SA Cheese Festival: from good idea to annual powerhouse

Johan Ehlers (Supplied)
Johan Ehlers (Supplied)

Cape Town - The SA Cheese Festival will take place from Friday 28 April to Sunday 30 April at Sandringham near Stellenbosch.

It started in 2002 and has grown from humble beginnings to the biggest culinary outdoor event in Africa. The festival attracts more than 30 000 people over three days with over 200 exhibitors showcasing their products.

Fin24 asked CEO Johan Ehlers to tell more about the festival:
How did the Cheese Festival start? What was the idea behind it?

Ehlers: In 2000 a cheese lover from Franschhoek, Derk Blaise, decided to get a few cheese makers together and showcase their products to the public. The reaction was overwhelming and after the second year Agri-Expo took the project over and registered the South African Cheese Festival.

As an agricultural society we promote the image of agriculture and saw this as an ideal opportunity to increase cheese consumption within South Africa and to create a platform for small cheese makers to showcase their products and for national companies to experiment with new and innovative products.

How did you get involved?

In 2001, as marketing manager of Agri-Expo, I saw the potential of this project and convinced the Agri-Expo council to invest in it. I saw it as an ideal opportunity to reach our objectives through an existing new concept.

We closed the deal in November 2001 and after the December holidays only had three months to organise the first SA Cheese Festival at a new venue, namely Bien Donné farm outside Paarl.

What was the gap in the market?

In those years there were only a few festivals countrywide of which most were for the arts. To create a culinary festival was a new concept.

We did not want another exhibition, but rather an experience where the public could enjoy a day out in the countryside and spend six to seven hours at the venue compared to one or two hours at an exhibition.

The “back to our roots” campaign started to win ground and we saw the opportunity to showcase the total value chain, from the animal in the field to the cheese in your fridge.

What changes have you seen over the years?

The consumer moved from a Gouda and Cheddar lover to an experienced cheese connoisseur. The growth in the amount of small cheese makers was overwhelming and they were the ones who started to expose us to the Camembert, Brie, blue cheeses, halloumi and all the other international cheeses.

Today consumers challenge themselves much more when buying cheese.

How important is the dairy industry in South Africa?

The dairy industry will always be an important commodity within any agricultural environment. Notwithstanding all the challenges within the dairy industry, milk production in January 2017 was 3.2% higher in South Africa than in January 2016, with an estimated 261 million litres annually.
The annual percentage retail market growth for pre-packed cheese increased with 7.2% during 2015 and with a further 11.9% in 2017.

We do believe the SA Cheese Festival contributes to the increase in overall cheese consumption in South Africa.

How has the festival grown?

In 2002, at the first SA Cheese Festival, we expected 2 000 people and 3 000 turned up. The next year we prepared for 4 000 festivalgoers and 6 000 attended.

That was the going trend for the first few years. Due to traffic jams, because of sold out days, we took the decision in 2010 to not sell any tickets at the gates - a risky decision, but it paid off.

In 2011 we moved the festival to our own farm, Sandringham, near Stellenbosch and limited the numbers to 10 000 per day, as we still do today.

It is not the norm for a festival to limit tickets, but we wanted the public to have a relaxed experience. Because of the limited tickets, most of the festival days are sold out prior to the start of the event. Bigger is not always better.

What were the challenges?

The biggest challenge is to manage the success. You have to create a new experience every year for your dedicated visitor. We spend hours every year to conceptualise the new experiences and create a world-class event.

It paid off. We have received numerous accolades as the Best Exhibition in Southern Africa for Consumers and Trade, and for the 2016 SA Cheese Festival the joint winner as best Consumer Exhibition (over 12 000m²) in Africa, by AAXO (Association for African Exhibition Organisers).

Our largest group of attendees is between the ages of 25 to 40. They demand value for money, are big spenders and also your best critics. You have to listen.

The SA Cheese Festival is a culinary experience, and therefore we do not allow any other exhibitions, except for cheese, related products and alcoholic beverages at the festival. We stay true to our original objective to promote the image of agriculture and the products, in an exciting manner.

What are future plans?

The SA Cheese Festival is so much more than just a Festival. As a result of a partnership with the Western Cape Department of Agriculture, we are able to bring more artisanal cheese makers, as well as small-scale farmers, with alternative products to the festival.

It is about innovation, job creation, entrepreneurship, product development and off course, consumer awareness. We need to expand on this.

We also aim to turn the SA Cheese Festival into a truly world class event with more international exhibitors, as we believe the time is right for the consumer to compare the South African products to their international counterparts.

With more than 40% of our visitors from outside the Western Cape borders, the festival became a national event and, therefore, one of the Western Cape’s biggest tourism attractions.

Cheese will always be the jewel in the crown at the festival, and as the consumers became turophiles, we need to further increase cheese consumption in South Africa.

The festival times are from 10:00 to 18:00 daily. Sandringham is located next to the N1, Stellenbosch turn-off (exit 39), between Cape Town and Paarl.

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