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Rising to the 'essential service' challenge

Keeping the doors open during COVID-19

By Brian Lever, Managing Director of AGT Foods South Africa 

We’re an essential services provider – part of the food and agricultural industry – and we supply seeds for planting purposes as well as pulses, grains and other food for supermarkets. When we heard that there was going to be a total lockdown, we knew times were going to be tough. We immediately got our executive committee together. Our first responsibility was keeping our staff safe.  

We hired a full-time nursing sister and set up a round-the-clock clinic on the premises. Next, we decided to purchase misting machines, then cloth masks for every single person in the company and for their children. That way, if any child was heading back to school when the lockdown eased, that would help keep them and their parents safe. Transport was our next issue – we hired a fleet of taxis to bring our staff to and from work in the safest way possible and keep them healthy.  

One of our quality controllers received training and became a COVID-19 expert. She started giving lectures to educate our staff about the virus and she still continues this valuable work.  

What we didn’t immediately realise was that our business was going to grow exponentially. As the lockdown progressed, the retailers put more and more pressure on us because they needed more goods. So we ended up working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even though the work was difficult, we were incredibly fortunate because this meant that we never had to use any of the government support measures. 

Thankfully, we were doing well enough to not have to cut salaries, and our vulnerable staff members  were able to work from home. Having people work off-site meant new organisational challenges. We’ve learnt that it is more important to keep all of our employees safe, rather than worrying about losing a few thousand rand here and there.  

When the lockdown was enforced, probably 60% to 65% of our administrative workers immediately started working from home. We then had to calculate how to make sure that we would only have about half of our factory workers on site for any shift. Luckily, we have a massive space, 45,000 square metres, which makes social distancing easier.  Making sure that everything was managed correctly was extremely challenging. 

When you’re forced, all of a sudden, to work at such a fast pace with a limited workforce,  the stress just starts to pile up. I’ve never had such a trying period as the past five or six months.  

It was saddening to see how some of our customers thought that they didn’t have a business anymore. This was more common for the people who were supplying food to restaurants.   We tried to help where we could. We told them they could defer payments. We offered to keep supplying and to wait until they had money again.   But we know we’re in the minority.  

Thankfully, our relationship with Standard Bank meant that we were able to keep our own capital liquid and have access to the money we needed.  

In July, we decided to reward our staff, who had really stepped up to the plate and worked so hard to keep our business going. Each and every one of them received a bonus. We are fortunate to have a culture where we all care about each other.  

I’ve been so happy to see that people across South Africa have been stepping up, despite living under difficult lockdown rules, by doing what they can to work and keep businesses running.