Story: Andrea Abbott
Any old iron?
“Do you have any scrap metal you would like carted away?” asked the man who rang our gate intercom at the end of August. We did. Elton rattled down the driveway in a defeated-looking bakkie that could have been destined for the scrap heap itself. “I’d saved enough to have it fixed,” he said as he loaded metal items that we were glad to get rid of. “But Covid came and I lost my job as a welder.” His meagre savings were soon spent on basic necessities like rent and food. “My landlord said I could defer rent payments for a while but what happens if I don’t get a job again? I’d end up owing a fortune.” And so he began going door-to-door offering his scrap removal service. “Some days, I earn very little. But half a loaf is better than none.”
Elton’s story is not unique. At this moment, there will be millions of desperate people in a similar situation, victims of a pandemic that caught the world by surprise. Oh, there had been warnings – earlier zoonotic diseases (i.e. diseases transmissible from animals to humans) such as SARS, MERS, and Ebola had raised red flags. But humanity stumbled on blindly, destroying ecosystems and interfering with wildlife until we fell over the cliff. The sudden tumble has seen practically every sector and every level of society having to contend with a new reality as we navigate the uncharted choppy waters of a global health emergency and ruined economies.
Elton’s experience and the way he’s adapted to his straitened circumstances made me wonder how some of the businesses and NGOs I’d written about in better times were managing to keep their heads above those turbulent waters. I contacted three and discovered that despite unprecedented challenges, each has an inspiring story of resilience and ingenuity.
Keep it sweet
Wedgewood Nougat was born in a kitchen 21 years ago when Gilly Walters tried her hand at a French nougat recipe. It was a flop. Overripe Brie cheese is how she described that first batch. From that sticky beginning, Wedgwood grew into an impressive, environmentally conscious family business producing nougat par excellence as well as other moreish treats. Exports were doing very nicely too, thank you very much
Then Covid-19 swept in.
“We did not see it coming,” Wedgewood’s CEO, Paul Walters tells me. “Looking back, the threat of a pandemic did not feature in our annual SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) or PESTLE (political, economic, safety, technology, environmental, legal) analysis. Covid just came out of nowhere and stamped all over our annual strat plan, company targets and personal targets.”
Being a food operator, Wedgewood was permitted to operate during hard lockdown but with local sales crashing to 25% of budget, and the company’s exports and its food service to the hotel, restaurant and catering market vanishing completely, it was a tough time. “I can only describe the first three months as ‘Covid Crisis Management’ which was about meeting regularly with key members of the team and making quick decisions.” The first priority was to avert what Paul describes as a tsunami of expired stock because retailers’ shelves and warehouses were full of Wedgewood products yet sales had dwindled to a trickle. The next goal was identifying new sales channels for existing products and developing new products to suit changed spending patterns and consumer needs. Meanwhile, there was the urgent task of ensuring compliance with Covid regulations such as splitting shifts and using Wedgewood’s own vehicles to reduce staff reliance on public transport. “While we love a challenge this was all just a little too much to handle without liquid support from our local TOPs”. (And even that was soon to dry up!)
“We had to adapt the ‘what and how’ immediately,” Paul adds. “And we are continuing to adapt, trying anything to pivot the business and respond to changing markets and customer needs.” The first thing to go was the company’s annual strat plan. “Next, we cancelled all budgets and changed job roles for the marketing team so that one of them is now our macadamia processing plant factory manager and another has gone from brand manager to new product development project manager. We’ve also started a joint venture with folk we met during lockdown, extracting macadamia oil from kernel in our macadamia plant.” Production methods have changed too, moving from an optimal stock holding model to just-in-time manufacturing while sales have had to focus on stock in trade rather than sales into trade.
Along the way, the company has encountered many challenges, both positive and negative. “The big positive challenges have been exciting and helped boost the team with enthusiasm, hope, and positive energy,” Paul says. These include the macadamia oil extraction joint venture, expansion of the company’s online component such that online sales have grown by 600%, and pivoting the KZN distribution arm to support Impala Ridge, a small family business and Covid startup home delivery service of fine food.
