By Sy Makaringe

South Africans living, working or studying abroad – particularly in major European capitals – are often delightfully reminded of home thousands of kilometres away when they do their grocery shopping at their local supermarket.

This is because they are most likely to come across the unmistakable, red and yellow ZZ2 emblem emblazoned on the plastic packaging of some of the avocado pears on display in the supermarkets’ vegetable sections, giving them goosebumps and evoking sweet memories of their lives back home.

The farm ZZ2, in the Mooketsi area in Limpopo, is one of South Africa’s major exporters of avocados, often punching above its weight in some of the highly competitive and lucrative vegetable markets in countries such as the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Italy, to mention a few.

As a large-scale South African vegetable grower, ZZ2, an Afrikaner family business spanning more than a century,presently headed by CEO Tommie van Zyl, has for years been bringing delight to many a dinner tables as no decent meal is considered complete and succulent without a dash of tomato and/or a slice of avocado.

The long and treacherous journey the close-knit Van Zyl family have travelled in South Africa began around 1699 when they arrived from the Netherlands to settle in the Cape, where they started farming on a small farm in the Franschhoek area to make a living.

This was almost five decades after their prominent fellow Dutch citizen, navigator Jan van Riebeeck, had landed in the Cape ostensibly to establish a refreshment station for passing ships on their way to markets in the East, a development that, intentionally or unintentionally, marked the beginning of thecolonisation of South Africa with its resultant wide-scale land dispossession of the natives, including the Khoisans.

In reality the Van Zyls were just extras in this tragic movie, becoming victims rather than beneficiaries of the spoils of the fight for the soul of South Africa. After they moved to the north of the country many years later, the Van Zyls were among hundreds of Afrikaner families who bore the brunt of the British’s scorched earth policy when their fields were set alight in the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer War, now known as the South African War, in 1906.

Theirs is a story of resilience, endurance, tenacity and determination to succeed in the face of adversity. Like a Phoenix, they miraculously rose from the ashes of the scorched-earth policy to re-establish themselves as formidable farmersthat they were, firstly in the Munnik area and later in Mooketsi, both in Limpopo, taking full advantage of the reconstruction and development programme the British had initiated after the war.

As part of the programme, the farmers were issued with branding irons by the government to mark their cattle,primarily to mitigate against stock theft. Significantly, the farmers could also use their branded cattle as collateral to obtain bank loans.

In the sequence of numbers that were handed out to the farmers, one of the Van Zyl siblings, Willem, was issued with the number ZZ2.

“Until today we’re not exactly sure where the ZZ2 comes from,” says ZZ2 marketing director Clive Garrett. “It could have been derived from either the name Zuid Afrika or ZoutpansbergDistrict. It could even have come from the Van Zyl surnameitself. We just don’t know.”

What we do know, however, is that ZZ2 has now grown into one of South Africa’s easily recognisable global brands. It all started just after the Anglo Boer War in 1906 when Willem van Zyl, the current CEO’s great grandfather, dipped his ZZ2 branding iron he had been issued with in paint to mark the base of his potatoes before transporting them to markets in Pietersburg (now Polokwane), Pretoria and Johannesburg.

“The ZZ2-branded potatoes became very popular in those markets. People wanted to buy only ZZ2 potatoes. The brand grew from there. It literally grew from there,” says Garrett.

The brand became even more popular when the company diversified into tomato and avocado production.

Today Bertie van Zyl (Pty) Ltd, the company that wholly ownsZZ2, produces more than 180 000 tons of tomatoes annually, most of which are for domestic consumption. About 20% of the tomatoes leave South Africa for neighbouring countries such as Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Angola. Only a small percentage is exported to European markets, particularly when there is a huge shortage from other global producers.

“Our biggest exports are avocados. We export about 90% of the 24 000 tons of avocados we produce annually. These go to Europe – the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Italy and so on,” Garrett points out.

Here ZZ2 and other local avocado producers come up against large global exporters such as Peru, Colombia, Mexico and Chile.

