Halala, Mzansi! A pome fruit producer outside Ceres in the Western Cape has become the first in the country to exceed ethical and environmentally sustainable trade standards.
The farmer, Steven Versfeld from Achtertuin Farm, received platinum status without any non-compliances from SIZA, the Sustainability Initiative of South Africa. This means, his next audit is only due in three years’ time, and he’s allowed to enter new and exclusive markets.
The SIZA audit is an independent process administered by third-party auditors to improve credibility and ethics on local farms.
‘Do audits or stop farming’
According to Versfeld, he prepared for the audit by reading through previous audit findings. He made sure he addressed all the recommendations that were made by the bean counters. Versfeld also ensured that auditors had access to all the information they needed.
“No producer likes audits and I only do them because I have to. They are expensive, require a lot of paperwork and are incredibly time-consuming; time that could be better spent on farming, improving quality in the orchard, packhouse and the product in general,” he says.
“there is no point in being antagonistic towards auditors.”
The reality, however, is that audits are highly important.
South African producers wishing to export or even supply to local supermarkets cannot do this without certain standards in place. Also, most markets require certain certifications. “This requires auditing, so if I don’t do the audits I may as well stop farming,” Versfeld believes.
SIZA audits also inspects producers on their ethical labour practice compliance. Versfeld says he understands why this has to be addressed. For many discerning markets, this is a particular focus point.
Some of the structural changes Versfeld made over the years include adding signs and railings. He admits that while some of the audit requirements do not make sense, his advice to others is simply to do it and move on with life.
SIZA congratulated Versfeld and his staff on their achievement, saying it hopes this will inspire and motivate other suppliers to achieve similar results.
Chief executive Retha Louw says the achievement is no small feat. “It takes hard work, dedication, and the intention to implement a certain lifestyle culture on your farm,” she says.
Louw believes Versfeld proved that businesses can meet requirements and even exceed beyond the scope.
“As the standards and world around us evolve, new requirements will persist, meaning businesses will have to remain consistent in their approach to implement best practice every day,” she says.
Meanwhile Hortgro’s executive director, Anton Rabe, also congratulated Versfeld.
“We are very proud of Steven and hope that he will inspire and motivate other producers to achieve similar results,” says Rabe
Carol Munro, the auditor who gave Versfeld his platinum status, says she too was impressed with Versfeld’s commitment, growth and the effort he put into making the necessary changes.
How SIZA audits work
The programme’s foundation is built on continuous improvement. This allows its members to strive for best practices and achieve above minimum compliance.
The audit requirements are very broad and SIZA auditors are evaluated on a regular basis on their knowledge and audit ability.
“This ensures that auditors regularly sharpen their auditing and evaluating practices. Standards and legislation can also change frequently, which means practices need to adapt within the business,” says Louw.
Meanwhile Werner van Dyk, SIZA’s audit manager, says there is not necessarily a fixed list of questions used in preparation for an audit.
He explains ethical practices are evaluated through interviews conducted with both management and several employees across all levels of employment.
“Thus, although there is preparation material available, the evaluation of humans is not always as clinical or scientific. It makes general day-to-day business practices a farm lifestyle and part of the company culture, rather than a quick questionnaire completed before an audit,” he explains.
Louw explains the programme and audit process does not seek to “break down” producers or look for errors, but rather to point out areas that need improvement.
Versfeld believes there is no point for producers to be antagonistic towards the auditor.
“They are simply there to check your practices against the standard,” he says. “With SIZA one can reduce the frequency of audits by getting a platinum grading, which is the only reason why I set out to achieve a top grading.”