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 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.
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Sugarcane farmers in KwaZulu-Natal who have had officials from the Department of Health screening for COVID-19 infections on their farms say the process has been efficient and highly professional.
The health officials the farmers say phone prior to their arrival to set up appointments and get the required details of the farm operations. “Once they arrive they are quick, very professional and clearly know what they are doing. All out staff have now been screened which is a great relief to us as we are concerned that they are protected from infection,” one farmer said.
South Africa’s sugarcane growing industry was deemed an essential services within the agricultural sector at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown. Strict regulations on health regulations to protect staff we set out to each member of the organisation and farmers have been diligent in ensuring their workers wear face masks and that social distancing is adhered to during the working day.
As part of SAICA’s Leadership in a Time of Crisis webinar series, Willem van der Post, CA(SA) and CEO of xTech.Capital shared some thoughts on what the workplace of the future will look like, especially in a post-Coronavirus world.
The new normal. It’s all everyone’s talking about. But what exactly does it mean? While van der Post points out he is of course not a fortune teller – “if I was I would give you more useful information, like the winning Lotto numbers” – he has estimated, given the current trend cycle we are seeing, certain changes we can anticipate in the workspace, both on a personal and an organisational level.
We used to shake hands, hug and kiss each other countless times a day when we said hello, goodbye and reached an accord. The anxiety around physical contact has changed this. If you look back in history, you’ll see that hand shaking is a millenia-old custom going back all the way to the Ancient Greeks. Men would hold their weapon in their dominant hand, so extending that hand, free of weapons, was a sign of peace and trust. We are subconsciously losing that, so while it may seem like an insignificant change, it will run deep in our psyche.
The persona of corporate veneer is likely to disappear. Through virtual meetings, we are getting real insight into what people’s homes and family lives look like. It’s normal now to see dogs barking and kids run into the room. This is going to shave off a little bit of that perfect persona we broadcast to the world. This will allow us to regain the trust that we may have lost by working remotely. In a digital world we don’t shake hands, we can’t monitor each other’s moods and body language carefully and so on, so we need a way to regain that trust, and sharing our authentic selves is a way to do so.
Lockdown has once and for all shown us how ludicrous the notion is of sitting in traffic. We only have one short life, and it is almost criminal to waste so much of it on the road. It seems unlikely that employees will be going back to sitting in daily traffic if they don’t need to, so the expectation of flexible work engagements will become more pronounced, with many employees only going into the office once or twice a week.
People are realising the importance of holistic wellness. It has been wonderful to sleep in, meditate, exercise and spend time with family in the mornings, rather than rush off, while grabbing a takeaway coffee and a mass-produced croissant. There will definitely be a shift towards spiritual and physical wellbeing, as opposed to rushing to get to the capital structure we are a part of.
Curriculum of the future
The world has caught on to digital learning, and this is not only because of the Coronavirus, but also by virtue of the digital revolution. That said, it’s not only about how we learn. What we learn is also subject to a radical shift. There are 16 exponential technologies that are fundamentally changing business models and the nature of business:
- Artificial intelligence
- Machine learning
- Quantum computing
- 3D printing
- Digital Biology
- Virtual Reality
- Sustainable energy
- Internet of things
- Space Technologies
Most organisations can’t even name all 16. If we can’t name them, how are we preparing for the impact they will have on us, and how can we expect our teams to be prepared? If we want to be able to deal with disruption, these technologies need to be a part of our curriculum.
Organisations that haven’t started their digital transformation journey are going to be pressured into doing so now. Companies that are already on the journey will extend the scope of their digital presence and invest in speeding up the process. The extended lockdown and economic downturn will make this a necessity.
Measurables have always been important, but now they will become even more so. We are entering an era where we will get rid of KPIs, as politics, conflict aversion and so on make these kinds of goal-setting measures subjective. OKRs, or Objective and Key Results, are the way of the future. They are measured in a binary fashion – either a result was or wasn’t achieved, 1 or 0 – that befits a technology company, which is why they are so popular in Silicon Valley. In order to implement these, you need a thorough, rational and thought-through process of deciding what needs to be measured, and what success and failure look like in your organisation.
If more people are working remotely, many factors of office life will need to be re-examined. Will employers have to cover the costs of their staff’s data? Do we need to invest more heavily in cybersecurity? What about real estate? Do we allow employees to work remotely and repurpose or give up some of our office space? How do we deal with sick leave? Is it even relevant anymore if people are working from home? Last, but definitely not least, if employees are only coming into the office once or twice a week, how do we build trust and corporate culture?
In this era of working from home, people are rediscovering the importance of wellness, and organisations are being forced to think about what they stand for. This is going to give birth to an era of authenticity, and of people re-examining how they spend their time and apply their talents. Currently, many people are trading in their dreams for a salary. Hopefully post the lockdown and reboot, people will find the courage to pursue their lifelong purpose, within an economically sustainable model. We have been given a very valuable window, a period to re-evaluate where we are in the world and what we are doing for society, for ourselves and for our family. Hopefully many people can use it to find their true purpose.
As countries continue to implement “risk-adjusted” responses to COVID-19, global leaders and analysts alike continue to assess the evolving implications of the pandemic on global markets.
