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Zyta Soomar managing member of Longmore Flower Estates, Thornhill, South Africa

Zyta Soomar is a managing member of Longmore Flower Estates, Thornhill, South Africa

Zyta Soomar is a managing member of Longmore Flower Estates, Thornhill, South Africa. The company specialises in growing and exporting bouquets of cut wild and cultivated fynbos - South African native flora.

Sowing the seeds of change

I am one of four former employees of a failed state-run flower farm within the Longmore Forest near Thornhill, on the Eastern Cape, who decided to pool our redundancy money, buy up the business, and run it ourselves. I had worked for the government as a horticultural advisor for many years but there came a time when I wanted to be in business rather than advising others on it.

The South African government's drive to privatise publicly owned commercial forestry operations gave me the chance and in 2001 we learned that the forestry and flower farm where we worked was up for sale. The forestry plantations sold quite quickly but no-one put in a tender for the old flower company. Of the 20 ex-employees, four of us came up with a tender and a recovery plan, which was accepted in late 2004.

One day we were all made redundant. The next day the four of us took over as Longmore Flower Estates. Of course, it was a big risk: not only did we put our severance money into the 40 hectare farm, we also had to cut our expenses and ask our families to make sacrifices. We risked everything on our new enterprise.

A clear vision

I was not naïve enough to think I knew how to run a successful business from the start. I needed training and so I took a masters degree in business administration. My husband was really supportive, bringing our newborn son to me so I could feed him between lectures.

I knew I had to have a clear vision for the business. We had to re-align it and grow what the market demanded. So we focused on rare and new varieties that flower at the right time, like the king proteas, (Protea cyneroides Madiba). We also cut out the middlemen to get the best price for our flowers.

Within six months the business was breaking even and we have managed to re-employ the other 16 workers from the old company. Rural unemployment here is very serious and providing jobs for our people is our main priority. There are families in this area where neither the parents nor the children have hope of work. Poverty is not just about money; it destroys the spirit. I don't think we should ever forget what it feels like not to be able to put bread on the table for our loved ones.

Petal power

Staff at Longmore Flower Estates, creating bouquets for the export market (WRENmedia)
Staff at Longmore Flower Estates, creating bouquets for the export market
WRENmedia

I'm often asked whether this is the kind of farming business that can be encouraged and replicated, be it in flowers or anything else, and whether our work offers hope for impoverished communities. The rural poor of South Africa desperately need an economic revival.

We are training members of the community so that one day they are able to manage their own flower farms. To me that is black empowerment. We educate our women and our youth, enabling them to grow flowers and develop life-skills so that they can take over and manage the satellite flower farms we are developing. We've trained the staff there and they will move their flowers through Longmore, where we can add value by putting them in bouquets and sending them to market.

We're getting noticed. We won a government award for job creation and I have been asked to represent South Africa at meetings in China and Europe. Visiting other places and hearing people talk about farming and development has given me a whole new perspective.

Success is not just about practices - farming sustainably - it is about people too. We want those who work with us to feel involved and committed. We must explain what we need to do, as well as why we need to do it.

A business in bloom

We have to be innovative by developing new flowers for new markets at home and abroad. We've just germinated many thousands of Strelitzia reginae, or "Mandela's Gold", a variety of the bird of paradise flower, which can be difficult to grow from seed. We offer them for sale to the local authorities, for planting along the roads and in public places. We are hoping that by the time the 2010 World Cup football tournament is held in South Africa there will be golden stripes for all to see. To get another income, we are also promoting ecotourism by offering guided walks through our wild flower trails, and in the future we hope to offer tourists accommodation at Longmore.

The business is now three years old. It's going well but I have to admit that the responsibility is an emotional drain. You have to be determined in order to make a difference in business and policymaking and you should be able to talk to people, explaining again and again what you believe. You also have to be able to listen and understand other people's points of view. Only by understanding where they are coming from can you try to influence where they are going to!

"Black" is normally seen as underdeveloped and unskilled. We are changing that. We are helping to change the whole image of black empowerment. That is our aim.

Date published: September 2007

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