Carst and Walker
Fair Packers tea

Fair Packers does it organically

Is Fair Packers Cape Town’s most unique outsource food packing company? Brenda Neall went to find the answers behind this co-packer and exporter of rooibos tea products from its co-founder and MD, Charles Starling.

Fair Packers can put a lot of ticks alongside its name. Operating out of a new factory in Muizenberg’s Capricorn Park, this outsource packer and exporter of rooibos tea products to more than 10 countries boasts the following credentials: a rare business development model combining private enterprise with small BEE farmers; it is organic and Fair Trade certified; embodies powerful social marketing stories; and, above all, manufactures very high quality tea.

This specialised operation is a three-way partnership between marketing man and now MD, Charles Starling, and the Heiveld Co-operative and the Wupperthal Rooibos Tea Association, organisations made up of small organic producers of rooibos. Together, the trio has developed a business that allows the producer groups to take ownership of the value-adding chain which they had never done previously.

While Charles demurs to emphasise the partnership that is Fair Packers, there’s no doubt that his vision was behind its genesis. One of those gentle, soulful businessmen who seem to flourish in the shadow of Table Mountain, Charles has followed a long and often bumpy road to where he finds himself today.

Charles Starling and Janine Roberts (factory manager) outside their oganic-certified factory in Capricorn Park, Muizenberg.

‘With a career background in advertising, packaging and marketing, my entrepreneurial life started as a one-man export-marketer of rooibos tea, finding customers and project managing their production with co-packers, but that became unwieldy as a solo operator and so I took the plunge to set up the company and a small packing operation in Observatory, Cape Town,’ he notes. ‘But the idea was to do it differently, using a model based on Fair Trade principals. This ethos is a perfect fit with rooibos’s intrinsic characteristics and benefits, and with growing international interest in and demand for both rooibos and Fair Trade products, we believed it was a winning formula.’

It was also important, he adds, that this progressive model be replicable and serve as an example to others and stimulate the creation of similar enterprises.

A shareholder’s agreement was signed in December 2005, and Fair Packers officially opened its doors on the June 1, 2006.

The challenge of translating a unique idea on paper into something workable and profitable has been challenging and full of tribulations, politicking and unhelpful bankers, but with persistence and perseverance, the business has found its feet and in August 2008, relocated to the new and much improved factory in Capricorn Park.

‘Rooibos farmers say that it’s often the rooibos plant that has experienced the most hardship and overcome the toughest trials, that has the strongest and deepest roots, and that produces the best tea. I think we can lay claim to this, too,’ Charles laughs.

The opportunity in organics

Fair Packers currently packs and supplies organic, Fair Trade rooibos tea in all its most popular forms to a mostly international clientele. ‘On average, we’re exporting just under 100 000 retail packs of tea per month. While we’re definitely working on strengthening and expanding our overseas sales, we also intend establishing a local footprint and see plenty of scope to achieve this,’ comments Charles. ‘We have a very strong BEE scorecard, and with the high quality of our rooibos and the strong social marketing message of both our producer groups, I believe there’s excellent opportunity to contract pack for local brands and supply the SA market.’ He stresses that Fair Packers does not have any of its own brands, nor does it ever intend competing with its customers.

Future plans also include value-adding and marketing bulk rooibos to new markets. ‘We have excellent blending facilities, very good blending skills and unique formulations, so we’re in a perfect position to serve those customers who want bulk rooibos, as many restaurant chains or specialist tea suppliers do,’ says Charles.

He points out that Germany is currently the largest importer of rooibos tea, and this is not because they consume the most, but because they blend large quantities for re-export. ‘It’s not uncommon for specialist tea vendors in South Africa to import blended rooibos from German suppliers. It’s crazy! We can do it here,’ he adds.

Some of the blended options that Fair Packers offers are wonderfully creative: ‘Rooibos through the Day’ (a range of seven blends that take you from waking up until going to sleep); ‘Pregnancy & Infant’ (a range of seven teas for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and infants) and ‘African Agenda’ (a range of seven teas that contain only African botanicals).

With the tea-packing lines now well established, Charles also has his sights on growth  opportunities beyond tea. ‘This is an organic-certified, fully-functioning packing facility and must capitalise on this; we don’t want to be limited to rooibos,’ he says. ‘We intend redefining ourselves as a respected organic tea and food packing operation, for the likes of other teas, dried fruit, health foods, herbs and spices.’

An important aspect of the Fair Packers’ model has been to empower its producer communities via job creation. The factory currently has a staff complement of just under 20, as well as call-up list of trained contract workers, most of whom are either from the Wupperthal or Heiveld communities, or related to people who are.

‘While our tea lines are semi-automated, by default this type of production also requires lots of hand work. This means we don’t shy away from small orders; we’re flexible and fast, and will bend over backwards to meet customer lead times and demands,’ Charles emphasises.

A concluding thought . . . with so much scepticism surrounding BEE and its apparent enrichment of none too many, Fair Packers stands out as a model business, one that has overcome many hurdles to truly serve the ideals of sharing and ubuntu. It’s a gem, proudly representative of the new South Africa and this journalist, for one, hopes sincerely that it will get its due rewards.

Fair Packers T +27 021 7883423;

Fair Packers is Fair Trade certified by FLO, organic certified by ECOCERT and NATURLAND, is a trustee of the Board of Fair Trade South Africa (FTSA), and is scheduled to acquire ISO 22000 certification for its new factory by the second half of 2009.

First published in PACKAGiNG & Print Media, January 2009.

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