A silver lining in the lockdown cloud

Sameena Kariel delivering veggie boxes.

Sameena Kariel and her husband, Abdurahman, faced a calamity when they lost most of the regular market for the fresh produce they grow on their family farm, Valota, in Philippi, because of the national lockdown announcded by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday March 23.

“The week before the national lockdown came into effect, our two biggest customers, who supply institutions like hotels, restaurants and universities, called to cancel most of their orders,” says Sameena, “because 80% of their customers were closing for the lockdown period.”

All was not lost, because another customer located on the farm, which manufactures raw food for dogs, would continue to take its regular order, but Sameena had to face the harsh reality that most of her crop would go to waste if she could not find an alternative market.

Valota Farming had a bumper crop in the ground which includes leeks, spring onions, butter lettuce, iceberg lettuce, rape, mustard, cauliflower, broccoli, coriander, basil, celery, parsely, Swiss chard, baby spinach and rocket, but with most orders having been cancelled, Sameena was desperate.

“By the time Alexandra arrived for her weekly visit on Monday (March 30), we were terrified, not knowing how to proceed,” says Sameena.

Enter Stellenbosch-based Alexandra McFarlane, technical sales rep for Real IPM SA, which provides integrated pest management programs, and crop protection solutions to reduce chemical inputs and to increase yield and quality, in the agricultural sector.

Appalled by the prospect of Sameena not being able to get the bulk of her crops to market, she resolved to do something to help.

“Standing alongside this field of magnificent butter lettuce, I came up with idea of putting out a call on social media, appealing to people to help Sameena by buying her produce,” says Alexandra.

Snapping a quick photograph of the butter lettuce, she put up a post on Facebook.

“Please help! I have been helping a client in Philippi who has rows and rows of the most beautiful lettuce that was grown for hotels and restaurants who have cancelled orders.

“This lettuce has been grown without chemicals using Real IPM Biologicals and soft organic sprays from Biogrow.

“Please share, or if you have contacts making up veggies boxes for order that can take some of this produce, it will help this small farmer who employs six people.

“This client also has lovely herbs and other veggies. Please help if you can!”

Alexandra posted her mobile number, and within a few hours the post had gone viral.

“My phone started ringing soon after I put up the post, people calling to express interest and asking for more details,” says Alexandra.

By last Sunday night, the post had over 640 comments, either asking for more details or making suggestions about who to contact that might be interested, and the post had been shared over 6 100 times.

Alexandra eventually provided Sameena’s contact details, so that the inquiries would go directly to her.

“The post was so well received by the community,” Sameena says.

“I’ve had people from a number of companies, and even housewives who took it upon themselves to take orders from me to put together veggie boxes just so that I could get my produce going. My phone has been ringing off the hook and my emails are piling up.”

With demand suddenly growing, managing veggie box orders via WhatsApp became too onerous, so Abdurahman designed a website, which went live on Friday April 10.

And the veggie boxes have taken off, with a community angle.

“We’re trying to move some of our produce through the veggie boxes since everyone is stuck at home and not able to go to stores, are not willing to stand in long queues, so we’re packing veggie boxes with our produce and also produce from other farmers in the Philippi area, and then delivering them,” says Sameena.

Perhaps most important, the demand for Sameena’s produce means the farm remains a going concern and her staff remain employed.

Sameena can be contacted on 072 504 8519, sameena@valota.co.za or visit valota.co.za to place an order.