When a group of Letsitele citrus farmers could no longer afford packaging material, they started making it themselves. Today, their business is a major industry supplier. By Alita van der Walt.

In the 1980s, South Africa’s citrus farmers had little scope to grow their profits; they were caught between high input costs and fixed citrus prices set by the Citrus Marketing Board. The highest input cost of all was that of packaging material, but with carton price increases showing no sign of slowing down, many farmers were at their wits’ end.The members of the Lower Letaba Citrus Cooperative (LLCC), a group of independent packhouses, realised that they had to urgently find a practical way of mitigating these costs.“Initially, we decided to expand further up the value chain,” recalls Milaan Thalwitzer, LLCC chairperson at the time. Discussions on acquiring shares in one of the region’scarton suppliers followed, but ultimately these came to nothing.

Then LLCC hit on a novel concept: setting up an independent, farmer-owned carton manufacturing facility. The board took the idea to other subtropical fruit producers, who gave it the thumbs-up. “The farmers were highly enthusiastic and willing to invest their own capital,” says Thalwitzer.A feasibility study was conducted and Houers Koöperatief Beperk (Houers), was founded on 22 April 1982. The first board of directors, headed by Thalwitzer, comprised Edward Vorster, Horst Gubitz, Dennis Thompson, Piet Minnaar, Andries Fourie and Louis van Rooyen.

The company got off to a flying start. In its first year of production, Houers produced almost five million citrus cartons from 500t of paper. Today, it is a major supplier of corrugated cartons to the agricultural market in South Africa, manufacturing and converting more than 40 million square metres of corrugated board per annum.