible, meaningful role in the food system as a whole. It comes back to our Passion!

What drives you to do more in this space? 

Making a difference. I don't see what I do as just a job or a means to climb the corporate ladder. It's about doing the right thing, as an individual and as a company.

Favourite Our Way statement for the work you do?

More Brave. If you go down this road you have to take a leap of faith and stay the course. Driving long-term partnerships and relationships in the face of short-term socio-economic pressures is tough – but it's worth it in the end.