Herb entrepreneur diversifies, grows through pandemic

It has been a slow, steady race for herb farmer and agro-processing entrepreneur Basil Williams. Over more than two decades he has built his farming operation to where he produces more than 3 tonnes per month, most of which is now used to make his own range of pestos, sauces and dried herbs

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While Covid-19 lockdowns are shuttering businesses and cutting off traditional routes to market, one Stellenbosch agripreneur says the pandemic brought out his innovative spirit. He’s adding value to his product, finding new ways to reach buyers and planning for expansion of his 3-tonnes-per-month herb-growing business.

From a solo operation in a shade-netted corner of his parents’ backyard to 1 hectare of land, six employees and six growing tunnels each housing 10 000 to 20 000 herb plants, Herbal View Hydroponics managing director Basil Williams has grown his business over more than a decade – and he wasn’t going to let a virus slow him down.

“Over the years I have learned to think more like a businessperson and not only like a farmer.”

“You have to innovate and diversify to ensure your farming operation remains a sustainable business in a highly competitive market. Even pre-Covid, when the economy was slowing down, we had to think differently and develop strategies to move into agro-processing rather than only supplying fresh produce.

“Covid restrictions strengthened our innovation drive as lockdowns affected our business, limiting our access to markets. And so we got creative in taking our products online to make people more aware of us and tap into the enthusiasm for supporting local businesses in the tough times brought about by the pandemic,” he said.

From a small start of online orders, the Herbal View range of own-brand pesto, sauces, dried herbs, herbed salts and herb-infused oils will soon be stocked on retail shelves in the Western Cape. The range was developed over the past few years and refined during Covid-19 lockdowns. Williams also continues to supply fresh herbs to wholesalers, retailers as well as other processors.

Climbing, slow and steady

Williams is one of the current group of 16 participants in the Small Business Academy (SBA) run by the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB), and he credits the programme for “enabling me to get on top of my business, not just be in it”.

Herb farmer and agro-processing entrepreneur Basil Williams received a business boost by his participation in Stellenbosch University’s Small Business Academy. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

“I have been building my business slowly over the past 21 years and took it on full-time since 2014. I’ve been fortunate to have received government funding at various times to support me in leasing land, expanding and acquiring equipment. I applied for the Small Business Academy programme because I wanted to advance my knowledge and skills, especially in financial management and business planning, areas that I now feel much more capable in,” said Williams.

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The SBA is a nine-month development programme aimed at empowering entrepreneurs in low-income areas of the Western Cape with the knowledge, skills and mentoring to grow sustainable businesses and improve their job creation potential.

Mentoring and guidance

Sponsored by Absa and Distell, one of the most significant aspects of the programme is the ongoing support and mentoring from USB MBA graduates offered to participants after completing the programme, said SBA head Dr Armand Bam.

“Many SME development programmes do not deliver sustainable results, because participants leave with a certificate but no ongoing support in putting what they have learned into practice. 

“We believe the ‘after care’ delivered by our SBA Growth Initiative, with additional mentoring and support in implementing business plans, is what sets the Small Business Academy apart – and it shows in the track record of the number of participants maintaining successful businesses in the eight years since the programme was launched, some of them now participating in the programme as mentors,” Dr Bam said.

The SBA has trained more than 307 entrepreneurs to date, in the Western Cape as well as in the Joe Gqabi district of the Eastern Cape in partnership with the municipality’s development agency. 

Dr Bam said Williams’ success showed the power of involving the public, private and education sectors in SME development, “and the importance for SME development and growth of obtaining not only funding for plant and equipment, but also training and development in business skills”.

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It all started in his backyard

From his backyard start-up in Kylemore, Williams’ Herbal View Hydroponics is now a three-tonne-per-month business on a farm in the Lynedoch area of Stellenbosch. He employs six people, including his business partner, sister Caroline Williams and Elroy Daniels. They grow and supply herbs such as basil, coriander, rocket, mint, chives, oregano, thyme and rosemary, as well as micro herbs, garlic and baby spinach.

Some 70% of the harvest is now processed for Herbal View’s range of condiments and herbs and spices. The balance is packaged and supplied as fresh herbs and micro herbs to wholesalers, independent outlets and national retail chains including fresh produce suppliers SPAR and Food Lovers’ Market. 

Western Cape herb farmer Basil Williams with some of the products in his Herbal View range. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

He also supplies Boland restaurants and delis with fresh products, as well as raw ingredients to manufacturers of herb-based products like Ina Paarman and Pesto Princess.

In May this year, Williams won the Team Player award in the SAB Foundation’s Tholoana Enterprise Programme which offers business support, business development and assistance with access to markets.

Herbal View Hydroponics employs cutting-edge hydroponic technology to grow and deliver product all year round and uses organic-certified and natural sprays to control pests, while the processed products contain no preservatives and Williams has full traceability on all his seeds and ingredients.

Williams is passionate about empowering others, often mentoring other developing farmers, and he is involved in setting up a community processing plant in Kylemore to support emerging farmers to move into value-adding agro-processing.

With the business planning support provided by the SBA, Williams’ aim now is to create more local jobs and expand into national distribution, followed by exports in 2022. He is currently sourcing funding and support for his plans to expand into a five-hectare farm and processing plant.

No path free of obstacles

His journey has not been without obstacles – after expanding to new premises in Pniel in 2007, with support from the Western Cape department of agriculture, a storm wiped out his tunnel structures. Undeterred, he went back to government for assistance in leasing a more suitable piece of land and was able to erect two tunnels as well as acquire a vehicle to transport the produce.

Access to farmland has been, and continues to be, his biggest challenge but, says Williams, that has not stopped him and “with the help and support from different support programmes I have learned a lot and always came out stronger on the other side”.

“My advice to entrepreneurs and start-up businesses would be to let your passion drive you. Work hard, and never give up no matter the challenges – if you fall, get up and keep moving. Always keep exploring, take on every opportunity and always be willing to learn from others.”

ALSO READ: Five fab herbs and how to use them

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