Toughest of all, Paul says, has been dealing with the financial strain of cash flow and bad debt, seeing long-term customers in the food service industry having the rug pulled from beneath them, and doing everything they could to look after the Wedgewood family that had grown to 100 dedicated people. “If it was not for this amazing team, the company would never have survived.”
Nevertheless, 15 team members had to be retrenched. “But I’m happy to say we have already started hiring a few of them back again.” More good news is that August has seen exports starting up again. “It has been a tough ride for all our export markets but it’s exciting to see them returning to some sort of normal again.”
I wonder to what extent this new business model will continue once the pandemic is over. “One thing that has stuck out for me is the strong movement to supporting local wherever possible. I love it!” says Paul. “We have managed to help some of our smaller suppliers through these tough times and many of our suppliers have come forward to help us with extended trading terms or discounted prices. I’ve heard that it takes 21 days to change a habit. I hope that Covid helps us keep some of the good ones we’ve made over these times!”
On lessons learned, Paul says, “We are still very much in the thick of the financial crisis the pandemic has created so it’s too early to say if we have learnt any business lessons. But from a personal point of view, I’ve learnt a lot. It is amazing to see how different people react when faced with an unknown threat. Some have buried themselves in sanitiser and some have turned to bootleggers. Personally, I have loved the opportunity to experience our amazing planet with the pause button pushed on the cogs of industry and the relentless machine of consumerism. Sundowners, family dinners, card games, and hugs have never been more vivid and more enjoyed. Oh, and of course there was the lesson of how to wash your hands!”
Eat your greens
Desiree and Michel Pitot are vegetable farmers in the Baynesfield area of the KZN Midlands. Over time, they’ve embraced more organic and sustainable methods of agriculture on their boutique, 28 hectare farm. The hard-working couple’s chief outlets for the past 25 years have been Saturday morning farmers’ markets in Shongweni near Durban and Pietermaritzburg. For years too, they supplied top Durban restaurants like Café 1999, Circus Circus, 9th Avenue Waterside, and the Chef’s Table. “I was running three vehicles to Durban six days a week,” Desiree tells me. “The farm was totally geared for this aspect. We grew herbs and a wide variety of niche veggies such as green cauliflowers and heirloom tomatoes as well as fancy lettuce for salad packs. Those packs amounted to a large part of our sales. We packed an average of two- to three thousand a week throughout the year.”
The third leg of their veggie enterprise was bulk production for the Durban and Pietermaritzburg fresh produce markets but theft resulted in this being a small part of their business. “Thieves would help themselves and there was nothing we could do. If we caught them and called the police, nothing would happen.”
A breakthrough came in May 2019 when local resident, Sanele Mkhize took it upon himself to turn the situation around. “Sanele told us he was tired of watching the farmers being ripped off by the whoonga guys when it was us who put food on the tables of many people in the community. He co-ordinated all the unemployed young men into a security company for the local farmers. Since then, we’ve experienced none to very little theft.” So, things were going along nicely for Desiree and Michel and the approximately 30 staff they employed.
Then came the pandemic.
“Lockdown came instantly for us,” Desiree says. Immediately, the farmers’ markets had to close, so too the restaurants. “It was a killer blow as our large customers could not pay us and we were owed a lot of money. We had thousands of seedlings in the nursery and veggies in the ground that weren’t suitable for the bulk markets which were the only outlets for fresh produce.” With lockdown initially intended to last just three weeks, Desiree and Michel hung in, believing they could survive until things opened up again. Of course, that wasn’t to happen.
“Once we realised this was going to be a long term thing, we knew we were going to run out of money soon.” They faced a bleak future. But a glimmer of hope presented when Marcelle Roberts of Cafe 1999 came up with the idea of selling boxes of vegetables. “She said she would help distribute them.” Within a week, orders were coming in. “We began distributing about 120 boxes each week to customers in Durban and Pietermaritzburg. No one was more surprised than me. It truly saved us. The boxes used the produce that was on the land and would otherwise have had to be ploughed in. They brought in income to pay the staff and help keep the ball rolling. This bought us some time.”
