Maverick Citizen

Friends, businessmen and cricket stars join forces to fight hunger

One People Fund handing out Maize Meal. (Photo: Supplied)

With the malaise and instability wrought by Covid-19, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless as the bad news mounts. However, Maverick Citizen spoke to business owners and friends James Carmichael and Jason McCormick, who were moved to action when they saw that the communities they do business in were taking strain from hunger in the wake of the Covid-19 lockdown. Jason McCormick along with friends Marcus Susman and Nicola Harris then formed the One People Fund, an organisation that has to date delivered food for more than four million meal portions.

Jason McCormick is the CEO of Exemplar Retail, a company that focuses on township and rural retail shopping centres throughout South Africa, with about 22 sites in their portfolio. His best friend, James Carmichael, is in the motor industry and owns a car dealership based in Johannesburg. McCormick had been studying the Covid-19 impact on international communities and was worried about how that would translate in South Africa. This was specifically in light of the fact that the communities his company works in are densely populated, a critical factor in the spread of the coronavirus.

As of 10 April 2020, McCormick’s company got local vendors to sew and distribute masks, but responses on its Facebook page made it increasingly apparent that what people needed was food. “We appreciate the masks but we can’t eat masks, we are busy starving here,” read the feedback received. The team subsequently got together and realised that, while government had provided an initial social relief buffer at the beginning of lockdown, this was coming to an end, leaving a lengthy time lapse before the next grant payment could be accessed by beneficiaries.

This was where family, friends and former varsity mates Marcus Susman of the Capstone Property Group and Nicola Harris from the Clicks Foundation came in, having followed the masks initiative on social media. Their combined efforts came together to create the One People Fund feeding initiative. This initiative would leverage off the footprint of Exemplar Retail in townships and rural areas. Within a week they had formed the One People Fund using money from the McCormick and Sussman families as seed funding.

They decided to approach the feeding scheme slightly differently, by going the wholesale route as opposed to buying through retailers. Using retailers would have driven up the cost of producing food parcels, limiting how much they would be able to include in the parcel. They decided to directly source 12.5kg bags of maize meal, a staple food that can keep for extended periods. This allows people to use what little money they have to buy top-up food items like vegetables or meat. Each 12.5kg bag is estimated to contain about 50 meal portions.

With winter approaching and retrenchments increasing, it became clear that they would need to do more fundraising. They partnered with the Click Foundation, a non-profit that works in the education sector. All money donated to the fund goes straight to food purchases, but there are also other forms of donations that come through, such as transport.

McCormick says that they deliberately chose to go the independent route so as to not politicise the initiative, and worked closely with carefully vetted NGOs on the ground. This was done in order to focus on the business of helping those in need. He says the real heroes of the initiative are the many community volunteers and community policing forums that ensured that the distribution of food went off without incident and stood in solidarity with community members, NGOs and One People Fund.

The fund initially focused on the Gauteng peri-urban townships and grew to servicing communities in Mpumalanga, Eastern Cape and the southern Cape.

McCormick and Carmichael say that it has been an eye-opening experience that has allowed them to get a more in-depth experience and appreciation of community needs.

One of the things McCormick says he finds remarkable is that many of his business competitors have also come on board to assist and contribute to the fund. Listing the funders of One People Fund, he says the biggest funder is a venture capitalist who is based in London and has personally contributed close to R3-million. To date the fund has raised about R10-million, which will be enough to distribute food to communities until October 2020.

Carmichael works a lot with Proteas cricketer Themba Bavuma, who also got involved in the initiative. His Themba Bavuma Foundation, which has been doing work in Alexandra, has partnered with the One People Fund and Bavuma in turn also roped in fellow Proteas cricketer Kagiso Rabada. Carmichael says he found it inspiring that these two sporting heroes were so willing to give of themselves and their time to assist people in need – not only financially through their respective foundations, but also by putting their shoulders to the proverbial wheel to help with distribution.

Despite the pressures that South Africans are facing, with job losses and people’s health at stake, the One People Fund demonstrates that everyone is trying to do their best to help in any way they can, Carmichael says.

Asked about how they got around government red tape regarding permission to be able to distribute the food, they say that they themselves didn’t need permits as they were mainly a distribution channel for the established NGOs they work with. These already had the necessary documentation to go out into communities and give out the food.

Through the strong NGO networks that they have established they are able to locate specific places in communities that are most in need, as well as incidents like grants not being paid out, in order for their intervention to be targeted and more effective.

The distribution machinery of the initiative seems to be in perpetual motion as they tell me distribution happens five to six times a day to service the various communities according to need.

While the initiative was initially set up as an interim relief fund, McCormick anticipates that they might have to extend its lifespan in order to deal with the jobs fall-out post Covid-19. “As long as there is a need we will keep working,” he says.

The One People Fund is a demonstration of how businesses, friends and even sporting heroes can stand in solidarity and mobilise resources for the good of their communities. DM/MC


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