It was early morning, the sun was blazing. Tommie van Zyl walks over to Wilson Mashola, one of the drivers at the farm, standing near the entrance of a warehouse, where thousands of tomatoes are being loaded onto a yellow truck. Tommie greets Mashola in his mother tongue, Khelobedu, the language of this part of Limpopo, in northern South Africa. The language is similar to northern-Sotho, seTswana and Tshivenda and it’s not easy to learn. The two hug and share a few jokes. Tommie turns to say that Mashola has been a driver on the family farm for 32 years.
Tommie inherited this knack of communication from his father. In a country with 11 official languages, Tommie speaks three tongues of the people of Limpopo, as well as his mother tongue Afrikaans, and English. He’s a strange millionaire, dressed in a plain blue shirt, chinos and veldskoene—hardy shoes typically worn by South African farmers. At first glance you wouldn’t think Tommie is chief executive officer of this massive multi million rand tomato farm.
It was his choice, when he returned from studying in the States in 1986, to shun the khakis worn by many a farmer.
“I always ask what we can do to remain relevant. Some of them still wear it, but I felt in order to be one with the people, you need to change stereotypes about Afrikaans farmers,” he says.
Nestled in the valley of Mooketsi around 400km north of Johannesburg, the farm is the home of the ZZ2 brand. It’s famous across the continent for tomatoes—harvesting around 170,000 tons a year from 2,000 hectares (ha).
The name dates back to 1906 after the end of the war when farmers were compelled to get a registered number with which to brand their cattle. The authorities gave each of the van Zyl brothers a number from ZZ1 to ZZ4. ZZ2 was the brand of the second eldest brother Burt, grandfather to Bertie and great grandfather to Tommie—who used it as the trademark for what was to become the biggest tomato farm in the southern hemisphere.
Tommie’s father, Bertie, left school at 16 to take over the farm from his ailing father. In those days, the van Zyl’s had a mixed crop, mainly potatoes, and life was difficult. Bertie realized that his neighbor made more money from tomatoes than potatoes and convinced his father to change. The first crop was harvested four years later.
The climate in the Mooketsi valley was just right. Tomatoes flourished all year round and soon, the farm was rich. Over the years, the van Zyl’s diversified into avocados, onions, stone fruit and beef.
The company also has farms in Musina, Limpopo, near the border with Zimbabwe. They grow apples and pears in Ceres and Riebeek-West in the Western Cape as well as Langkloof in the Eastern Cape. Marketing manager Clive Garret says a new crop, is dates, farmed in Hakiesdoorn in the Karas region of southern Namibia. The company hopes to harvest their first crop of dates within the next year.
Bertus Venter, Production manager and agronomist at ZZ2, says dates are in high demand during the Islamic month of fasting, Ramadan, due to their high energy and nutritional properties. The climate in the southern hemisphere allows for the growing of fresh dates to be available during that holy month.
“As far as business growth is concerned, we’re constantly looking at how we should adapt our business. We benchmark ourselves against the best in the world and we will adapt our system to the well adapted to the environment we’re in. We’re firmly established in South Africa, but also where it makes economic sense in neighboring countries,” says Tommie.
It’s been a long road to the tomato millions for Tommie. While growing up, he started to learn the trade, though he says he didn’t walk into managing the company.
“I didn’t get the job because I was the son of the owner. My father was a very strict man and he didn’t want us to go to school.”
Bertie wanted Tommie to stop going to school after grade eight, but with the help of neighbors and uncles, he persuaded his father to allow him to study.
Tommie completed an undergraduate B.Comm degree in economics and agricultural economics at Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape. When he found he couldn’t play any other sport, he opted for boxing, gaining full sports colors while studying.
Following his completion of a postgraduate honors degree, he was awarded the Fulbright Scholarship to learn for a Master of Science in food and resource economics at the University of Florida, in the States. While there, he was also awarded membership to Gamma Sigma Delta, an international honor society dedicated to recognizing accomplishments of leaders in agriculture and the related sciences, at the very least he vindicated his neighbors and uncles.
On completion of his studies in 1986, Tommie returned to the family farm. He started off as a buying clerk in the purchasing office, expanding his responsibilities and started to farm a year later. At the age of 27, in 1992, he cut his teeth and became managing director for operations, property and investments.
“But we had a very interesting managing system. I had the title and the responsibility, but not necessarily at that time, the authority. I grew into authority and probably since 2001, we established proper governing structures that gave me full authority as chief executive officer, reporting to our board of directors, but since 1992, I had the title of chief executive officer,” he says.
The father of four took over the reins of the multi million rand conglomerate in 2005 after his father died. His son, Burtie, is following in the family footsteps, starting off as a junior project manager and coming through the ranks to his current position of general manager for the avocado plantations. One of Tommie’s twin daughters is studying genetics and horticulture and the other geography and environmental science; his eldest daughter is a jewelry designer.
When he is not farming, the 54-year-old enjoys reading books on philosophy, business and economics, and sometimes takes long walks through the countless rows of tomato fields.
The saying, never judge a book by its cover or a tomato by its skin, couldn’t be truer when Tommie suggests a helicopter flight over the farm. He jumps into the pilot seat and starts the rotor blades—a farmer of many talents. He obtained his private pilot’s license with night rating for an airplane and more recently a helicopter license. From the sky, the tomato and avocados look like neatly laid-out football fields.
From here, tomatoes are exported to Reunion, Dubai, Seychelles and Oman, while around 3,000 tons of avocados go to Europe. The rest of the produce is sold through the fresh markets in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Their biggest competitor is Azura in Morroco.
Around 20 trucks are on the road daily, transporting nearly 4,000 tons per week to a warehouse in Johannesburg, where they are divided and dispatched to various stores across the country, and to sellers. Tommie says hawkers are one of their biggest customers. They buy products cheaply in bulk and sell them on streets and small shops.
ZZ2 also has a commercial herd, consisting mainly of Pinzgauers, which roam on non-arable land, for the breeding of weaners on high-valued stud cattle. The farm is also involved in wildlife conservation with fenced conservancies measuring 23,721ha. The game includes white rhino, nyala, gemsbuck, red hartebeest, giraffe, impala, kudu, Burchell’s zebra and eland.
The livestock alone is worth R30 million ($3.3 million) and the game R8.5 million ($940,000).
In a time when many of the country’s mines are being lambasted of raking in huge profits at the expense of the people, ZZ2 built small villages for the workers and their families nearer to the farms.
Tommie says each farm has its own clinic as they are far away from the nearest hospital. They provide bus services for workers’ children to a nearby primary school and also support a farm school and 13 créche’s for around 300.
Each farm has its own vehicle workshop where the school buses and the trucks get serviced by professionals.
ZZ2 employs around 8,000 people in South Africa, of whom around 6,500 are based at the headquarters. The farm also employs people in neighboring countries from Zimbabwe and Mozambique, who carry out seasonal work.
With over 60,000ha—and counting—of farming land, ZZ2 turns over around R900,000 ($98,657) for tomatoes alone and nearly a R1.1 billion ($120 million) for the entire company. But the tomato farmer says this is humbling.
“When you think you’re king, you’re paw-paw, when you think you’re paw-paw, you’re king. I’m very intrigued by value in a broad sense. Money doesn’t really impress us. We’re impressed by the value of the things we produce and the meaning that we’re creating for many people,” says Tommie.
As the autumn sun sets over the farm, the workers pack their tools and dust off their boots, as one shift ends and a new one begins at the entrance of the warehouse. Looking far away over the horizon Tommie would like to employ more of them next year and expand the tomato business. In these recessionary times, there can be few businesses that can look at the sunset and say that.