South Africa: building the global ClemenGold brand

Most Read Today's Headline
South Africa: building the global ClemenGold brand

Growing up on a citrus farm has its ups and its downs as Abs van Rooyen knows too well, with his family having lost their holding in the Limpopo province during the 1984 drought. Now a successful citrus entrepreneur and co-founder of the mandarin brand ClemenGold, he speaks to about building a premium product, having a social conscience and South Africa's necessary strategies for a strong citrus future.

Van Rooyen was just 22 when the family farm near Tzaneen took a downturn, but he was already studying horticulture and had great opportunities ahead.

"It was not such a bad thing for me in the end. It forced me to work and experience life and not to have too much comfort or to have too much of a pampered life," says the 50-year-old.

He was fortunate enough to get a three-year study bursary from South Africa's leading citrus exporter Outspan to study horticulture at Pretoria University with a job lined up at the end.

In 1985, he started work as an extension officer advising farmers and packhouses on citrus, where one of his biggest challenges was learning a new language as all reports had to be written in English.

He struck-up a friendship with an English-speaking colleague Deon Hofmeyr who helped him learn fast.

"He spent quite a lot of time editing my reports and helping me to get it technically correct, and in the process we had long good chats and laughs and this was the initiation of a life-long frienship."

Hofmeyr and van Rooyen were based in the same place, Nelspruit, and they would meet regularly to discuss their findings and compare notes.

"I am Afrikaans and I could hardly write or talk in English. This forced me to develop a language of international commerce - without that I would have stayed a little farmer boy sitting in the bush."

His 2.5 years with Outspan gave him a valuable grounding in all aspects of the citrus industry and the supply chain.

"Basically, I saw the full technology of the crop from bud to the shelf; taking it through the growing process and environmental aspects and then to the packhouses and then into the market."

The kick-off

In 1989 he was invited to join a nursery partnership in Limpopo to propagate citrus cultivars and rootstocks. He eventually bought out his partner from the nursery who then in turn bought the old van Rooyen family farm with the proceeds. The Du Roi Nursery Group of companies expanded and now comprise a citrus nursery, a banana tissue culture laboratory as well as insectaries and research and development facilities.

When the opportunity came along in 1991 to gain the procurement rights to grow Moroccan Nadorcott mandarins, van Rooyen jumped at the chance.

"I could see that it was a beautiful fruit with a distinct flavor, and an amazing burnt orange color internally and externally. It was slightly flatter in shape compared with other clementines but with a high sugar to acid ratio.

"It's fantastic in flower and fruit arrangement and the tree is also very productive, which is something you seldom get."

He and two other citrus enterpreneurs formed a company CitroGold to negotiate and register the plant breeder rights. CitroGold now has 85 growers who produce Nadorcotts under the CitroGold non-propagation and supply licence throughout the Southern Hemisphere.

Locally, the Indigo Farming enteprise has eight farms covering over 700 hectares of farmland throughout South Africa of which 400 hectares is devoted to Nadorcotts.

The entity has production untis in the north close to Kruger National Park and in the platinum-rich areas of Burgersfort, in the Heidelberg area in the Western Cape and on the South Coast around St Sebastian Bay.

"Our farms are spread over five micro-climates to give this range of supply. We are the only business unit providing fruit from the beginning of June to the end of September."

Global expansion

The ClemenGold brand was created to ensure high quality Nadorcott can retain its premium value in the market and to build a product name known and trusted by consumers globally. ClemenGold is packed by producers from Argentina, Australia, Chile and Spain as well as South Africa.

Standards are high and to qualify the fruit must be in top condition with a minimum brix level of 11.5, which means rejection levels can be significant.

For example, 65% of the Nadorcott mandarins from South Africa make the cut, Chile and Peru range around the 50% mark, while just 20% of Argentine fruit makes the brand standard.

Fruit that doesn't make the grade can still be exported but not sold under the ClemenGold brand, which is marketed in Europe and the U.K. This year Hong Kong, Singapore and mainland China have been added to the list, while initial brand development is also underway in Canada.

The brand is currently launching a range of derivative products such as juice, sorbets, jams and chocolates, for sale in 20 selected Woolworths stores in South Africa.

Juice offshoot pips Valencias to the post

The freshly squeezed juice was launched three weeks ago in 300ml and 750ml bottles has exceeded market expectations.

"It's shocked us that it's overtaken Valencia orange juice in sales. It's better looking, it has a better flavor, it doesn't have strong settlement and has better suspension. Sales are three times greater than what we expected," says van Rooyen.

A sorbet is to be sold around September-October time followed by ClemenGold chocolate for Christmas with future possible products including a nougat and a cheese.

"This is a unique story of extending a fresh fruit brand across all categories with a store brand. We are focusing on developing the brand over the next seven years to the extent that supermarkets know we have reliability of meeting the protocols and a reliable and sustainable production base to guarantee supply."

He adds that Indigo Farming follows strict environmental practices exceeding the rules on minimum pesticide residue levels.

"Woolworths is a very demanding supermarket, it's South Africa's equivalent to Marks & Spencer in the U.K. Consumers are buying fruit ethically, if you put forward really good looking and tasty fruit people are prepared to pay for a premium mandarin."

Van Rooyen is an enthusiastic believer in empowerment and giving his 2,000 employees training and development opportunities.

"My business model is one of social capitalism. We have strong wellness programmes, mentoring and training schemes. We encourage people to keep their cultural heritage - it's important not to forget where you come from, and we have sports days. We have lots of fun."

He is not a lover of bureauracy which is why he encourages staff to have the freedom to make their own decisions and has adopted a decentralized management style.

"I like discipline and structure and most importantly I try to see that people find their true calling in life."

Life philosophy

His motto in life is to find out what you love doing and pursue it.

Despite his distaste for red tape he is positive about the South African government, which he says has supported development of his business through finance grants and institutional support.

He believes South Africa's ongoing projected citrus growth will struggle to be absorbed in world markets unless it can differentiate its fruit.

"It will only be sustainable if growers focus not just on volumes but on quality; if not this growth will not be absorbed in the market place."

Van Rooyen thinks growers will have to be selective in thinking about defined use for fruit that does not make the grade, arguing that "secondary usage development" will be important in the future.

But he is optimistic the industry can rise to the challenge of producing higher quality fruit, generating higher overall revenue for the sector.

"We are part of a dynamic industry which is very individualistic with strong-minded courageous people. It's not particularly easy to farm in African conditions because of climate changes and potential hazards such as malaria and snakes. But it's a privilege to be involved in this industry, it's like a fantastic big family."

Subscribe to our newsletter