“South Africa is unfortunately a very small global player in the export of avocados. We only have one export market, which is Europe. We don’t have access to other markets because the government has not assisted in opening up those markets. We’ve been pushing the government for many years to open up the markets for us. We, as the private sector, have done everything possible from a technical point of view to open up the markets,” Garrett says.

“Peru is our biggest competitor,” he continues. “The quality of the South African avocado is generally very good. People like our avocados because of their quality. And we have very good relationships with the Europeans because we have been dealing with them for over 100 years.”

He says although the African Continental Free Trade Agreement is welcome in many respects, ZZ2 has, in particular, found it is very difficult to enter the avocado market on the continent because of the oversaturation of the product.

“Kenya is a big producer of avocados. Tanzania is another. So it’s very difficult to penetrate that market. We need markets where there is zero production. We need to be going to Scandinavian countries. We need to be going to the US, India, Japan, China, Vietnam, South Korea, etc. So, it’s all very well to have the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, but it means very little when it comes to avocados,” he adds.

He says equally important is the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) Free Trade Agreement, but contends that all the parties in the region have to play their part to support it.

“This means that there should be free trade among the 15-member countries. However, one finds a situation where a country decides to protect its farmers by closing the borders. But our government does not enforce the agreement or decidesto do the same as the other countries.

“At the end of the day it all boils down to bilateral trade negotiations. This can only happen on a government-to-government level. Unfortunately our government has been very slow on the uptake. We have been asking the government to open up the markets because, if it opens up the markets, we can create jobs and grow the economy,” says Garrett.

Addressing the elephant in the room – the contentious land question confronting many South Africans – Garrett says unequivocally that the Van Zyl family neither took part in nor benefited from the dispossession of black people of their land.

He says it is for this reason that none of the multitudes of land claims instituted against the family in terms of the Land Restitution and Redistribution Act, passed after the 1994 democratic dispensation, in respect of the company’soccupation of the 1 900ha Mooketsi farm, have been successful.

“There was nothing here for the people [when the Van Zylsarrived]. There were no people in the Mooketsi area in those days because of the tsetse fly. There were no roads and there was no water. It was desolate. That’s why the Van Zyls had to start very small and build up from there. It’s not as if they came here and had a big farm. They started very small,” Garrett points out.

“But at the end of the day it’s not about the land anymore, it’s about intellectual property. ZZ2’s asset now is not the land; it is its intellectual property, its knowhow as well as itsinstitutional knowledge and the brand it has built up over the years.”

The company has also shaken off the reputation it gained at the height of apartheid as a worker-unfriendly employer to become an employer of choice in the agricultural sector in the region.

Unlike in the past, it has embraced sound employment equity principles that came with South Africa’s democracy. Although Bertie van Zyl (Pty) Ltd is essentially a family business, non-family members and people of colour are significantly represented at every level of management – from the executive committee level to the pack houses.

The company opens itself up for scrutiny to various reputable independent accreditation and certification agencies such as the Sustainability Initiative of South Africa, GlobalGap, Rainforest Alliance, Farming For The Future and the South African Labour Department to ensure it complies with acceptable ethical, environmental and labour standards.

On the business front, Bertie van Zyl (Pty) has established fruitful collaborative relationships with a number of local and international academic institutions, including the University of Pretoria, University of the Free State, University of Stellenbosch, Paris-headquartered International School of Management, New York-based Cornell University and the University of California Riverside to bring in critical extra knowledge aimed at essentially maximising the quality of its crops. 

This is over and above the new revolutionary farming methods that CEO Tommie van Zyl, who represents the family’s 12th generation, has infused into the business. These include the creation of service departments – all run by professional managers – so the producer is not saddled with non-core farming aspects such as bookkeeping, marketing, transport logistics, vehicle breakdowns, among others.

“In that way, the producer does not have to worry about all of these things. His sole focus is to make sure that he can produce the best crop possible,” adds Garrett.

All these contribute to making ZZ2 a global South African brand.