/ 26 April 2013

Cape charity grows on olive bounty

Cape Charity Grows On Olive Bounty

Arriving at the youth centre in Esterhof, Riebeek Kasteel, the first thing you notice is the noise. The ­chatter, shrieks and laughter of children in and around its bright, white walls are almost overwhelming as a boisterous game gets under way in the centre's inner courtyard.

The centre offers its children, many of whom live with their farmworker parents in crowded, impoverished households, a good meal and a shower, and is somewhere they can get after-school care and help with homework. They have access to a library and computer centre, as well as emotional support and counselling. High school pupils come here to study as exams loom.

The centre's hall also serves the rest of Esterhof, acting as a venue for antenatal classes, support groups for the elderly and adult basic-education classes. As its manager, Edlyne Asja, explains, it is steadily becoming a part of the community.

The centre is part of the Goedgedacht Trust's Path Out of Poverty programme (Pop). It has been christened Pop Southern Cross and is the second such centre to come out of this steadily expanding programme. At a time when many charitable organisations are foundering as funders cut budgets and corporates slash social-investment spending, the trust and its Pop programme have a secret weapon. Olives.

They are grown, harvested, packed and sold under the auspices of a separate trading company for the benefit of the trust. Goedgedacht established the trading company in 2003 and has steadily grown it over the years to the point where it is producing 10 000 litres of extra virgin olive oil and 30 to 35 tonnes of table olives each year, according to its manager, Robert Templeton.

The trust survives with the noteworthy help of a range of donors, both private and corporate, and the assistance of a chain of Help the Rural Child charity shops; it also operates a charity in the United Kingdom called Grow Peace. But its small olive business is intended to provide an income stream that will be relatively reliable, with the space to expand and lessen its dependence on the aid of donors.

National retailer Pick n Pay has opened its shelves to the fledgling outfit and with a good deal of business support from the grocery chain, according to Templeton, Goedgedacht can now be found in 256 stores around the country.

The business has not only given the organisation growing self-sufficiency in the work it does with farm labourers and their families, but also some insight into the challenges faced by the farmers who employ many of these people. The business faces the same environmental and commercial pressures many farmers do, but its returns are dedicated to helping children and young people to escape the rural poverty trap.

Across the Western Cape, the plight of farmworkers came under the spotlight after strikes for an pay increase to the minimum wage turned violent earlier this year.

But, as with many regions in the province, the farming communities around Goedgedacht face the added scourge of alcohol abuse and associated problems such as foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). The term denotes a variety of birth disorders associated with mothers drinking heavily during pregnancy and ranges from mild cognitive, behavioural and developmental disorders to the truly severe. The Western Cape has the highest FASD rate in the world.

Battling the problem gave Goedgedacht, which started in 1993, a focus area. But, as Ingrid Lestrade, the trust's director, explained, the programme grew to include far more extensive intervention, starting with prenatal classes to educate mothers about the best way to care for their unborn children, namely to look after their own health and wellbeing. The programme then provides support for children from infancy to high school with a crèche and grade R classes, food, after-school care at centres such as Southern Cross to Friday evening youth groups.

The first Pop centre began on the Goedgedacht farm, 10km from Riebeek Kasteel, in the heart of the Swartland. Now, there are three fully fledged centres, with others being developed in Prince Albert, Paarl and Porterville.

Its expansion plans also include the development of a rural leadership college, being built on the farm, aimed at training post-matrics and young adults. Lestrade hopes it will become "a little factory" producing young people with the skills to take the Pop programme to other parts of the country. Building the capacity to keep the programme running, and growing, is part of a fierce determination by Goedgedacht to ensure it can eventually become entirely self-sustaining.

The Goedgedacht farm itself, which is how the trust got its name, also acts as a conference and event centre, providing a further income stream for the work it does.

The long haul
It is not an easy task, however, and it is a long-term effort. When Goedegedacht began its work more than 15 years ago, about 85% of the children exhibited some kind of developmental delay or deficiency and more than half of these were associated with alcohol abuse, said Anne Templeton, a Goedgedacht trustee.

Many parents themselves suffered some form of associated disorder, making parenting difficult. Mothers were often depressed, making it difficult to bond with newborn children, hence the drive to fight these problems from as early in a child's life as possible. The poverty that many people face is not just a material issue, said Lestrade.

"It goes much deeper, [it is] a lack of self-esteem, a lack of confidence, an [inability] to talk or to form words," she said.

Emblematic of the complexity of these problems was one particular discovery made through the programme: the shortage of the humble ­toothbrush. Many children shared a toothbrush across large families, or simply did not have one, said Lestrade. Tooth decay set in early and children were in continuous pain, making it difficult to eat and aggravating existing malnourishment.

The Pop programme focuses on four key areas to address the wide spectrum of socioeconomic problems. They are: education — getting children into schools and keeping them there; health and wellness; ­personal development; and caring for the planet.

Lestrade said that, despite the challenges, there was evidence that the programme was working: nearly all of the first 45 children who matriculated through the Pop programme have found work. "We have a 99% employment rate," she said.

The jobs they do range from farmworker to shop assistant, and one is working towards a teaching degree.

Goedgedacht has 1 250 children in the programme from 10 communities, including Prince Albert, Paarl, Riebeek West and the Cedarberg area.

Building trust
The programme would not be able to work without the trust of the farmers in the region, something that Goedgedacht has been steadily building over a number of years.

Importantly, this requires access to the farms. The trust supports 10 safe houses across 10 farms in the surrounding area, where children can escape if a parent becomes drunk or violent.

Each safe house is run by a volunteer, usually an established member of the community, and children receive food and attention and, where necessary, access to a community or social worker.

According to Lestrade, farmers have steadily grown supportive of the programme, sending their workers to health days run by Goedgedacht and offering food donations from surplus harvests.

There have been cases in which farmers, rather than simply evict workers, have turned to Goedgedacht for guidance on how to deal more constructively with them.

The work was by no means easy, Lestrade said, given the generational cycle of poverty that most of Pop children were born into. But with a determined push towards self-reliance, commitment to the long-term, and enough olives, things may just change.

Goedgedacht says 'no thanks' to exemption
The Goedgedacht trading company now has more than 12 500 olive trees growing on the farm, according to its manager, Robert Templeton. Most are there thanks to donations over the years and the crop is climate-appropriate for the water-stressed region, in accordance with Goedgedacht's environmental ethos.

The farm grows table olives and oil cultivars. Along with the small processing plant where table olives are processed and packed and oil is pressed, it employs 17 permanent staff, with another 20 seasonal workers for four months of the year. A large amount of money has been reinvested in the business, but according to its 2012 annual review, the olive operation achieved a turnover of R1.2-million.

The farm also produces a range of infused vinegars and recently introduced a black-fig jam following the planting of black figs on the farm, along with green figs, ­lemons and pomegranates.

Goedgedacht faces the same cost pressures as the rest of the agricultural sector, including the recent mandatory increase in the minimum wage for workers.

It has always paid above the legislated rate of R69 a day, said Templeton. With the introduction of the minimum R105, it has become more difficult to incentivise workers and increase productivity. This is going to be one of the biggest harvest years for the farm, Templeton said, and is going to be "an expensive year for us".

Nevertheless, the farm is not interested in applying for exemption from the minimum wage, a route taken by many farmers in the Western Cape. The additional income will benefit workers and their families, said Templeton.

The business is also challenged with expansion. The rural development department has bought an adjacent farm, which will allow Goedgedacht to grow a further 30 hectares of olives as a strategic partner. But more investment in equipment at the olive processing plant is needed to raise production, enabling it to begin supplying other retailers.