Dutch Ingenuity In South Africa
October 27, 2008
After visiting two greenhouses that produce finished plants from cuttings earlier in the week, we visited Fides' 15-acre cuttings farm in South Africa called Safropa - blending South Africa with Europe. The facility was originally built to supply chrysanthemums but that production has moved to Uganda. Today, the facility is completely focused on kalanchoe cuttings. Frank Enthoven moved to South Africa from California to manage the operations.
Safropa produces 1.8 million cuttings per week. While 65 percent of the production is the double-flowered Calandiva varieties, the remaining 35 percent are single-flowered kalanchoe. In just four years, the double-flowered varieties have dominated the European market.
Adjacent to the property is a strawberry farm, also owned by a Dutch entrepreneur. Dutch ingenuity has come into play at Safropa, building canals to catch rainwater and securing a stable year-round supply of water, which isn't found on most farms on South Africa. The primary heating source is coal and Safropa uses between 15 and 20 tons of coal per night. While coal is abundant and cheap compared to other fuels, the price has doubled from 400 rands per ton a year ago to 800 rands per ton. For electricity, the facility has two generators to compensate for blackouts.
Safropa employs 350 workers. While 20 take cuttings at any given time, the rest are involved in crop maintenance and shipping. While some come to the greenhouses by foot, others come by bus and Fides pays for the ticket. Workers get paid by the unit. While you wouldn't think there would be a lot of worker protections in a Third World country, because of the legacy of Apartheid, there are a lot of social reforms and laws employers must follow under the Employment Equity Act and Basic Conditions of Employment Act.
One thing we noticed across the kalanchoe varieties was differences in leaf shapes and size. Large leaves are taken off to enhance cuttings production. Supplemental lighting is used to keep plants in a vegetative state. Safropa has been testing energy saving bulbs from Philips. Lights are on 10 minutes and off 20 minutes.
The rooting medium consists of coco fiber, bark and Styrofoam. It is steam sterilized and reused for three crops. "We had to learn a lot with coco, making sure it wasn't too wet or drying out" Enthoven says. "We were almost not sleeping at night testing the cocos."
Stock plants are changed out every 40 weeks, which keeps production fresh. "When I came here, the place was full of kalanchoe trees!" Enthoven says. "This system works. The main thing is the plant needs to be ready for the next order in three weeks."
This was a great opportunity for the kalanchoe growers to ask Enthoven questions about their own production concerns. He says he fields between 30 and 40 emails a day on these matters.
When we went into the shipping coolers, the growers had fun finding the boxes of cuttings addressed to their operations in Canada. A few even put surprise notes in the boxes for their employees to find. Cuttings were shipped to arrive on Monday for sticking Tuesday. They are packed in Styrofoam-lined boxes for temperature control. Transportation takes longer to the United States and Canada. If temperatures are consistently high or low, that's okay, but when temperatures fluctuate, the plants sweat.
Another logistical difference between North America in Europe is what happens when substitutions need to be made. In North America, where there is usually a broker in between, the substitution needs to be cleared through the broker before it can happen. In some cases, brokers will allow growers and Fides to resolve these issues directly. For blooming potted plant specialists with 52-week programs, timing is critical to receive the same colors on the same date. They need all the colors in the box of cuttings.