Johannesburg – Holding a supplier development conference was a condition linked to its parent company’s establishment last year, but executives from Coca Cola Beverages South Africa (CCBSA) were at pains on Thursday to convince attendees that its inaugural event would achieve a lot more than ticking that box.

“It’s about so much more than delivering a merger condition. It’s about being an active partner in South Africa’s economic and social development as a whole, and in the development of the local beverage sector in particular,” said Velaphi Ratshefola, managing director of CCBSA.

Thursday’s inaugural conference at Gallagher Estate outside Johannesburg is a key milestone in CCBSA’s commitment to a series of public interest conditions attached to Coca-Cola Beverages Africa’s (CCBA) establishment last year.

Competition Commission approval for the creation of CCBA was given in May 2016 after the Coca-Cola Company, SABMiller and Gutsche Family Investments (majority shareholders in Coca-Cola Sabco) announced in November 2014 they had agreed to combine the bottling operations of their non-alcoholic ready-to-drink beverages businesses in Southern and East Africa.

The various public interest conditions included one by CCBSA to host an annual supplier development conference to identify opportunities to maintain and grow local procurement.

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One of the speakers in the morning session, Walter Leonhardt, CCBSA’s financial director, said Thomas Jefferson, the American founding father, described the company’s views perfectly when he said that the poor cannot be legislated into prosperity.

In the South African context, he added, this meant that more was needed than Competition Commission conditions and policies such as the Black Industrialists Policy, no matter how good they might be.

Big business needed to get on board to develop targeted sectors of the economy. To go to the next level, Leonhardt added, often small businesses needed just a small leg-up or the provision of a safety net.

Big companies such as CCBSA were often ideally placed to give this, he added. He told the conference that CCBSA already spends more than R9 billion a year on empowerment suppliers and this was also not just box-ticking.

Apart from being the right thing to do, playing a role in developing these sectors of the economy simply “makes business sense”, he said.

The Supplier Development Conference brings together more than 500 black-owned, high-growth-potential SMME delegates from a variety of industries. South African minister of economic development, Ebrahim Patel, was due to give the keynote address at midday.