Picture: THE HERALD
Picture: THE HERALD

The Bjatladi community in Limpopo is set to reap the benefits of its ownership of Zebediela Citrus Farm, which is under new management and has had an injection of capital.

The farm, outside Polokwane, reverted to community ownership following a successful land restitution claim.

Zebediela, once hailed as a leading citrus farm in the southern hemisphere, had been unable to meet its orders, breaching supplier contacts and failing to pay staff.

However, the beneficiaries, through Bjatladi Community Property Association, reportedly approached Tumi Mokwena, a former lawyer to EEF leader Julius Malema, to intervene and assist in finding an investor to keep the farm going.

Since then management of the farm has been taken over by Eight Mile Investments, a company associated with Cape-based fruit exporter Fruitco, which is gearing up to resume full operations.

"Things are going well at Zeb [Zebediela]. We are currently preparing an international order from the farm, which needs to be dispatched," said Fruitco MD Paul Huish.

It was around the beginning of 2016 when the previous strategic partner was ousted, but the [community property association] didn’t have the expertise nor capital to run the farm
Tumi Mokwena

Fruitco exports fruit and vegetables to the likes of Ukraine, Dubai and Russia.

Mokwena, who is now a legal adviser to the beneficiaries, said progress on the farm was visible, with new tractors having been purchased, new water sources established and preparations for a modernised packhouse under way.

Mokwena said problems at the farm could be traced back to when the farm was handed over to the community.

"It was around the beginning of 2016 when the previous strategic partner was ousted, but the [community property association] didn’t have the expertise nor capital to run the farm," said Mokwena.

He said the farm was in a "really bad state", with some trees more than 30 years old.

"Citrus fruit experts will tell you that the average lifespan of a tree is 25 years, and once older it starts becoming a cost to you."

As the season progressed, the fruit did not turn out as anticipated and conflict erupted between the community and its then customer, Fruitco.

"At that time, I was no longer involved in the farm and was approached again as they could not even pay salaries and had an issue with Fruitco, to which they owed about R20m."

Mokwena said he approached Fruitco on behalf of the community beneficiaries in December 2016.

"It was [through] Fruitco, through its associate Eight Mile Investments, that we were able to seal an agreement with its key personnel, CEO Evgueny Zakharov and MD Paul Huish," said Mokwena.

pitsor@businesslive.co.za

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