By Elise-Marie Steenkamp
Steven Versfeld, a pome producer from Achtertuin Farm, outside Ceres, became the first South African producer ever to receive platinum status without any non-compliances from the Sustainability Initiative of South Africa (SIZA). His third-party ethical audit was done on the latest version of the SIZA Social Standard, version 6.
According to Retha Louw, SIZA Chief Executive Officer, it is no minor achievement to get “no findings” during a SIZA audit. “It takes hard work, dedication, and the intention to implement a certain lifestyle culture on your farm,” she says.
Louw notes that the programme’s foundation is built on continuous improvement which allows for members to strive for best practices and achieve more than mere minimum compliance. “Versfeld has shown that businesses can meet requirements and even exceed beyond the scope. As the standards and world around us evolve, new requirements will persist, meaning businesses will have to remain consistent in their approach to implement best practice every day.
“Apart from the fact that the audit requirements are very broad in terms of ethically responsible management systems, labour legislation, and certain SIZA code requirements, SIZA auditors are evaluated on a regular basis on their knowledge and audit ability,” she says.
“This ensures that auditors regularly sharpen their auditing and evaluating practices. Standards and legislation can also change frequently, which means practices need to adapt within the business.”
Werner van Dyk, SIZA’s audit manager says, there is not necessarily a fixed list of questions that a person can use in preparation for an audit. “Interviews are conducted with both management and several employees across all levels of employment, where after ethical practices are evaluated. Thus, although there is preparation material available, the evaluation of humans is not always as clinical or scientific,” says Van Dyk. “It makes general day-to-day business practices a farm lifestyle and part of the company culture, rather than a quick questionnaire completed before an audit.”
Versfeld says: “No producer likes audits and I only do them because I have to. They are expensive, require a lot of paperwork and are incredibly time-consuming. Time that could be better spent on farming, improving quality in the orchard, packhouse and the product in general.”
“The reality, though, is that most markets require certain certifications and no South African producer who wants to export or even supply the local supermarkets can do so without certain standards in place, which all require auditing, so if I don’t do the audits I may as well stop farming. I also understand that our country has a unique history of human rights abuse under apartheid and this means that ethical labour practices are a particular focus point for discerning markets, which has to be addressed through SIZA.”
When it comes to audits he sees no point in being antagonistic towards the auditor. “They are simply there to check your practices against the standard. To prepare for an audit I read through previous audit findings, and make sure that I have addressed all the recommendations, furthermore, I attempt to make sure that I have all the information available that they might want.”
According to Versfeld some of the structural changes he made over the years were adding signs and railings. “Some of the things make sense, and others don’t.” His advice: “Just do them and move on.”
“With SIZA one can reduce the frequency of audits by getting a platinum grading, which is the only reason why I set out to achieve a top grading,” says Versfeld.
Louw confirms that producers who fare well in the auditing process can save time and money. “It definitely helps with the audit costs and the time it takes to audit. Producers who do well during audits receive a ‘platinum risk rating’ – meaning they only have to do an audit again in three years’ time. Of course, there is also a motivation to enter new markets. Producers may based on their performance over a period of time, approach more exclusive markets that use only these ‘platinum’ producers as part of their supply chain. This will certainly contribute to the credibility of the practices on the specific producer’s farm.”
Louw concludes that the SIZA programme and audit process don’t want to ‘break down’ producers or look for errors, but rather to point out areas that need improvement and motivate them to do better. “The process has already brought about great improvement within the industry, and the hope is that South African agriculture will improve further and aim for best practices, year-after-year, in both ethical management practices and environmental sustainability.”
The SIZA audit is an independent process done by third-party auditors to improve credibility and ethics. Carol Munro, the auditor (on behalf of Control Union) who gave Versfeld his platinum status, said that she was impressed with his commitment, growth and the effort he put into making the necessary changes.
Hortgro Executive Director, Anton Rabe, congratulated Versfeld on his “fantastic achievement”. “We are very proud of Steven and hope that he will inspire and motivate other producers to achieve similar results.”
Picture: Platinum status for Steven Versfeld’s business. (Picture: Carol Munro).