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Illovo’s Covid-19 story

At the beginning of March 2020 for many of us Covid-19 was a distant threat, something that we heard about happening in China, on the other side of the world.  And then, on the 5th of March, news broke that the first case of the virus was found in KZN.

“This was the first case in Africa and right in our back yard!” says Kim Usher, Group Human Resources Director for Illovo Sugar Africa based in Durban.  “What immediately brought it home for us was that one of our own employees had been in direct contact with South Africa’s “Patient Zero”, post which he had spent two days at our Umhlanga head office in Durban.  It then dawned on us that if he turned out positive for the virus, we had around 300 employees potentially exposed to the virus.”

The Illovo Leadership Team had to respond quickly.  “We only had days to learn about the virus and the implications for our business.”  says Kim.  “It was remarkable how quickly the leadership team rallied around the crisis.  In a corporate culture where it can sometimes take a long time to make decisions and generate action, the leadership sped things up to a number of days.  We took decisions at lightning speed, gathered and shared information and got an emergency response team up and running.”  Kim explains.  “We had to plan for and communicate with our businesses in South Africa and five other African countries – at a time when there were there were still a lot of unknowns.”

The Group Communications Manager, Chris FitzGerald, hails transparency as the hallmark of their communication to employees.  “We communicated clearly and from the heart,” he says.  “We emphasised that employees’ safety was our number one concern and used many different channels to get the message out.”  Having the response team meeting every day at 09:00 was critical to ensuring that as an essential food producer, they worked hard to maintain their existing business continuity across all the fronts of the business, taking every caution from preventing the spread of fake news.  “We did, and are still doing podcasts, videos from the MD, newsletters and emails,” explains Chris, “and we encourage our employees to share this information with their personal networks as well.  We have also launched a dedicated COVID-19 internet portal for our employees, giving them real-time access to all of the information which we are sharing about the virus.” Illovo has made the content that they created available to the broader public as well.

Daryl Williams, a Capability Specialist, shares what it was like for the employees during this time.  “Everyone was understandably anxious and scared,” she remembers, “but the leadership team struck the right balance between pragmatism and transparency.  They were very visible, communicated with humanity and were honest when they didn’t have the answers.  What stood out for me was that the Leadership Capabilities we have in the business were not just posters on the wall anymore, the leadership team was actively living them!”

The Illovo employee’s COVID-19 test came back negative, which allowed everyone a temporary sigh of relief.  Following the imposition of lockdown in South Africa, employees were set up to work from home, and steps were taken to ensure the safety of all our people across the business, in cane fields, factories and administration centres, including the group’s head offices.  Kim knows that it’s not always easy working from home when you juggle work, family and other responsibilities.  “For many employees this was the first WFH experience, and they are doing tremendously well!  Their productivity is high, they are empowered to deliver, and people are making it work.”  She sees it as critical to keep on connecting with employees not just on work-related content, but on a personal level too.  “The culture in Illovo is one of connection and strong interpersonal relationships, and we are deliberate about keeping these strong.”

Strong leadership and involvement from the MD, Gavin Dalgleish has made a tremendous impact.  “Gavin links in with employees from his lounge every day,” Kim says, “showing a very human side.  He picks up the phone to speak to people on the ground and connects with them strongly through the crisis.  Support from our parent company, AB Sugar, has also been very valuable.”

Rahm Emanuel famously said that you should never let a crisis go to waste.  Kim echoes this.  “Our employees have done the impossible in very difficult times – they are performing at speed, taking responsibility and solving problems on the ground.  They have shown us, and themselves, that they can do this.  This will surely assist us in building sustainability around these behaviours after the crisis.”

The team identifies the following as key learnings:

  • A strong leadership team focusing on learning quickly, deciding conclusively and communicating honestly and deliberately;
  • A team of strong subject matter experts to lean on during time of crisis;
  • Keeping employees at the heart of the matter, balancing it with the business needs;
  • Slowing down and listening to what is – and what isn’t – being said;
  • Having a long-term view in the midst of short term fears;
  • Recognising great work and acknowledging it.


Kim Usher
A diversified and dynamic organisational development professional with 23 years’ experience in building effective organisations and developing an effective people management capability. Offers an across-the-board proficiency in the following business environments: Control Management | Administration | Human Resources | Change Management | General Management | Area Management | Design, Execution and Control of Strategies, Vision, Systems and Policies | Capacity and Stakeholder Relations | Leadership, Guidance and Mentoring | Training and Skills Development. A decidedly motivated self-starter with natural leadership skills who appreciates challenges and adheres to a strong work ethic. Furthermore possesses a forward-thinking ability to build strategic partnerships and focus on productivity sharing, as well as organisational transformation. Equally maintains a proven career track record of meeting organisational objectives, driving results and providing tangible solutions to organisational challenges.

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