What makes COVID-19 unique is that it is a health shock that has fundamentally affected both the supply and demand side of the global economy. In the food industry, government policy responses have mainly hinged on three major interventions since the pandemic started. These include (1) an initial intent to implement protectionist trade policies in major agricultural producing countries, followed by a pullback of direct trade restrictions (2) supply-side support for the agricultural industries in the form of historic budgetary support for small and large companies, and (3) demand-side support through a boost in household incomes through wage support.
First, in the early days of the pandemic, countries such as Russia, Kazakhstan, Cambodia and Vietnam, amongst others, introduced export quotas and bans on rice and wheat. This was an attempt to ensure stable domestic staple food supplies amid uncertainty about how long the pandemic will last. But these policies were soon abandoned after a month, as aforementioned countries signalled a return to the open market trading terms within the next two months. One of the reasons that contributed to this change included the exemption of agriculture and food supply chains from COVID-19 restrictions that had affected other sectors of the economy. The International Grains Council has lifted its 2020/21 global grains harvest by 2% year-on-year to 2.2 billion tonnes. This is a welcome development for grain-importing countries who feared the risk of food insecurity when the protectionist policies were announced. This includes South Africa and the African continent at large, which relies on rice and wheat imports from the global market.
Second, as initial worries about production abated, it became clear that the biggest challenge was not a lack of food in the market, but logistical disruptions. However, the closure of meat processing plants in the US, Ireland, Canada and Brazil, amongst others due the outbreaks of the virus in production facilities is now bringing renewed fears that the longer the pandemic continues, the more likely those parts of the food system will cease to function. The risks of meat shortages in the global market, as well as the negative ripple effects in other parts of the food system linked to the meat sector, imply that the food system remains extremely vulnerable. The emerging concerns of potential meat shortages – and potential shortages in other parts of the food system – are putting intense pressure on political leaders to respond more aggressively, as seen in the US, where President Trump ordered meat plants to re-open to avert an inevitable spin-off crisis.
This specific aggressive intervention is just part of a much broader set of unprecedented policy responses from global leaders, which have been underpinned by large fiscal spending eclipsing those of the 2008 financial crises and the Great Depression. Richer countries have implemented financial relief programmes to support small and large businesses, including farmers, to cope with the deep negative impacts of the pandemic. In South Africa, the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development ring-fenced R1.2 billion for financially distressed small-scale farmers. This prioritises the poultry, livestock and vegetable sectors, amongst other agricultural commodities which will be selected on a case-by-case basis. The farmers within the Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy programme are also included in this package.
Third, governments tried to preserve incomes and livelihoods, and in turn supported the demand side for the food sector. Rapid increases in already high levels of unemployment in most parts of the world translates to a weak demand for food, particularly high-value products in the near-to-medium term. Income protection and support in countries such as the UK and the US is expected to mitigate the weakening demand, and somewhat keep demand at levels that ensure that the economy can bounce back quickly once the economies are fully opened up post-COVID-19. Meanwhile, in the emerging markets, South Africa has been amongst countries that provided support through an increase in social grants and food vouchers and aid. While these are short term assistance, they help improve household demand for food products somewhat. These measures are short term and are being implemented with the expectation that the pandemic will keep the economy closed for three months.
But if the global economy does not bounce back sooner, under the pressure of a new wave of infection which leads to a much slower opening of the economy, then household income and purchasing patterns might be altered over the short to medium term. In this case, the implications for the agricultural and food sector could be dire. We suspect that the demand for higher-value products will inevitably decline somewhat post-COVID-19, but the longevity of this decline could lead to a shift in the supply chains. Depending on the extent and time of the impact over time, the shift could be permanent, due to irreparable damage to the supply chains – if critical businesses shut down permanently.
This is crucial for countries like South Africa whose agricultural sector is export-orientated, with roughly 49% of the produce in value terms exported. South Africa’s high-value export products are mainly fruit, wine and beef. These are mainly destined for the EU and Asia market which accounted for nearly US$10 billion in 2019.
In a nutshell, the resilience of global agriculture will continue to be tested as the pandemic impacts both the supply side and demand side of the global economy. There is no telling how long the global food system – as currently configured – will continue to sustain the pressure from COVID-19. What is becoming increasingly clear is that, the longer the pandemic continues to impact on the supply and demand sides of the global food system, the more likely we are going to see structural shifts that will fundamentally reconfigure it as it adapts to the changing effects of the pandemic.
What is particularly worrying is the lack of support measures for businesses and households in developing countries. In resource-poor nations – especially those in the African continent, who are already under the weight of worsening debt levels – governments do not have the wherewithal to support private businesses and farming communities to the same degree as the United States, the United Kingdom, China, and others. This means that the developing world is a part of the global food system and economy that remains extremely vulnerable to the pandemic. There have been relatively lower numbers of COVID-19 cases in sub-Saharan Africa so far, perhaps due to a lack of testing capacity. But if what is happening in the global north is a harbinger of what is to occur in sub-Saharan Africa over the next couple months, then the largely informal food systems in the continent will likely come under extreme pressure, a scenario which will evoke a food insecurity catastrophe.
Courtesy: Wandile Sihlobo, Agbiz