The rural suburb of Tarlton, north east of Johannesburg, is best known for the International Raceway that is the region’s home of drag racing. It is a little startling, then, to find that the race track is near-neighbour to the largest carrot farm in Africa. Not only that, but that the farm is at the heart of a revolution that combines breakthroughs in both nutrition and the technology of juice extraction.
Greenway Farms produces 40% of South Africa’s carrots, harvesting 300 tons per day, and shipping them across the country under the brand name Rugani.
It is even more astonishing, then, to discover that the farm’s co-founder, Vito Rugani, was sleeping on the floor of a flat in Hillbrow less than three decades ago. He came from a farming family, did a BSc at university, and then worked on a family farm for about seven years. But when he went out on his own in 1991, and pursued a different lifestyle, his family disowned him.
He would later marry Nomakeme Mxatule, who moved from the mountains of Transkei to find work in Johannesburg. Today they have eight children, of whom six work for Greenway Farm, in roles ranging from sales to information technology.
At the time, however, he was down and out. He and a friend, Vincent Sequeira, decided to go into partnership to buy a small plot of land far outside Johannesburg, with a little help from friends who made small investments. Over the next decade, they slowly evolved from a 20 hectare market garden into a highly specialised commercial carrot production unit.
But it would take another ten years for them to make the breakthrough that would lay the foundation for a technology revolution in both carrot juice specifically and nutrition more broadly.
“We did a lot of traveling and we went to see how other countries did production, and then came home and applied that same knowledge,” Rugani says. “So we’ve always had an institutional memory of being technologically advanced. It’s easy to just do what everybody else is doing. But to get that quantum leap forward is not so easy and it requires a lot of exposure, reading, investigation and making the right choices, and is usually associated with a considerable amount of risk.
“By 2011 we realised that we were sitting with a huge amount of second grade by-products that couldn’t be sold. A quarter of any carrot crop is not acceptable aesthetically to sell on the first grade market. That’s a problem with any form of food, but carrots in particular, because they break. So you’re sitting with carrots that are of the highest quality, but they’re not visually appealing. And we had to do something with it. The decision was made to go into juice.”
The rest is history, one might say. A few weeks after hosting us at his farm, Rugani has made the trek into Randburg to meet at MSquared, a bakery and restaurant in the Carreira Centre in Ferndale. The location is highly significant: the Centre is home to the Randburg Fruit & Veg Market, the first outlet in South Africa to stock Rugani vegetable juices.
Recently, the carrot juice was joined in an expanded range by beetroot and pineapple juice, as well as juices infused with ginger and turmeric.
But between the farm and the store lay a massive learning curve.
“It’s easy enough to go into juice and go and buy some secondhand equipment, and do juice the way European or American companies were doing it,” says Rugani. “But ten years ago we wanted to do it in a way nobody was doing it. We wanted to get 10 years ahead of the curve, because that had been our philosophy since the very beginning, and that’s how we grew our farm from 20 hectares to 2,500 hectares in 10 years. So we started investigating what’s new in the carrot juice world. I started on the internet, searching documents, reading scientific publications that were cutting edge, papers by people who had seen things that nobody else had seen.”
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