Gold Fields Limited is planning a series of agricultural initiatives on the vast tracts of land that it owns in the Carletonville, Khutsong and Merafong areas of the West Rand District Municipality.
Already hydroponic farming is taking place in greenhouses fed by warm humid air from the company's mine-ventilation shafts.
The next step planned is a large-scale world-class project that will involve the growing of long-stem big-headed roses for export, beginning on 10 ha, but with 537 ha available for expansion in the Oberholzer area.
It is envisaged that the R70-million venture would ultimately yield 25-million stems a year, weighing 700 000 kg, for export by air into world markets.
A view has been taken that both the cut-flower and hydroponics projects follow world-best practice in water usage, modelled on the Israeli drip-irrigation method.
Gold Fields' vision is to create agricultural prosperity in the area of the kind that was last seen there 70 years ago, when well-watered market gardens flourished prior to dewatering by mining companies pursuing gold.
The specific area chosen for initial development is alongside a river and canal system.
In ten years, it is anticipated that the area will be dotted with greenhouses and that there will be daily flights of produce to world markets.
The venture is not a diversification exercise for Gold Fields, but a laudable sustainable development aimed at preventing the emergence of ghost towns in the wake of mine closures.
As a result, its strategy is to get the project up and running and then to withdraw, but not before long-term sustainability is assured.
Meanwhile, intensive investigations into the global cut-roses market point to strong economic viability of a local venture.
In fact, the magnitude of the project is such that several suppliers have expressed interest in establishing greenhouse-manufacturing capacity in South Africa, but this will be mainly for export, especially to East Africa.
Moreover, Dutch and Israeli cut-flower producers, who report that production costs have become prohibitive in developed countries, are seeking lower-cost locations like South Africa in order to take their operations down the cost curve.
An international specialist from Israel has been involved in the initial conceptualisation, and external consultants have completed a detailed bankable feasibility study.
A high-technology environment is planned.
There are three objectives which the project must achieve to ensure that it is sustainable; the flowers must be of extremely high quality; there must be a regular and constant supply of flowers; and the industry must be big enough to attract the interest of European investors and buyers.
Climatic control and nutrient supply will be automated to help achieve these objectives.
It is forecast that the rose project could be up and running in 15 months.
"There is a lot of interest and a great desire to see a sustainable development of this kind succeed to ensure that mining areas avoid becoming ghost towns," senior manager: property division Kevin Thomas, who joined Gold Fields from the property division of AECI in January, tells Engineering News in an exclusive interview.
Thomas is leading the new initiative, using information gathered in an intense study of the area's agricultural potential by Gold Fields senior consultant: environment Dr Andries Leuschner.
Significant spin-offs would be the establishment of a cold-chain facility, as cut-flowers must travel in refrigerated conditions, and the clinching of large-scale freightage and haulage contracts to transport the flowers to export markets.
It is estimated that the labour-intensive scheme will create 25 direct jobs per hectare and about 100 indirect jobs per hectare.
There will be a strong black economic empowerment element and Gold Fields will have an exit strategy, as the venture is a determination to set in motion viable sustainable development to prepare for the period when the mines cease to function in the area.
It is expected that income from the project will be close to R40-million a year.
Studies have shown that West Wits' sunlight levels and temperatures are ideal for rose growing, though additional heating is likely to be required during midwinter and additional cooling in midsummer.
A boon for greenhouse agricultural development is the hot air emerging from mine-ventilation shafts to warm the growing tunnels.
The ambient temperature of the ventilation air is 41