The initiative wasn’t a relief for only Desiree and Michel. Their new customers – I’m among them – were, and continue to be, grateful for the deliveries of fresh, sustainably-grown produce to designated pick-up points close to our homes. (For each collection point, Desiree set up a Whatsapp group to facilitate orders and also to give us ETAs on delivery days.) What excitement to open those filled-to-the-brim boxes to discover what they contain! Tenderstem broccoli, parsnips, carrots of many colours, golden baby beetroots, baby leeks and English spinach are just some of the treasures. Not forgetting kale. In my group of box recipients, we’ve swapped recipes for that strong-flavoured leafy vegetable. One of the favourites is Covid Kale Crisps. (Leaves torn into smaller pieces, drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, or other seasonings like chilli and baked until crisp.)
Having bought some time, where to now for Baynesfield? “We’ve had to make some hard choices,” says Desiree. “The boxes have brought in money but obviously not enough. Sadly, we’ve had to retrench about half of our staff and at times we’ve worked short time.” Nevertheless, the couple hopes to survive the pandemic and emerge stronger for it. Desiree remarks that they’re both in their sixties and the pandemic has made them reassess their priorities. “We’ve decided to simplify our lives. We will no longer be doing farmers markets or restaurants.” Instead, and thanks to Sanele’s security initiative, they will be focusing on growing for the bulk market. “We’ve borrowed funds and have been planting suitable vegetables like carrots, cabbages, and butternuts.”
What they’re not giving up though are the boxes that saved the day for them. “We will continue small plantings of niche veggies for the boxes and will keep doing them for as long as there is a demand.”
At just R200 for a big box of freshly-harvested, locally-grown vegetables delivered almost to a customer’s doorstep, the demand is certain to continue.
Wild Tomorrow Fund (WTF) is an NPO registered in both South Africa and the USA that’s dedicated to protecting threatened and endangered species and their habitats. Co-founded by New York couple John Stewart and Wendy Hapgood and ecologists, Clinton Wright and Axel Hunicutt, the charity started out by equipping under-resourced rangers and conservation managers in KZN Wildlife reserves. The scope broadened to include biodiversity protection and the reintroduction of historically occurring wildlife when WTF* bought two environmentally sensitive properties that abut the Munyawana Conservancy (in which Phinda is situated) and the northern border of False Bay (a section of iSimangaliso Wetland Park) in Zululand. The ultimate vision is to restore ancient wildlife corridors and expand wilderness through dropping fences.
For now though, Clinton and Axel live on the reserves – Ukuwela and Mfuleni – and oversee the ecological management and rewilding processes on those biodiverse rich properties. In New York, Wendy, as director of the Fund, and John, as Executive Director have given up their successful careers in finance and advertising respectively to devote all their time to the charity and win wide support for its goals and for wildlife conservation in general. And as John once told me, it’s thanks in large part to the generosity of people in the USA that those goals can be achieved. “Americans are extremely philanthropic. Our hope of attracting US donors has been exceeded ten-fold.”
But then came the Covid-19 curve ball.
“We were immediately faced with a very serious problem – cash flow and our operating funds,” says Wendy. “Throughout the year we rely on in-person fundraising events to raise the funds needed for our operations. From marathons and stand-up comedy nights to gala evenings, our events and related revenue revolve around large groups of people in crowded rooms. We knew we were in trouble. We had a very big revenue hole to fill.”
With New York City rapidly becoming the epi-centre of the pandemic in the USA and with so much need in their own city, John and Wendy knew it seemed the wrong time to be asking for donations for wildlife in southern Africa. “We quickly moved our appeal to the digital realm with an initial ‘Help Wildlife, Help People’ campaign, bringing both ideas together in a single campaign,” Wendy says. “A generous donor offered to match every dollar we raised in support of wildlife in South Africa, with a matched donation to the Robin Hood Foundation in New York City in support of the most needy here.” As a result, WTF was able to continue its usual levels of support and staffing in South Africa, even paying full salaries. Other help came from the US government. “We thankfully received emergency funding to help sustain US operating costs which made it easier to sustain the entire organization while this crisis continues.”
