Ron van der Ploeg

South Africa’s Together We Bloom charity is built to last

Together We Bloom is a not-for-profit charitable initiative started by the horticultural industry in South Africa in association with the country’s leading potted plant grower, LVG Plants playing a pivotal role.

The newly established network caters for the immediate hunger relief in schools and local communities, which is particularly needed as the country continues to fight Covid-19. But ultimately, the goal is to be ‘future proof’. That is why the organisation is keen to partner with local and international horticultural businesses, bringing in different skillsets and supporting education for young students in ways that benefit both society and the country’s ornamentals sector.

GREAT NEED

Since the first wave of coronavirus engulfed South Africa in March 2020, lockdowns and layoffs continue to fuel great need. A need mostly felt in the country’s horticultural sector with many day-to-day workers. “The lockdown opened our eyes even wider. There was a lot of immediate need for hunger relief. In a South African context, it is evident that children and single-parent families with 11- to 12-year old family aides who support their younger siblings are among the most vulnerable. So, we started to put out food in as many schools as possible. Giving children the nutrition they need to concentrate in lessons and develop scholastically. The latest statistics tell us that pre Covid-19  here were about 11 million people who were unable to feed themselves daily. As the pandemic continues to wreak havoc, the number went up to 33 million. The number of children affected is just enormous,” says Together We Bloom’s spokesman and project manager Stefan Zeelie.

BRINGING TOGETHER THE INDUSTRY’S ROLE PLAYERS

Zeelie went on a live stream with FloraCulture International (FCI) to share his experience and thoughts. Krugersdorp-based potted plant grower LVG Plant has ‘empowering people and local communities’ as one of its core values and planted the first Together We Bloom seed. However, Zeelie stresses that the charity is keen to retain independence. “I do not work for LVG Plants. Together We Bloom is independent from LVG. Although it is the Van Geest family’s initiative, we would want the entire horticultural industry to be part of it.”

Zeelie is proud to work with a network of talented colleagues, bringing together directors from different areas, an accountant, and a lawyer, looking after all the trademarking and ensuring that all paperwork is in order and there is an effective disbursement of funds. Equally on board are industry professionals Geert van Geest and Dutch-based horticultural consultant Ton Groot.

Zeelie himself has a background in outreach ministries of the church, and that is how he and Geert van Geest connected. “My task is to ensure that the initiative is sustainable and strengthens the philanthropic infrastructure and capacity of existing Covid-19 emergency funds.”

CHARITY AUCTION AT JOHANNESBURG’S MULTIFLORA

Coinciding with South Africa’s partial reopening of the economy on 1 May 2020, Together We Bloom’s first fundraising success was a massive plant auction held at Johannesburg’s Multiflora, raising R100,000(rands). “For the auction proceeds, we selected four NPO’s in the Westrand area. LVG Plants donated the potted plants, which are easily recognisable by a sticker on the sleeves and features the multicoloured flag of South Africa.”

The sticker continues to play a prominent role in fundraising. “The flower grower buys these stickers at R2.50 (rand) each and puts it onto the potted plants. So, whenever a person goes to one of the big retail stores and see this Together We Bloom token, they know that the grower of the product has donated on their behalf. It’s completely up to the farmers to decide for what amount of money he will buy the stickers for, smaller growers may opt for R2,000 (rands) while large scale companies for R50,000 (rands).”

The charity quickly took their dream -assisting less privileged people through supporting feeding schemes, education and healthcare initiatives – further. For Mother’s Day, the charity donated 2,500 cyclamens to mothers across Gauteng while handing over cheques to Tower of Life men’s shelter, Cradle of Hope (place of empowerment for destitute, vulnerable, and abused women) in the poor suburb of West Krugersdorp and the Bethany House children’s home. Together We Bloom also teamed up with the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital, a general hospital in Johannesburg. Healthcare workers were gifted flowers and plants as a token of appreciation for their incredible efforts during the coronavirus pandemic.

Zeelie says the organisation has built a relationship with beneficiaries that will last. “It is not just a quick fix that we want to provide.”

Together We Bloom’s long-term vision is about investing in educational programmes to train horticultural students. The idea is also to alleviate a potential constraint on the horticultural sector’s growth in the future by investing in education. “Ideally young students come in through a bursary and follow the training programme. And maybe we can send them over to the Netherlands for an apprenticeship,” says Zeelie, who would be pleased to discuss the issue with Dutch flower and plant nurseries. Together We Bloom’s Dutch roots may help to speed up things as there are long-lasting relationships with Dutch breeders and propagators such as Anthura, Van der Knaap, Nolina Woubrugge and Kapiteyn. He adds, “We also would like to team up with universities to further take up the training.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF GIVING BACK

Zeelie genuinely believes it is important to give back. “When you work with people and visit their homes, see the despair there is in many families you automatically want to assist in whatever way possible. It all boils down to encouraging, supporting and giving back to communities and helping them to become sustainable. The last thing we want to do is to become another NPO that drops something off and leaves instantly.”

Zeelie freely admits that choosing from an overwhelming number of applications can be a daunting task – who do you help first? “Here the importance of a board of directors comes in. Naturally, funds that are donated should not end up just somewhere. Therefore, we strive to be as open as possible regarding the incoming and outgoing of funds. We look at the track record of any new partner community. If they comply with all regulations, and facts and figures are correct, the next step is a partnership. We will always try to stay involved. If there is a blanket drive, we try to be present at the handover. Just to get a sense of the story instead of just handing over a cheque and forgetting about where it went. We prefer to work with relationship organisations that have the same values. And we expect accountability.”

INSPIRED BY

One of the most significant sustainability concerns for Together We Bloom is income. “The more money there is, the more we can assist. From a South African perspective, whenever you walk out of the front door there is going to be a need. The question is if you are sensitised to this need or do you really want to see that need fulfilled,” says Zeelie. He adds that it was the sight of an old lady in a poor suburb thanking him repeatedly for the Mother’s Day flowers that she had received for the first time in her life that moved him to do more. And he equally recalls how he visited a care home with many sick residents experiencing extreme loneliness during the lockdown. And yes, he is also inspired by God. “However, having no belief would not discredit any of the places that we want to assist. But we are inspired by Jesus who worked with the sick, wounded, elderly and children. That gives you a better idea of our background.”

DRACONIAN LOCKDOWNS

At the height of the first coronavirus outbreak in spring 2020, the country’s flower and plant industry had its fair share of problems. Under one of the world’s most draconian lockdowns, all South Africans had to stay home for 21 days. All shops and businesses were closed except for pharmacies, laboratories, banks, supermarkets, petrol stations and healthcare providers. Zeelie recalls how Covid-19 created a spirit of togetherness. “We are all realistically in the same boat, although the storm looks different to each of us. Flower and plant nurseries had at the time an excess of stock and decided to give it away for the good cause.”

With a new variant of Covid-19 that may be more contagious than the virus that drove the first wave of infections, the rainbow nation is currently again under lockdown until the rate of infections decreases. “There continues to be much uncertainty. Business-wise things look different than one year ago. During the first wave, many growers had to destroy their flowers even if the situation for the more upmarket potted plant industry was somewhat different as people are taking considerable interest in decoration and home styling. We trust that post Covid the industry is resilient enough to catch up. There are no fireworks yet, but we are heading into the right direction.”

At the same, flowers are a luxury that many South Africans cannot afford, especially when the concern is for the next meal for themselves and their families. Zeelie hopes that horticultural companies in South Africa will continue to be as generous as they were during the first wave of Covid-19. And he would be more than happy to discuss how international horticultural businesses and institutions can join Together We Bloom.

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