Efficiency recognised

There are people for whom their day jobs are a means to an end. Clock in at 8.30, punch out at 5pm, Monday to Friday. Collect the pay check. Rinse and repeat.

Not for Wendy Jonker, a woman few people had heard of until she was honoured by the wine industry as the worthy recipient of the award for wine advancement at the annual Wine Harvest Commemoration at Groot Constantia in early February. The event marked the 364th anniversary of South Africa’s first ever grape harvest.

“In her role as Scientific Manager responsible for food safety and quality assurance of liquor products, Jonker represents the South African government in bilateral and multilateral discussions and negotiations as a technical wine expert in the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) and the World Wine Trade Group (WWTG). She is a registered Professional Natural Scientist, and an author and reviewer of scientific publications as Vice-President of the OIV scientific committee,” is how she was introduced for the award.

What’s required of the recipient of the wine advancement honouree?

“The recipient should have made notable contributions to the image and responsible use of wine and to developing the image of the South African wine industry through the breadth of their reach.”

So, who is she and what does she do?

In a nutshell, Jonker is part of the reason that South Africa’s wine industry has such a sophisticated export documentation system, the only one of its kind in the world. It’s a matter of pride to Jonker and her staff that countries like the United States, Australia and New Zealand look to the locally-developed system as a potential model for their own industries.

To understand how she got there it’s necessary to start in 1992 when she joined Nietvoorbij, now known as ARC Infruitec Nietvoorbij. “I started in the laboratory, at the bottom, doing wet chemistry and routine analysis of all liquor products,” the modestly spoken Jonker recounts. After a few years she moved across to a different division and was involved in pesticide and microbiological analysis for a while before returning to liquor products.

“I got bored with the equipment,” she admitted with trademark honesty, “and I wanted to work more with people as well as the application of the Liquor Products Act.” And with a particular interest in the effect of allergens on people, her curiosity about liquor products and legislation was piqued.

Her mentor and boss Andries Tromp moved to the Wine and Spirits board and Jonker filled in as the acting manager of the liquor products section before going on to convince the powers that be that she was the right person for the job and her appointment was made permanent.

At that stage she oversaw several laboratories and their respective outputs and the inspectors so well known to every wine farmer … were all in the same division. Ultimately, there was a departmental restructuring and it all came under one directorate and moved to separate divisions, but import and export certification, labelling and evaluation of analytical results for compliance with the Liquor Products Act formed part of her remit.

She stated in the video broadcast at the Harvest Commemoration that integrity underpins everything she does. “The core building block of good governance is integrity. As a government official it’s important for me to have integrity – something taught to me by my parents.

“You have to do the right thing, no matter what!”

Well, around 1998 because SA wine exports were booming after the 1994 honeymoon elections of the ANC, there was an exponential increase in the work she and the department had to do. All the documentation required – and there were lots of it – had to be filled in by hand. “We used to sit until 10 or 11 at night typing up and capturing all these forms in order to get consignee clearance documentation issued.” Because of all the bureaucracy and red tape, it could take anything up to 10 days for a wine farm to get the green light to ship their orders. Ships don’t wait that long in port…

Jonker described the process in detail, including the information that original documents used to have to be couriered overseas to the recipient in order that they could take delivery of the goods! “We had a wonderful team who worked so hard!”

Because of the ongoing frustration at the logjam and delays, Wines of South Africa (WoSA) under Su Birch proposed a total rejig of the system. “WoSA and some key industry players agreed to source funding to pay for the development and maintenance of an online system – but the Department of Agriculture would administer and use it to issue the necessary clearance certificates. It was a whole process of getting approval from government,” Jonker recalls.

This sort of thing was utterly unprecedented. The wine industry wanted a system that was live 24/7 and 365 days a year. They demanded a maximum downtime of two hours. Because the government’s IT staff couldn’t guarantee the system would only ever be down for two hours should there be a fault, permission was granted for external hosting of the system by a third party.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way., WoSA was tasked with hosting and maintenance of the system but Jonker’s department in charge of access and administration. And because she had the necessary experience in both lab and export certification requirements and knew what was required, Jonker wrote the initial specifications that formed the basis of the system.

The system went live in September 2004 and since then, any wine producer can do everything online – and be granted the necessary permission in a matter of minutes and hours. It’s also something which requires constant updating as various export destinations amend their laws.

Just one example Jonker mentions is the introduction of mandatory health information on labels which the EU is in the process of introducing. “Instead of all producers having to print special labels with the nutritional information like kilojoules and carbohydrates – and only for that specific country, we’ve have introduced a system that generates  a simple QR code that can be used on labels instead,” she said. That QR code will automatically take the consumer to the producer’s website and give them the regulatory info for that specific wine. It was all made possible due to great working relations between WoSA, now under the leadership of Siobhan Thompson, the WOL IT Engineer and the Wine and Spirit Board.  The biggest plus factor was that it was developed at no additional cost to the industry.

There is an automated approval that is scheduled by the system every 10 minutes. So, anyone applying for export certification can load their information online and within any half hour period, so long as there are no errors or problems, permission will be granted and the export certificate issued. “So, when an inspector visits that producer to check the consignment, the exporter will have the necessary documentation in hand.”

Jonker concedes that there’s a lot of red tape involved in the business of loading containers, transporting it to the harbour, loading it onto the vessel and all the same processes when its offloaded – and each stage virtual paper is following each single palette of wine.

“The system is intricate with verification of signatures and identity required, tracking and traceability is tops,” Jonker says and this is where the integrity is key. “It’s the way we as South Africans lead the world and that people buying Sauvignon Blanc from Stellenbosch can – based on the Wine of Origin scheme – know with absolute certainty that it’s verified.”

With the country having exported 369 million litres of wine between January and December 2022, with a value of R9.9 billion, this sort of efficiency as well as veracity and traceability is essential.

And all this is done on copious cups of coffee! Jonker estimates about 20 a day … “Love me a good coffee! I need it to get going in the mornings … and keep going.”

And when all the hard work is done, relaxation entails simple pleasures. “I’m a home body, I like to spend time with my husband, my two daughters and our dogs. It might sound like a cliché but a long walk on the beach with the dog does wonders for relaxation. And a good cup of coffee!”

- Blog by Fiona McDonald