While South Africa’s macadamia industry has largely escaped the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic as export markets remain open and prices buoyant, most nut farmers and processors have introduced stringent health and safety measures to protect staff and families from becoming infected with the virus.

From self-isolating to buying food in bulk for factory staff and locking farm access gates to discourage visitors, macadamia farmers and processors have gone above and beyond to protect their workers and families from possible COVID-19 infection while carrying out their duties.

General manager at the Green Farms Nut Company Brett Balsdon and the management team at the group’s headquarters in White River, Mpumalanga, made the decision to self-isolate during the national lockdown to protect their families from possible exposure to the virus.

“Yes, as the general manager I made the decision to isolate myself from my family during the lockdown. A couple of members of my team have done the same. Over the past couple of weeks, we have spent a LOT of time together. It has given us all a different perspective of each other. I believe it has made our team stronger through the period. In fact, we have decided to have an annual reunion for the COVID-19 isolation team,” Balsdon laughed.

Fortunately for macadamia processing factories, adhering to the COVID-19 health and safety regulations required little operational change as all such facilities are required to comply with food safety or FSSC standards regardless.

“Even before COVID-19 the wearing of masks, sanitising, and washing hands, were all constantly monitored and re-iterated for the prevention of contamination of our product. Staff are trained in the requirements of the FSSC and we keep reinforcing these processes through daily toolbox talks, which have been centred on these exact and important procedures in the fight against the coronavirus,” Balsdon said.

However, he said, during the lockdown, efforts were ramped up to ensure staff kept to social distancing regulations despite being in the confines of a factory.

“This has been a challenge, but we have overcome it by ongoing training and management. Our food safety manager on site came up with fun and informative presentations to educate staff on social distancing, the nature of the virus and how they can become infected,” he said.

Kwazulu-Natal farmer Ronald Lilje and his wife, Lorraine, have not only gone the extra mile to protect their workers but made a series of videos of their safety regulation ideas to share with their neighbours.

“I feel if these measures can save just one life then it has been worth it,” Lilje said.

The masks Lorraine Lilje made from an idea she saw on Facebook: the farmer’s wife makes 90 masks each week, which are then handed to staff each morning.

The masks Lorraine Lilje made from an idea she saw on Facebook: the farmer’s wife makes 90 masks each week, which are then handed to staff each morning.

The couple, who have 110ha under macadamias and 84ha planted to timber, employ 32 permanent and 38 temporary staff.

“First, I had a meeting with the entire staff where I explained the symptoms of the virus and what we all needed to do about it. Lorraine makes 90 masks each week. These are given to our staff who are transported to and from work. We have also enforced social distancing on the transport. The 12 women who work at de-husking get a new mask every morning and they are required to wash their hands six or more times a day. The reapers in the field are supplied with a tanker of potable water with three taps to wash their hands with soap provided. They are also spread out across the orchard with just two people per row of trees – one on each side of the trees.”

At mealtimes, he added, workers were required to sit two metres apart from each other.

At MacEden on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast, factory workers have their temperatures checked as they arrive at the farm before being handed fresh masks at the start of each working day.

Every hour, on the hour, work stops, and staff are required to wash and sanitise their hands before returning to their tasks.

Social distancing is closely monitored on the transport to and from work, while lockdown measures are expected to stay in place beyond the deadline set down by the government to make sure workers are not at risk from infection.

Jean Dore, who heads up the MacEden family business near Ramsgate, said they had “lost no time” in setting up measures to keep their staff safe when the virus was first detected in the country earlier this year.

“We divided our staff complement in half and set up two shifts, one working from 6.30am to 12h30pm, while the other comes in at 12h00 and works until 6pm. That means we lose no production time and are able to have our staff working at the correct spacing along the belt.”

