Way back in April, a lifetime ago that seems like yesterday, I stepped down from the Ethical Co-op, which I’d been involved with from the very beginning in 2005.
There were about 10 founders, mostly drawn from two communities. Permacore, the Permaculture Foundation of South Africa, which is no longer running, and the Community Exchange System, a system designed to do away with the need for banks and central currency, which still is.
The vision was to source and support ethical produce. Organic food was hard to come by, and much of it organic in name only. Many of us used to visit the same places to get the best food, so pooling our efforts and getting them to bring it to us made sense.
The founding members all paid for their first orders, about R200 on average, and so, with a massive startup capital of R2000, it all began. To date, except for a loan from myself to purchase a vehicle, that was the only financial investment it ever had.
Yet, somehow, it’s still going 9 years later. Many other businesses, sometimes with huge financial investment and far greater financial resources, have splashed, crashed and burned.
What was lacking in money was made up for in time, however, with many people making hefty contributions.
From the beginning, and over most of its existence, there was a great team of people involved, feeding off each other’s energy. The skillset was diverse – I had an IT background and built the systems it runs on, and everybody dived in where they could.
Over time, the original members left. Some were no longer able to commit so much time for so little money or better and more interesting opportunities came along. Until, eventually, of the original members, it was just me left. It became a drain on my energy, most of my involvement was spent doing things I don’t enjoy: HR, finances, driving trucks (ok, that one is quite fun, but not so much unexpectedly at 7am after 4 hours sleep), packing boxes, customer service. I think over the years I’ve performed every role there was to perform.
The drain on my time meant I was missing other opportunities, saying no to friend’s invitations, missing my son Dorje’s school activities. And finally, when my mother was dying, it became something I resented, not allowing me the energy or time to share the process with her as I would have liked.
With my father ill at the beginning of this year, I’d finally had enough, and it was time to move on. There was only one viable person to hand it over to at the time, which was Anique, Dorje’s mom, who was involved at the time. At first she wasn’t keen to continue without me, so out went the closure letters to suppliers and customers.
But after an outpouring of support (people usually only say what things mean when it’s too late), she decided to continue it, and I was happy that something I’d put so much love and sweat into would be continuing.
Leaving was hard. I’d put so much energy into it, and the vision many of us had for it, although never actualised, always felt just around the corner.
But I was happy to leave, and have been enjoying a resurgence in energy and the time to explore new things.
When the site launched, in September 2005 if I remember (so this month is its 9th birthday), the code I wrote was already a jumbled mush of spaghetti, thanks to scope creep of the sort comparable to driving to the shops for milk turning into a 3-week trip across Namibia. Eventually it turned into what’s there today, with an automated backend that allows a tiny team to keep things running.
Still today, all the products are listed on one page, a legacy of its original conception as a ‘box scheme’, where a customer would choose from 15 or so items to put in a box. Now there are hundreds of items. Some people hate the long page, but I love it as a customer. It makes searching for items instantaneous, and placing an order very quick.
There were lots of things to enjoy. Being the kind of business it was, designed to do good rather than make its shareholders or founders rich, it attracted lots of inspiring people, who worked for very little reward. Inspiring is not a word I use loosely – I really was inspired and energised by the people I worked with.
There were some tough times too. As with any group of people, there were personal conflicts, differences of opinion. An early test was asking a key founding member to leave. The other members all agreed that this was needed, and it fell to me to tell the person who’d brought me into the project, and was responsible for so much of the early energy, to leave. The person wasn’t happy, and spread all sorts of rumours afterwards, but it was the right thing to do, and the rest of us continued with a new lightness and purpose.
I lost count of the number of times it was called the ‘unethical’ co-op, often for the most trivial of reasons (“My carrots had their tops chopped off this week! I like to use them, and now you’ve chopped them off! How can you call yourselves ethical, you should be called unethical!)
But the accusation never hit home, as the the name always reflected an intention that we did our best to live up to. It saddens me to see something that should be the norm, healthy, organic food, where animals roam free and are well-treated, becoming a marketing slogan, an excuse to price gouge, a race to meet the lowest standard that meets the term. Supermarkets offering free range and organic produce that meets the letter (and sometimes not even that), but is far from the spirit of the term. Food at markets that claims or is assumed to be organic, beautifully displayed, but that I know is simply the conventional food being resold at an expensive price. The prevalence of pesticide-laden farms, with workers facing higher rates of asthma and other health conditions, all while the pesticide fumes they live in are claimed to be ‘safe’.
I still buy almost all my food from the Ethical Co-op. It’s clear where the food is grown, I still know many of the farms where the food is grown, and they’re of a scale that can support small producers, a dire need in a country with so many small suppliers all at the mercy of giant chains squeezing them for every cent.
It was a fun eight and a half years that I’m already looking at through rose-tinted glasses. Thanks to everyone who was part of the journey. Good luck to Anique and all the remaining staff, I hope you can make a thriving success of it.