CARL Pretorius started out with a few olive trees bought from a nearby farmer. Everything changed when a friend told him about a South African in Texas who had a massive tree nursery. Today, what was once a field of wild grass, is hectare upon hectare of container-grown trees.
I e-mailed the guy in Texas, explaining that I had 22 hectares of open ground, and that I wanted to do something similar to him. This was in August 2004. He phoned me and said he’d love to help and that all I needed to do was get over to Dallas as he had a lot to show me, and it was a bit too far for him to consult.
He wasn’t interested in being paid or becoming a shareholder – he kept saying: “Don’t worry, we’ll work that out.” I went there and spent 10 days with him. It was a gift.
He gave us everything; there wasn’t anything that he kept back. And that gave us a running start and the confidence to do things on a scale that we wouldn’t have done if we hadn’t had that knowledge.
What’s your formula?
This is a wholesale business. We grow trees for the landscaping market and sell them to people like property developers, municipalities and farms. They’ll plant our trees for aesthetic purposes, functional purposes and to offset their own carbon footprints. We have 50 varieties of trees in six sizes, so depending on your budget you can have a 40 litre- bag tree which is 2m tall, or a 1000 litre-bag tree which can be 6m tall with a stem diameter of 14cm. Our trees cost from as little as a few hundred rand to several thousand.
We are a for-profit business, but we have a corporate social responsibility (CSR) where we donate one tree for every twenty that we sell.
Our main beneficiary is CapeNature – we propagate and grow the Clanwilliam Cedar for them, which is on the endangered species list in this country. Every year they give us a thousand seeds, which are really scarce, and once a year we plant them in the Cedarberg.
We also have smaller beneficiaries – charities that need trees for their premises, schools, crèches, that sort of thing – and those trees we give away.
So that’s the CSR side of our business and then there’s the carbon neutral element of our business. You might think it’s obvious that we are carbon neutral, but it’s not.
We can’t claim any of the carbon that these trees offset, as these trees are for sale. So we measure our own carbon footprint – last year it was 462 tons of CO2 that we emitted into the atmosphere, mainly through the use of diesel, fertilisers and electricity on the farm, and we try to reduce it per tree grown. To offset our annual carbon footprint, we plant roughly 1 000 trees a year through Food and Trees for Africa.
How do you offset your carbon footprint?
First you have to measure your footprint and the Carbon Protocol has rules and methods for that. There’s no law requiring you to do it, but you should know what your impact on the planet is.
Once you know what you’re doing, you have something to measure yourself against. Then you can try to reduce your impact as much as possible , and ultimately offset your net impact by planting trees.
Trees literally absorb the CO2 that we are all emitting. There are no tax benefits for being carbon neutral in this country. The benefit is simply in knowing that you are.
Everything about the tree business is great, from the people you deal with to the benefits it has for the environment. I also get a thrill seeing our trees around the place. Most of the trees around the Cape Town Stadium came from us.
Every time we donate a tree to a school, I see the impact that a tree has on space and on people.
We get used to being around 150 000 trees here, but you give one tree to a crèche which is a small building on a sandy patch, and it transforms the place as well as the mood of the kids that get involved in planting the tree. That never ceases to amaze me.
That was a very unique idea that had to be exploited, if I could use that term. I was setting up Just Trees here on the farm in 2005 and drinking too much coffee. One day I’d had enough, so I tried an espresso using rooibos tea. It didn’t taste so good but it was the start of the idea.
I began by using tea bags, then export quality rooibos, and then ended up cutting the rooibos into particles the size of ground coffee. That gave me a proper intense extract of rooibos, which was delicious as a cappuccino or latte.
When I got it working well I took it to a restaurant in Paarl and started selling it there.
I put in a patent application because there was nothing like it at the time. That was the beginning of it all. Woolworths jumped on it.
Burden of responsibility?
There is a burden of responsibility in what I do, sure. More so at the beginning when you have to worry about everybody getting paid. But now that the businesses are doing well, it’s more about innovating.
Living in Paarl and being close to the poorer people in this country, my biggest challenge now is in figuring how to distribute the profits that we make so as to make the lives of the people that work here a lot better, to have enough to send my kids to school and to plough any excess back to the 50 guys that work here and their families.
The challenge for all of us is to take that extra profit and instead of buying a boat or a second house, to invest it in the people of SA in a responsible way that is not just giving, but rather contributing to a solution.
Childhood business potential?
I was an entrepreneur as a kid. The excitement of doing a deal and making some pocket money was what it was all about. There sure wasn’t a social element to what I did back then. Nowadays I enjoy the thrill of doing something different.
There isn’t another tree nursery in the country like ours, nor is there is a rooibos espresso like ours. That gives me a real kick. So if we can make some money out of it and use that money for ourselves and others, then that is the ultimate.
I’m intrigued by renewable energy, and I’m trying to understand which renewable energy will be the solution for the future. So maybe I’ll get involved in that one day, but for now, this has a long way to go.
I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now. The opportunity here is almost overwhelming.
To find out more about the work that Carl Pretorius does, visit:
www.justtrees.co.za and www.redespresso.com
l Justin Nurse is a freelance journalist and founder of Laugh It Off.