Evolving from what was primarily an agricultural enterprise, the company is now one of the three largest processors, packers and distributors of dried tree fruit in South Africa, is the largest supplier of retailers’ house brands of dried fruit with an estimated 20 to 25% share of the formal retail market, and boasts Marks & Spencer on its ever-expanding list of international customers.
It has certainly come a long way since its beginnings in 2002, when fifth-generation fruit farmer Frans Conradie handed the reins of the family’s successful Koelfontein farm to his son Handri.
At the time, the farm was already renowned for its quality deciduous fruit and Frans had just been named Western Cape Farmer of the Year 2001. But the business began and ended with primary agricultural production. Handri, armed with a horticulture degree from Stellenbosch and an MA from Oxford, set out on a new path to protect and enhance his magnificent heritage.
‘There are only three ways to sustain an agricultural business – buy more land, diversify or add value to what you produce,’ says Handri.
He founded At Source with a staff complement of just two – himself and food scientist and technical manager, Anton Erwee – with big ambitions to bolster the family farming business, and also to change the face of the industry. His first big idea was to develop soft-eating dried fruit, popular in Europe and elsewhere but largely unknown in this country.
This turned out to be much harder than it looked: ‘It’s not rocket science, but there are all sorts of shelf-life issues to contend with when putting moisture back into fruit,’ Handri explains. The optimal technique was eventually realised by Anton who was doing his MSc on just that topic.
‘We didn’t invent rehydrated dried fruit, but no other company in the world has perfected the art the way we have,’ Anton claims. ‘Our proprietary process enables us to gently rehydrate very delicate dried fruit, as opposed to blasting it with harsh high-pressure steam. The result is a high moisture product with soft texture and a flavour release second to none,’ he explains.
‘This is one innovation that has grown the market for dried fruit – by presenting it in a non-traditional and more accessible and appetising format,’ adds Handri. ‘Timing is always a crucial factor in business and we’ve also been perfectly placed to tap into three driving consumer trends: health, “naturality” and convenience.’
Other innovations include fruit bars, fruit strips and novel fruit and nut combinations. There is little, in fact, that At Source doesn’t do in the dried fruit arena, with some 160 SKUs currently on its books.
A new era begins
At Source celebrated its tenth anniversary in May by cutting the ribbon on a major factory expansion, the addition of 2 600m2 to the existing 4 000m2 processing and packaging facility.
This major capex includes new sorting and packaging technology that promises to improve capacity and efficiency dramatically – including a Key Optyx optical inspection system (supplied by Eptech) that sorts fruit on the basis of colour and blemishes at astonishing speed, and a new Yamato multihead weigher and form-fill-seal line in the packaging hall, supplied by Qualitechs.
This investment, financed by the IDC, will enable At Source to more than double its annual volumes and provide 60 new jobs in addition to the 230 positions already created over the last ten years. The operation, focused on creating a diverse array of products that are artisanal in essence, still demands much hand work.
Chic branding and packaging have been integral to At Source’s game-changing strategy and its tenth anniversary will also see a major development – a decision to convert the Pick n Pay range from clear stand-up pouches packs (supplied by Pouch Dynamics) to flexible pillow packs – comprising metallised polyester laminated to clear LLDPE – in a bid to enhance shelf life. Other ranges could follow suit, too, in future.
‘From the outset, it was gospel for us to show off our fruit quality and appetite appeal via the use of clear packaging, whatever the format,’ notes Handri. ‘This has worked exceptionally well for us, but it was always at the expense of shelf life with fruit discolouring more quickly when exposed to light and oxygen.’
So why risk changing what was working? ‘Distribution and supply chain efficiencies are crucial aspects of selling any product, but even more so when you are dealing with perishables. We believe we’ve established enough market trust and belief in our quality and integrity that the move to foil will be well accepted, and some trial launches verify this,’ he responds. ‘With longer shelf life, everyone’s a winner: ourselves, retailers and consumers. Our revolution remains an ongoing journey.’
The At Source team can reflect on this journey with great pride, and perhaps some disbelief: from two people to 260; from a makeshift pilot plant in a farm shed to a state-of-the-art factory; from no turnover to an aggressive growth period with an annual compound revenue growth rate of 43% for five years (2003-2008), followed by the worst global recession seen since the 1930s; and one very satisfied customer in Woolworths that now commands over 20% of the dried fruit market.
Handri expects the next stage in the company’s growth to be generated primarily through exports, and an increased focus on Cecilia’s World, its own premium healthy snack food brand.
‘We built our business on being a preferred private label partner to local retailers, and that will remain a cornerstone of our operation, but the time is ripe to expand our horizons and I believe the export market and Cecilia’s World will provide new and exciting opportunities,’ he concludes.