The other concern, Dore said, was the closure of local schools. “We were really worried about who was taking care of the children at home while our staff were at work. Breaking up the working day into shifts has meant staff can be at home for at least half of the day with their families and their children. Prior to lockdown we also bought food hampers in bulk for all employees to make sure they didn’t have to go into town during this time. If just one person is found to be positively infected with the virus our whole operation will have to shut down.”

Further, she said, they had kept in close contact with both the Departments of Agriculture and Labour to make sure any changes or notices were adhered to, particularly in the case of acquiring transport permits, for example. “There was some confusion in the beginning, but that was soon all ironed out and we were able to get all the necessary permits without any trouble.”

James Braithwaite, who farms at Golden Macadamias in Zululand, said apart from safety measures such as social distancing, hand washing and the sanitisation of living quarters and commonly shared facilities, he had locked all access gates to the farm to prevent any visitors from coming on to the property. “I really want to give my staff some time off once the lockdown is over so they can go home to their families. This has been tough on them, but our main aim is to keep our people safe,” he said.

In line with the government’s decision to guarantee the country’s food supply remained robust during the national COVID-19 lockdown, the macadamia industry continued to harvest and process its crop in readiness mainly for export.

Harvesting usually starts each year in early March, with factories and processors opening up simultaneously, or early in April.

The COVID-19 outbreak in China – South Africa’s largest macadamia nut-in-shell importer – has meant the industry has “walked a thin line” regarding the timing of the re-opening of Chinese ports and whether or not exports from South Africa would go ahead regardless of the lockdown.

According to a recent report by Dutch marketing company Global Trading & Agency, demand for South Africa’s macadamia crop was strong due to an increased need for snacks by consumers in Europe, the UK and the United States.

This, the report said, was as a direct result of people in COVID-19 lockdown choosing healthier eating options while in isolation.

“The main concern at the moment is whether or not the new crop will arrive timeously in the various destinations (due to interrupted trade as a direct result of the pandemic). Production is challenging during these times, but so far we have had no hiccups, and none is expected. But we are balancing on a rather thin line,” the report said.

As China eases its isolation and opens its ports for trade, an announcement this week by South Africa’s Minister for Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma indicated this country’s port backlogs would be targeted over the next two weeks in preparation for a return to full operation once the domestic lockdown ended on May 1.

Further aspects that could increase the demand for South Africa’s macadamias are the drought and orchard damage from the massive bushfires in Australia and a drop-off in domestic supply in China as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown in that country.

 Andrew Sheard, technical manager at Mayo Macs in KZN.

Technical manager for Mayo Macs in KwaZulu-Natal Andrew Sheard said he felt privileged to be able to continue working during the lockdown.

“This does, however, bring considerable responsibility to each of us to make sure we provide a safe and healthy work environment for our people,” he said.

As such Mayo Macs outlined a clear list of dos and don’ts for staff, which he said everyone was sticking to closely each day, as follows:

  • Waking up in the morning, practice the best possible personal hygiene and ensure you clean and sanitise your hands.
  • If you don’t feel well, stay at home, isolate yourself and tell your supervisor so that they can make the necessary arrangements.
  • Upon arrival at the workplace each employee will be temperature-scanned by the security guard followed by hand sanitising before being allowed access to the factory.
  • Social distancing – 2m – must be respected and practiced.
  • Do not shake hands, kiss, or hug other people.
  • Each employee must wear a face mask – protect yourself and protect others.
  • Supervisors and managers must ensure all common touch points like door handles, fingerprint scanners, lockers and canteen areas are sanitised every 15 minutes.
  • Staff must wash their hands with soap and water when arriving, going to and from lunch, and for every toilet break – as has always been our rule anyway.
  • All staff must sanitise hands after hand washing and supervisors and managers must ensure all staff additionally sanitise their hands every 15 minutes during production.
  • Employees must take care to not touch their eyes, nose or mouth as far as possible.
  • Any employee feeling ill must report to his/her manager and remove him/herself from the group. You will be placed in the isolation area and the relevant people in charge will be informed so they can make the necessary arrangements.