We are becoming a global village. Borders and distance are being erased by international trade and transportation. Nowhere is this more evident to me than in the grocery store. I am increasingly aware of the luxury of being able to buy fresh mangos in January, for instance, and produce from all over the world, fresh any time of year.
More and more consumers are becoming aware of what they are buying and where it comes from. Personally, I like to be able to put a name to the produce as often as possible and prefer to support ethical and local businesses, and am very pleased to learn of one such South African company, the Karsten Group.
Since the Karsten Group exports (on average) 3 to 3.5 million boxes containing 4.5 kilogram boxes of grapes a year, chances are their products have been enjoyed in your kitchen. The 30 year old, family-run farm started out when Piet and Babsie Karsten started farming on the Orange River (west of Upington, South Africa). The company produces seedless table grapes for customers both locally and globally, as well as dates, apples, pears, cherries, blueberries, watermelons, and onions. Their son, Pieter Karsten Jnr, heads up marketing.
Karsten explains, “I am a proud second generation employee. My parents started planting grapes for raisins. When the seedless grapes business started picking up, we converted to table grapes.” Karsten felt the great demand for his products, and was wise to jump on the opportunity. “We came into a market when there wasn’t a lot of other fruit around. The opportunity was there and we took it.”
Karsten’s experience and knowledge of the entire process—from growing the grapes to them landing in the grocer—has been integral to the continued success of the company. He is at the vineyards, coordinating the logistics and speaking with his employees daily. Karsten thinks the key to a successful company is understanding “supply and demand. We manage that by having good customer relations, understanding their needs and wants, and growing accordingly. I know the person pruning the grapes to the person buying them in the U.K.”
The Karsten Group is a very conscientious employer. The philosophy of the company is to empower the people working for the group in order to “ensure that all workers can achieve their full potential and be happy families.” Karsten follows the program that his parents initiated which offers high-level skills transfers and an exhaustive training and support services. Not all companies do this, but this is where the company has chosen to place their focus.
It is also very worthy to note that the Karsten Group has undertaken two major empowerment projects, the premise of which is to make employees shareholders. These efforts have been commended by former President Mandela and President Mbeki, both of whom have personally visited the farms. According to Karsten, “It is important for our people to reinvest in the communities which they come from. We as a private company need to come together with other institutions to help our people and to help ourselves. It reaps its own benefits. We are working in peak hours with a labour force of up to 5,000 people. It’s a huge responsibility, and everybody needs to be part of the business.”
Karsten Group has entered into a joint venture with Keboes Fruit Farms and Black Management Forum Investigation Company that epitomizes the “new South Africa”. Fair trade Labelling Organizations International is the worldwide standard setting and certification body that permits more than 800,000 producers in more than 40 countries to benefit from being labelled as fair trade. The FLO mandate is to improve the position of third world producers by setting the fair trade standards and creating a framework that enables trade to take place at conditions which respect their interests and the pride and dignity of the people who works on the farm.
Keboes Fruit Farms are a producer of table grapes for the export and local market. Karsten Group has been a firm believer in the fact that people who work there should take center stage in all farming activities as it forms a core part of the business. Sharing profit and ownership is the backbone of their business.
Not content to rest on their laurels, Karsten is planning to expand their already sprawling farm by hundreds of hectares within the next five years. The practise of having multiple farms and acreage (Karsten has seven farms over 300 kilometres) is a way of diversifying risk for the crops. Says Karsten, “One needs bulks, one needs to be big in order to make a difference in our customers’ lives.” One poor crop could topple the business if that was the only farm. “We’ve got a bit of scale and quite a good diversification over distance. If you have one farm that has a major issue, the other farms can still stand in,” explains Karsten.
Karsten Group products will be on our shelves for hopefully generations to come. Karsten and his family have an operation going that is mutually beneficial to themselves, their employees and South Africa. “What we are trying to achieve is to do good honest business; not to profiteer, but to make a good sustainable business. We have very good open relations with our customers and by giving them what they want at the right time, and having good communication, we hope to make them happy for many more years.”