Novice Award 2017 Winner: Errol April
Dawn at Amanzi
Words by Elise-Marie Steenkamp
Meet the inspirational Errol April, a 49-year-old deciduous fruit farmer who until recently knew nothing about fruit farming. Read about this MK-veteran’s journey from the Cape Flats to the orchards of Amanzi. A worthy winner of the deciduous industry’s Novice Award 2017.
Errol April was born in Elsies River in the northern suburbs of the Cape Peninsula in the autumn of 1968. He was the youngest of five children, an inquisitive boy who always pestered the elders and wanted to know more.
The April family grew their own food. They had to. They were poor. “From an early age I was exposed to the concept of subsistence farming,” remembers Errol. “As children we were healthy and I still contribute this to the fact that we grew our own food.” Coming home from school Errol loved to impress his parents by weeding and irrigating the vegetables. In his spare time, he flew pigeons.
At school, he excelled in sports like athletics, soccer and rugby. In the classroom, he could not get enough of History, Biology, Geography and Accounting. “As a young boy I really wanted to play the piano and dreamed of becoming a pianist, but my family could not afford a piano.” Later as a teenager, he was set on becoming a teacher. This ideal was kept alive until his matric year when the political realities of the apartheid regime hit home.
Errol became involved in politics at school. It was during the banning of the Congress of South African Students that he became the organizer for the Western Cape Student Congress and a national convener for the National Student Coordinating Committee. In 1989 they defied the banning orders and relaunched the Congress of SA Students (COSAS).
“At that time I worked at a community centre in Woodlands (Mitchells Plain) as the resource centre coordinator. I was responsible for the community library, study and resource material for high school and tertiary level students. I also assisted with Adult Basic Education and Training and then, of course, our own community garden, small, but we could feed the nursery school, which had about 30 children.”
The political wrongs of the time frustrated him, and shortly after school he was trained by Umkhonto we Sizwe – the military wing of the then still-banned ANC. “I was part of an integrated military force, which created the conditions conducive for the country’s first democratic elections (1994),” he says proudly. Later he received the Unitas Military Medal for his commitment to the struggle and was integrated into the new SANDF. He retired in 2006 holding positions as chief personnel service clerk and sergeant major.
It was during this time that his affection for “toiling the soil” spiked again. “As a child, I realised my plate of food came from the soil.” And in 2011, Errol and a friend, as military veterans, decided to register for the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform’s database and apply for a farming project. “We were willing to take on any form of farming because we were confident that, should we apply ourselves, as we were taught in our military training, that we can achieve our goals.”
But when Errol arrived at Amanzi farm, near Greyton, in 2013, he soon realised this was a challenge of epic proportions. Not only was fruit farming, not his first choice, but he also did not understand the complexities of producing an apple or a pear. The farm was a new acquisition by the Two-a-Day group – “who at that time was appointed caretaker whilst we were finding our feet”.
“We experienced a lot of negativity, especially from the permanent workers. The Two-a-Day methods and approaches to fruit farming were very different to what the workers were used to, so there was a lot of dissent and unwillingness to execute instructions. There were also admin and salary problems; the infrastructure was old and some implements were useless; the orchards were neglected not correctly pruned and there were no hygiene protocols; the farm had no reliable transport for the business, and workers were ill-informed of their rights and were not trained to work with the implements. It was a mess.”
The first year was tough. He could quit, or he could put shoulder to the wheel… Despite the mammoth task of rebuilding the farm, he was grateful for the opportunity. He decided to give it a go. And with the help of the Two-a-Day technical advisors and in particular his previous mentor, Wilmer Ferreira, he slowly came to grips with fruit farming 101.
“I realized that the first thing we needed to do was to turn around the workers’ attitudes. We needed commitment, hard, and above all, smart work. My strategy was to start at the very beginning, do one small thing at a time, and then move on to the next thing.”
Today all the tractor drivers at Amanzi, including six women, are fully trained. “We, now have enough trained personnel for forklift driving, spray-operators, monitors, irrigating officers, first-aiders, quality-control officers and have an excellent administration and financial recordkeeping system.”
The workers know that they are important to the business and that no success story can exclude them. On Amanzi we have changed a careless agricultural worker into an innovative, top performer, willing to take on tasks with responsibility. They are skilled and productive members of staff. My personnel know they come first. I have no favourites when correcting wrongs and all are served with dignity. I have, for my full-time staff component, set aside a 20% share in profits (when there are profits) of which is protected in a trust.
I take a lot of strength from my family on and off the farm, says Errol. “Caroline, my wife, supports me with all the administrative and financial matters. We are SIZA and Global GAP accredited.”
Caroline keeps control of all the systems and logs and administers the computerized pay system. She also mothers 5-year old “farmer Alex”, who knows about closing windows when the spray-operators are working. And regularly checks with his dad whether the bees have arrived when he sees even 5% blossom! Nephew, Jeremy, assists on all levels and has also been helping Errol for the past two years.
“Amanzi is 211ha in size, of which only 30,94ha are under production. I have the ambition to expand and take the farm to a good economic unit of at least 50ha over the next five years and a further 10ha thereafter. I would also like to diversify and create more job opportunities for the local workers.
“Last year, we employed 120 seasonal workers. Obviously, we want to do this every year, but we have to remain realistic. Farming is humbled by Mother Nature time and time again. Just look at the current drought.”
For Errol, a successful farmer is one that cares more about his workers than about crop yields. “I believe that behind a successful farmer is a valued, dignified, cared for and committed worker. I still have shortcomings and have to learn a lot about fruit farming, but with the assistance of advisors and mentors, I think we at Amanzi, will be successful.”
Errol ends with the following philosophy: “No matter how long the night, dawn is sure to come.” At Amanzi dawn is breaking.
The judges motivated Errol’s award based on the following factors:
- He had no farming experience prior to 2013 when he was appointed as one of the lessees owning 80% of the operating entity.
- Significant personal & business development over the last 4 years under difficult circumstances.
- Decreased debt levels from R2,5 million to R650 000 as result of tight controls.
- Increased revenue during 2016 compared to 2015 season (increased from R2,9 million to R6,4 million).
- Employs 7 permanent workers earning well above the minimum wage.
- Amanzi was recently selected as one of the beneficiaries of the DFDC Commercialisation programme due to the high potential of becoming a commercial entity in his own right.
- Errol has illustrated the ability to align himself with a very good network of experts to advise on strategic and day-to-day operations contributing to the successes achieved to date and on his journey to become sustainable in the long-run.