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Fruits David Farrell of South African fruit exporter Colors Fruit talks to Jane Bordenave about the importance of sustainable development to the company, its customers and the local community.

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ounded in 1997, Paarl-based Colors Fruit is the second largest fruit export firm in South Africa. The company brings 150,000 tonnes of fruit to the international market annually – 8% of the country’s total fruit export – creating an annual turnover of €150m (R1.5bn). The largest proportion of its produce is sold to the UK (26%) and continental Europe (33%), with the remaining 41% being spread out over the Republic of Ireland, North America, Middle East and Africa. Colors Fruit is very strongly vertically integrated, owning four farms across South Africa, which provide it with 15% of its supply of fruit. It also packs 50% of its produce for export in its own pack houses, as well as engaging in freight forwarding and logistics, “this structure is very important for our business,” says David Farrell, Group Director for Sustainable Development, “It means that we are in touch with our product at every stage, from production to delivery.” The company also has three foreign offices,


Colors Fruit FEATURE

in the UK, EU and Canada. The location of these offices is based on clients with whom the firm has a particular arrangement, “normally, while we market to and negotiate with the retailer, the actual transaction will be carried out through a third party importer,” explains Mr Farrell, “but in these countries and community there are certain retailers that we import for directly. In this situation, it is best for us and for the client to have a physical presence in their country. This way we can carry out quality controls ourselves when the goods arrive in the country, as well as being able to resolve any issues face-to-face.” Providing high quality produce is of great importance to Colors Fruit, “we sell to top-end retailers throughout the world and, of all the countries we sell into, the clients in the UK are the ones with the

most exacting standards,” says Mr Farrell. These standards are not just related to the quality of the end produce, but also to health and safety, ecological responsibility and sustainability, “UK clients will come out to South Africa in order to tour our facilities and see for themselves that we are working in a way that reflects their values.” Retailers can then use this information not just to reassure themselves, but also to inform their customers. An example of the way the firm’s clients are using this is a video on the Marks & Spenser’s Plan A website, featuring Mr Farrell himself. Unlike some other businesses, Mr Farrell’s role and department were not created in response to legislation or as a marketing tool. Having sold his own domestic fruit trading company to Colors in 2001, three years later he took up the

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Colors Fruit FEATURE

position as the Group Strategy Manager. In this role, he led a team that examined how the company could secure its commercial future, “the thing that really ignited the development of my current department was when we decided to measure the carbon emissions of our entire supply chain, an analysis that I headed up. Elsewhere in the strategy department, there was an investigation into ethical trading taking place, and our customers were putting on increased pressure regarding the impact of food miles,” he says, “we looked at this situation and decided that, rather than having these projects and future ones dispersed over many departments, it made sense to put everything together in one portfolio.” Mr Farrell describes the development of the Sustainable Development department as a natural evolution from the strategy wing. Within this department there are two different divisions, one taking responsibility for the environment and the Colors Academy, a corporate social responsibility initiative focussed on the social development, health, education and training of the communities that live on Colors Fruit’s farms, and those working in their other facilities. As a not for profit initiative, it also looks to attract donor funding into a broad-based sustainability projects that can be implemented across the supply chain, “the theme of these projects can include environmental stewardship training, social responsibility, and similar initiatives. This training can help stimulate our suppliers to make the change from themselves, rather than having to be pushed,” says Mr Farrell, “we recognise that ethical business is a journey, rather than a destination, and we don’t want to overburden these fruit growers and packers straight away – it takes time.” The Academy can also be used by retailers as an example of how their suppliers, i.e. Colors Fruit, are working in an ethical way and to reassure their own customers of that fact. 4

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An example of the work being done by the Academy is a flagship early years development programme, being piloted at a crèche on one of the company’s own farms, “in South Africa we have real problems with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome and childhood deprivation, especially in rural areas,” explains Mr Farrell, “so this project is designed to stimulate the child’s brain and development when they are still very young. It is sadly far more difficult to try and help these children once they are older and by the time they are teenagers, it is nearly impossible. We want to make sure that these children are able to reach their full potential by getting the ball rolling early on through this project.” From the environmental aspect, the company is involved in a biochar initiative, which takes waste from pruning, turns it into charcoal and uses it to enrich the soil, “this is an area with great potential; it enables us to lock carbon into the soil, making the carbon from biomass accessible to the trees and plants on the farm. It is a great improvement on the traditional


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method of simply placing the material on the ground as a mulch,” explains Mr Farrell, “At the end of the day, protecting and improving the soil on our farms is foundational to our business, and that is what we are doing here.” The future of the company is broadly based on the idea of sustainable development and sustainable business. As well as looking to increase the number of farms it owns and expand the number of offices it has abroad, Colors Fruit plans to become more visible to the end consumer as a brand, “we want to put a product on the shelf that represents leadership in all aspects of sustainability and show consumers what we are about.” While developing sustainable business is a continuous process, this company has established itself as a leader in the field. As such, its philosophy can only help to open doors to clients and to secure its future business strategy. This is sustainable food production – this is Colors Fruit. END

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