Thandi - a winery with vision (Sept 2010)

Vernon Henn, general manager of South Africa’s first black-owned wine label, talks to Societynews about the importance of Fairtrade accreditation and the unique nature of the Thandi set-up.

When Thandi received Fairtrade accreditation in 2003, it was the first wine brand in the world to do so. The Fairtrade logo is well recognised by UK consumers and ours is an important market for Fairtrade products, but wine has been slower to take off here than other agricultural products like coffee and fruit. The logo ensures that a product meets Fairtrade standards. The core standards are basically the same for all producers across the globe but South Africa has a special set of requirements linked to the broad-based black economic principles set by the government. These standards are audited on an annual basis. A premium from all Fairtrade sales goes back into supporting the social upliftment of these developing producers and their employees.

Vernon Henn, general manager of Thandi

General manager of Thandi, Vernon Henn acknowledges: ‘Fairtrade is an opportunity for us, but it is quite expensive to have accreditation. The standards that have to be met are very strict and are carefully monitored. We have to show that we have set up joint governing bodies with representatives from across our communities to demonstrate that all decisions are made democratically.’

The Thandi set-up is unusual both in Fairtrade terms and within the South African wine industry. Few Fairtrade wines are actually owned by the black workers; mostly they receive the Fairtrade premium from sales of fruit, but no profit from the sales of the finished wine. Thandi workers receive both the Fairtrade premium and a percentage of the profits from sales of the finished wine. They also have majority ownership of the land on which the grapes are grown, so are able to make business decisions to change the use of the land should the need arise.

The Thandi story started back in 1995 following the election of Nelson Mandela and the demand for social change in South Africa. Though black people have farmed the land for generations, ownership stands at less than 2%. It was clear that something needed to be done to empower black people. The new government allocated each family a certain amount of money, but agricultural land is expensive and out of the reach of most. So several farming communities decided to pool resources to establish their own business. ‘We were lucky,’ says Vernon, ‘we had leaders within our communities who had both vision and the ability to communicate the importance of restraint. Many black people were unused to having money and spent their government grants straight away.’ One such leader was the local Anglican preacher whose daughter’s name (Thandi, which means ‘nurturing love’ in the Xhosa language) was adopted by the project.

It is extremely rare for black South Africans to have access to land suitable for grape cultivation, but with land made available by another visionary, Dr Paul Cluver, and with the proactive stance of the Forestry Company, who also gave up some land, the black farm workers of the local Lebanon and Nietbegin communities were given a stake in their own business and future.

Sewis van der Horst, farm manager and Vernon Henn

At first the land was planted with apples, pears and plums but it soon became apparent that this was prime grape-growing territory and the first vines were planted in 1999. Paul Cluver and The Company of Wine People (one of South Africa’s leading exporters) who are also shareholders, played a vital role in mentoring and sharing their expertise. ‘Rather than borrowing money we used a contract winery and relied on the CWP for marketing and distribution of our wines.’ Vernon explains.

At Thandi much of the profit is ploughed back into education: ‘There is still a need for massive cultural change. Many black people don’t want to make decisions or want responsibility; they don’t feel that they have the experience. We are trying to educate our children in farm management and winemaking.’ Education has to be the key to a better future. Vernon told us how thrilled the community is that one of its children has gone on to study medicine. It is hoped in the future they will be able to help run a medical centre on the farm.

Sewis van der Horst, farm manager and Vernon Henn

Vernon came from a poor farming community himself. His family couldn’t afford for him to go to university and he recalls one Christmas day when all he and his five siblings had to eat was a loaf of stale bread. But through determination, hard work and a few lucky breaks, Vernon finds himself in a position unimaginable to his parents. He had worked his way up from office cleaner to a role in HR in the Company of Wine People. Having discovered a passion for wine, he was working by day and going to wine school in the evenings. In 2007 Vernon was typing up the job advert for the role of general manager of the Thandi project and thought it sounded interesting. The CEO of the Company of Wine People encouraged him to apply. The rest, as they say…

Last October the 250 farm worker families took over full control of the business, including wine production and export and became independent. They currently own a 55% share in Thandi but it is hoped that this will grow with each year of continuing profits. ‘Profit is what makes the difference,’ says Vernon, ‘the product has to be good and the brand Thandi has to stand alone.’

How the farm workers of Thandi have benefited from Fairtrade:

  • Crèche set up at Lebanon fruit farm and Nietbegin for 40 children
  • Payment for schooling and provision of uniforms and stationary
  • Bursary fund to encourage studying viticulture
  • Support for gifted child to study medicine
  • Basic literacy skills offered to all
  • Educational tours – many would never leave the farm in their lifetime without this initiative
  • Decision-making and management skills training

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