From left to right: Lizma van Zyl, Ruby-Ann Sampson, Karen van der Merwe, Geraldine Heugh, Zelda le Grange and Monica Banda at 2018 SA Cheese Festival.
Media personality Lizma van Zyl, Ruby-Ann Sampson, Karen van der Merwe, Geraldine Heugh, Zelda la Grange (TV personality and former private secretary to the late Nelson Mandela) and Monica Banda pictured last year at the SA Cheese Festival.

Imagine, just for a moment, a farm without any employees, but with shareholders who benefit from the dividends. It seems highly unlikely, right? Actually, this is the story of the Vredesberg Empowering Farms from Kareedouw in the Eastern Cape.

Farming couple Jan and Karen van der Merwe were set on helping ordinary people achieve the extraordinary – and today they make magic by exploring the infinite possibilities presented by goat’s milk.

“It’s a game changer in the future of agriculture in South Africa,” says Karen, who originally studied Consumer Sciences. Her husband, Jan, is a well-known sheep farmer. Goat farming was never really an option until they started keeping milk goats to assist their three sons in raising orphan lambs. Soon the milk that the goats produced were a lot more than they needed as the herd quickly increased in numbers.

The overproduction of goats’ milk triggered the business idea.

This story of hope started in 2016 when the Van der Merwes, who both come from farming families, wanted to make a real difference in the lives of the people they co-exist with on the farm. Vredesberg lies between the exquisite Suurveld and Tsitsikamma, just outside the town of Kareedouw.

Although the couple created many new job opportunities through their empowerment project, there are officially no employees on the farm, only shareholders. Karen holds 49% of the shares whilst the rest of the team holds 40%. This, according to her, presents them with an opportunity to make a difference in the economy, and to build a better community.

Building their own dream

As shareholders, the agri-workers are building their own dream instead of someone else’s business. This creates hope and an expectation for a better future. Jan says all “employees” are dedicated, because they work for more than a salary at the end of the month. “All gain and losses of productivity is for the account of all, and it is a win-win for everyone.”

Vredesberg cheesemaker Geraldine Heugh, born on a farm in the Karoo, is one of the many shareholders who’ve been inspired by the project. Heugh grew up with parents struggling with substance abuse, and certainly didn’t have an easy road to success.

Jan says, “She always had the will to have a better life. Her unique ability with creating good tastes, her fine eye for detail, combined with a passion for life made her the ideal candidate to be trained as a cheesemaker.”

Heugh has discovered her purpose and passion in life and has become a role model for girls in her community.

Although Vredesberg started as a daydream in 2012, the company is only 18 months old. As a new business going through all the start-up growing pains, they haven’t made a profit to date. “We need to be creative in financing our short-fall every month. Our biggest gain is developing people. This is a story about people working together, and we all believe our financial gain will follow.”

Creating a brighter future

According to Jan they are on the verge of signing a big contract with a major retailer and soon Vredesberg might become a household name throughout South Africa. “We would like to become the leading goat’s milk cheese and milk producer and distributor in South Africa through profitable and beneficial partnerships,” adds Karen. All shareholders are actively empowered and equipped whilst they are co-creating a profitable business brand.

Monica Banda, the Managing Director of Vredesberg, says the Van der Merwes are always on the lookout for new recipes. Banda holds the remaining 11% of the shares. “They (the Van der Merwes) did a lot of research on nutrition and healthy eating after one of their children was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.”

Through Karen’s research, they found that goats’ milk is incredibly beneficial to humans, with many health benefits for people with auto-immune diseases. This was another great reason to venture into goat farming after they realised it would create many more opportunities than traditional sheep farming. Today, there are no sheep left on the farm, and it is now being run exclusively as a dairy goat farm.

Vredesberg Empowering Farms produces soft cheese, cream cheese, matured Gouda, drinking yoghurt, frozen yoghurt and ice-cream.

Vredesberg produces soft cheese, cream cheese, matured Gouda, drinking yoghurt, frozen yoghurt and ice-cream. All the products are produced under the Vredesberg brand on the farm where the dairy is situated.

Karen admits that starting a new business with an out-of-the-box idea has proven to be quite challenging.  “There is no set path before you. We are pioneering. Getting access to finance is still our biggest stumbling block. We couldn’t get finance from any of the commercial banks, but after Jan bonded his property, the Humansdorp Co-op assisted us with a production loan. If you want to pursue your dream you have to (be willing to) give up everything.”

Vredesberg’s shareholders agree that despite their initial success, their story is not finished yet. They are therefore actively building on a better future for all.

There’s a first time for everything…

Monica Banda, the Managing Director of the Vredesberg Empowering Farms, is not only the leading lady of this empowerment project, but also an ambassador for goats’ milk and related products. These days goats’ milk isn’t just for cheese or the lactose intolerant. Its appeal is growing by the day, from grocery stores to fine-dining kitchens.

Monica Banda and Karen van der Merwe from Vredesberg Empowering Farms.

Describe the first time you tasted goats’ milk? I love goats’ milk and goats’ cheese. It’s good for me because I’ve been lactose intolerant since birth.

Do you enjoy eating goat meat? My first taste of goats’ meat was as a young child. I did not know the difference (between goat and beef).

Isn’t it a little awkward working with goats? Don’t they smell? I love the goats and I do not mind the smell! The billy goats (male goats) smell. (According to Roy’s Farm, the musky odour usually come from both the billy goats’ urine and scent glands. Their scent glands re located near their horns. Bucks usually spray their urine on their beards, chest, face and front legs during rut, which basically means they get a surge of hormones and are ready to breed.)