I wonder though if, despite the success of that initial digital campaign, donations over subsequent months have declined given that many people will have lost their livelihoods. Surprisingly, this hasn’t been the case. Wendy believes it’s because they haven’t given up and were quick to adapt. “I feel we’ve been working harder than ever to engage donors virtually, create innovative campaigns, and embrace the virtual world. For example, we did our first livestream virtual event in June which was so much fun and raised more funds than we had hoped! We had Dagmar Midcap from NBC San Diego as host, a NYC comedian did a live giraffe ‘gender reveal’, (of a newly born calf on one of WTF’s reserves) and transported our guests to take part in a virtual safari at our reserve.” People from all over the world sent photos of children in their pyjamas in front of their TVs at home watching the event while adults raised champagne glasses to toast the baby giraffe. “People also danced to the Ndlovu Youth Choir’s Toto Africa! It was a blast and we had feedback that our supporters would love to do the virtual event every year, even after the COVID virus subsides!”
*Writer’s note: When I first met the founders of WTF, I mentioned the unfortunate similarity of their acronym to another, expletive-laden, acronym. And they replied that they were aware of it, but given the global destruction of biodiversity it was entirely appropriate and they find themselves uttering the expletive on a regular basis!
The need to maintain good levels of funding aside, there were also big challenges for the reserves and the staff on the ground, especially during the hard lockdown. “We immediately created an emergency protocol for our staff and had all of our rangers stay on reserve during lockdown. Of course, they were given the choice to go home, but all chose to stay,” says Wendy. This proved invaluable because immediately after the hard lockdown began, there was a massive increase in snares on the reserves. “Our rangers performed extra day and night patrols to show our presence. It worked. Within a week or two we were back to regular levels.”
The welfare of communities neighbouring the reserves has always been a priority for WTF. Employment creation, building a school, and supporting an orphanage are some of the initiatives the charity has undertaken. During the pandemic, the Fund has ramped up its humanitarian aid. “For example, we’ve been mobilizing donor support for hunger relief. So far we have been able to do four deliveries of monthly food parcels supporting approximately 80 families each month,” Wendy says.
In all then, WTF has adapted smartly to the crisis. Wendy believes the new ways of communicating they’ve embraced during the pandemic will strengthen the organization. “It’s been an interesting journey trying to figure out how to transport the beauty of South Africa and its wildlife to living rooms and laptops around the world in order to bring support desperately needed on the ground, and to communicate that story. The crisis has brought us an expanded, engaged audience which before was more localized.” Another advantage of the digital realm is that rangers have for the first time ‘gone live’ to meet global audiences. For example, on World Ranger Day, July 31st, they were able to talk to audiences around the world about what their job as a ranger means, and why it is so important now in the time of Covid. “Their salaries are a financial lifeline for their entire families, especially now with many people losing their jobs,” says Wendy. “I’m so glad we didn’t have to make hard decisions like sending staff home or reducing their salaries.”
Of lessons learned during the pandemic, Wendy says, “Innovate, adapt, and don’t give up! Think about the need in your community and respond directly to that need, from the heart.”
But there’s a bigger picture too. “This pandemic arose from our mistreatment of wildlife and nature. I hope that the world focuses more, and brings much more funding to the protection of nature.”
These four stories are testament to how humans can adapt rapidly to crises and embrace new methods and new technology to protect our livelihoods. But we need to do more than that if we are to avert future, perhaps even more catastrophic pandemics. According to the World Health Organisation, zoonoses comprise a large percentage of existing and newly emerging infectious diseases. So, as Wendy implies, we meddle with nature at our peril. It is time we took heed of the warnings the natural world is giving us. Time to reassess our relationship with Nature and to fully grasp that without intact ecosystems, there can be no us.
Time to tread more lightly on this Earth.