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Finalists - Elmarie van Aswegen, Smithfield
Pure determination got Elmarie van Aswegen, a milk sheep farmer from Smithfield, to where she is today. Everything went wrong for this former member of the Defence Force when she returned to the family farm in 1997
intent on making cheese: it was illegal to import the sheep species she needed, and there was no impact study available with which she could justify her import of these East Frisians. Even after writing the impact study herself, she was only allowed to import genetic material if it formed part of a research project at a university!
These setbacks were not enough to stop the germination of the seed that had been planted in her mind at a cheese- making workshop – to be the first sheep- milk cheese- maker in South Africa. She started a cross-breeding programme and but by the time the sheep were ready to be milked in 2001, Elmarie still lacked cheese-making equipment and money.
With a loan of R180 000 from Khula, she bought equipment and in a life-changing moment, milked her sheep for the first time – into margarine tubs! From this moment on, her enthusiasm to make organic cheese knew no bounds, an energy that came in handy when she started marketing. She set off to Johannesburg restaurants and started selling her delicious cheese directly, several setbacks notwithstanding.
Her hard work and enthusiasm quickly paid off, and accolades started rolling in: SA Champion for her JanGroentjie cheese, and Slow Food awards as well as the Free State Female Farmer of the Year award in 2005. A contract with Woolworths followed, as well as her founding of a South African association for milk sheep farmers with its own seal of approval – all this while she obtained a Master's degree in sustainable agriculture! Read more in Farmers Weekly
18 March 2007
Everyone said it couldn't be done but this entrepreneur was determined to invent a whole new market, writes Barrie Terblanche.
ELMARIE van Aswegen was the laughing stock of the farming community around Smithfield in the southern Free State when she let it be known that she planned to raise a flock of dairy sheep and start South Africa's first sheep's cheese factory.
This was, after all, a part of the country where traditional ideas were nurtured: a sheep is for wool and meat, a cow is for milk and meat, and a woman has no business taking over a sixth-generation family farm. Against immense odds, Elmarie single-handedly turned these ideas on their head, struggled to build up a flock and a factory entirely from scratch, and introduced a strange product to a sceptical South African market. Oh, and completed a masters degree in agriculture.
Today the 40-year-old entrepreneur's profitable factory produces cheese for Woolworths from a daily average of 80 litres of sheep's milk, and employs eight people. Her cheese has won awards and she was recently named Free State woman farmer of the year.
While cheesemakers who use cows' milk work in hundreds or thousands of litres a day to be profitable, Elmarie estimates that break-even for her niche product is about 20 litres a day. But it would be a mistake to think it was easy to reach that volume.
Although she was able to use the family farm, Patria, as a base, there was no support for her venture. Ten years ago, she used her severance package from the Western Cape provincial government, where she worked as a human resources official, to support herself while she was researching her idea, and by the time she was ready to import dairy sheep semen from New Zealand, she had had to sell her small Cape Town house to pay for it. It took Elmarie from 1997 to mid-2001 to start producing sheep milk.
Then she had to look for outside finance to build a cheese factory. The banks wouldn't touch her idea, until she insisted, cajoled and explained that there was no risk to them if they allowed the government's small business finance agency, Khula, to guarantee the loan. She got the loan of R180 000 "at an astronomical interest rate of 22%", which was promptly swallowed by the factory.
She then found herself in the worst possible business situation: all sources of finance depleted and no sales on the horizon. To make matters worse, she had no real experience in cheesemaking apart from a short course which she had attended some years before. Elmarie painstakingly had to teach herself to make Labneh, a Palestinian sheep's cheese chosen for the fact that it required no maturation. She could make it and sell it immediately. But to whom? She had been in touch with Woolworths before, who politely advised her to come back when she had made some cheese.
Elmarie's breakthrough came when she was invited by the University of the Free State to speak at a dairy conference in Bloemfontein. In the audience were two officials from Woolworths' dairy division. The next day they were on the farm, and a business relationship was born which Elmarie experienced as her most supportive and understanding.
This possibly indicates how low the support for Elmarie's project had been up till then. Small suppliers are usually scathingly critical of the big retail chains, whom they describe as exploitative, or at best, unsympathetic.
ONE of the major challenges for Elmarie van Aswegen's business is educating the market. Despite being on Woolworths' shelves, it took a long time for the product to start moving. "People were scarcely used to feta, let alone sheep's cheese," says Elmarie. At this stage she leaves the in-store promotion of her product to the experts in Woolworths, and concentrates on the annual cheese festival to spread her message to interested South Africans. "It is critical for me to be at the cheese festival (in Franschhoek) About 24 000 people pass through the festival every year, and I have to use it to educate people about sheep's cheese. I take my cheese along and two sheep. It does a lot for media exposure as well."
The annual festival costs her at least R13 000, including travel, accommodation, labour, samples and pamphlets. She covers about half of the cost in direct sales at the fair, and up till now, the organisers have found that she adds so much value to the festival that they've sponsored her R4 500 stall.
Her deal with Woolworths does not exclude her from selling to other shops, as long as it's not to the large retail chain stores. Her cheese is stocked by a duty-free shop The Big Five at the OR Tambo Airport - essentially her first exporting venture, jokes Elmarie.
In Cape Town the top hotels and delis are serviced on Elmarie's behalf by a local cheese broker. In the Free State, Elmarie makes sure that the local B&Bs and restaurants carry educational pamphlets on her products.
CREAMING IT: Elmarie van Aswegen (left) cuts up sheep's cheese - the product people said would never work
Elmarie believes that the basis for her good relationship with Woolworths is her honesty. Shortly after Woolworths started stocking her cheese, she realised that airborne yeast was causing her cheese to ferment. She immediately let them know and they pulled the stock from the shelves. Woolworths' food technicians came out to help her solve the problem. If honesty is the way Elmarie cements her relationships, chutzpah and dogged determination are the way she opens doors.
In her struggle to get her business off the ground, she had to convince the Department of Agriculture to allow her to import the genetic material. They would only do that if she did an impact assessment. With only a BA to her name, she marched into the Agriculture Faculty of the University of the Free State, convinced them to help her do the impact assessment, and, while she was at it, got them to take her on as a masters student in sustainable agriculture. "For me, (the research) was just the next logical step, whereas it was the thing that had stopped all the previous guys (from sheep dairy farming in South Africa)," she says.
The relationships with both the university and the department of agriculture turned out to be important. The university invited her to the dairy conference where she met up with Woolworths, and the government recently allowed her to investigate importing genetic material from France, which was previously not allowed. Her hardest battle, though, was to convince her sceptical family that she was a capable farmer with a sound business idea. Now that they've come around, she recognises that a large part of her drive was due to her burning need to prove it to them, and so she carries no grudges for their lack of initial support.
Now that Elmarie's business is ticking over profitably, she is faced with a wide range of choices. From her current moderate base of close to a R1-million turnover a year, she could grow her factory to one that produces 10 000 litres a day, which would entail exports and getting other farmers into a co-operative system similar to those in France. But a bad experience of supposedly co-operating with a Karoo farmer has put her off the idea, at least for now. Elmarie agreed to help the farmer build up a good flock in exchange for processing his milk through her factory, but he started producing his own, inferior cheese, threatening the market she had painstakingly created.
Another possible direction is organic farming, combined with a tourism idea based on a village farm in Scotland. This would mean that the factory side of the business would remain small. Whatever her choice, Elmarie recognises that she will soon have to start removing herself from day-to-day cheese production, and the running of the farm. The immediate challenge is to train up a cheesemaker. It needn't be a fully qualified professional, as long as he or she has the right attitude and, like Elmarie herself, lots of passion.