Chapter 16.03: On Innovation and Creativity.

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting.  Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.

On Innovation and Creativity

October 1960
Cape Town

Dear Children,

I count myself among the most fortunate humans on earth. The things I discovered about life transcend all disciplines. In my research, over the years I came across some of the greatest stories but few are as great as the stories from your own family. Before I write the last chapter on the best bacon company on earth, I want to talk a bit about innovation. It is the hallmark of what I tried to do during my career. Barend from Dayavu Farming taught me a saying which I will never forget. He would say. . . “Well, we have come too far to now give up!” Any person who is committed to a new and innovative approach at some point comes to that realisation. Marius Kok, my cousin whose brainchild Dayavu Farming is, passed that point long ago and Barend keeps telling him that. Before one gets that confident, one must know what you are talking about! I want to tell you the story of Oupa Eben Kok, Marius and my grandfather and your great-grandfather. For what follows, Ouma is the Afrikaans for grandmom, Oupa is grandfather and Oom is uncle.

Oupa Eben Kok: Innovation and Creativity

Oupa Eben matriculated at the local school in Heilbron in 1929 and after school, he joined Standard Bank. He completed several bank exams and worked in places like Vrede, Vredefort and Koppies. In 1934 he bought a Kings English Dictionary that is still in Oom Jan’s possession to this day to help him with his studies. While he was working in Vredefort he met Ouma Susan and they got married on 07 Augustus 1939. Oupa had a bicycle to ride to work and when he wanted to visit Susan, he would ride with his bicycle to her parent’s farm, Leeuspruit. It was 7 miles out of town. A story is told that he left for home one evening very late when it was already dark. There was no moon that night. He did not see a cow sleeping on the road and bicycle-and-all rode over the poor sleeping animal. Ouma Susan had to take care of her grandfather, Piet Rademan. Oupa Eben at that time lived with Oupa Giel and Ouma Santjie and they could only get married after Oupa Piet’s death at the age of 99 in 1937. Eben and Susan were both 28 when they got married.

From Vredefort Eben was trasferred to Koppies. In his heart, he was a farmer and they lived on a smallholding in the Weltevrede area just outside town. My mom, Santjie, Oom Jan and Oom Uysie were all three born while they lived on the smallholding. They had cows, donkeys, sheep, chickens and turkeys. Even though Oom Jan was only 3 years old when they moved from the smallholding to the farm Stillehoogte, he still remembers the smell of the living room (voorkamer) where the cattle and other feeds were stored.

While working in Koppies, Oupa Eben got transferred to Natal. Oupa Giel and Ouma Santjie were very disappointed that their child had to move so far away and Oupa Giel invited Oupa Eben to join him in his own farming business. This big move to the farm Leeuspruit happens in 1945 just after the birth of Oom Uysie.

Up to this point, it is just a story of your great grandparents and what they did to create a life for themselves. The next bit of the story hones in on the point I am trying to make about creativity.

The first prerequisite for innovation and creativity is hard work and commitment. It is the caveat to all stories of success in any sphere of life. Oupa Eben was committed to making a success of farming. The farm was self-sufficient. Once a year, in the winter, an ox was slaughtered with a pig and sausages and biltong was made and meat was cured. In those years there were no fridges or freezers and cooling was accomplished through evaporation. Meat was hung in a cabinet, covered with a fine sieve.

Marius built exactly such a cabinet to cure biltong at his place in Kitwe, Zambia. It stands in his garage. A perfect place to dry biltong! 🙂

This cabinet was called “the safe,” constructed to keep out vlies and other insects. Every second or third week a sheep was slaughtered, and chickens, ducks and turkeys provided eggs. Butter was made from the cream from the few milk cows. Leather reams or straps were made from beef hides and used to span the oxen. The chickens, eggs, cream and butter provided the income to pay for groceries when they went to town.

They ploughed and planted using oxen. Fertiliser was a luxury and unnecessary expense because before any planting was done, animal dung was removed from the cow and sheep sheds and worked into the fields to fertilise the soil.

Oupa Eben was not scared of hard work. He had three farms: Leeuspruit, Stillehoogte and Christina. The last two farms were approximately 25 km from Leeuspruit where they lived. Whenever they worked those two farms he stayed over on the farms from Sunday evening to Saturday afternoon. There were no buildings on the farms. He would join plastic fertiliser bags and hung them around the trailer as protection from the wind and some insulation and he slept under the trailer on a camping bed. He cooked his food on an open fire. When a shed was later constructed on the farm Stillehoogte, this became his home while that farm was worked. Any great breakthrough goes hand in hand with great personal sacrifice which goes hand in hand with complete dedication.

The third characteristic of innovation is study and a thorough knowledge of the subject matter. Oupa Eben used every opportunity to study farming and to become acquainted with the latest farming techniques. He eventually managed to convince Oupa Giel that they should buy tractors. Oupa Giel was not very agreeable but eventually, they bought a blue Fordson tractor. As it happened, the first year they used the tractor they had a complete crop failure. Oupa Eben and the tractor were blamed for it. At some point, the vision of an innovator becomes crystal clear and he or she pushes through despite temporary setbacks. Every innovator at some point says: “Well, we have come too far to now give up!”

Oupa Eben’s tractor made unexpected world news. In my research on bacon, I came across a very short mention of him in newspapers in 1953 and 1954 across America. What probably happened was that these papers either belonged to the same owner or had some agreement about sharing content and so it happened that the story of Oupa Eben and his tractor was reported on across America. By itself, it is not a headline-grabbing article, but the fact that Oupa Eben and his tractor made newspapers across America is in itself remarkable and fits the discussion on creativity. The exact article that appeared across so many newspapers is given below.

From The La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wisconsin) 27 May 1953

The newspapers that carried the exact same story of Eben Kok were:

  • The La Crosse Tribune, La Crosse, Wisconsin, Wednesday, May 27, 1953 (quoted above);
  • The York Dispatch, York, Pennsylvania, Thursday, March 04, 1954;
  • The Times,  Shreveport, Louisiana, Sunday, May 03, 1953;
  • The Morning Call, Allentown, Pennsylvania, Tuesday, July 27, 1954
  • The Daily Sentinel, Grand Junction, Colorado, Sunday, May 03, 1953
  • Lubbock Morning Avalanche, Lubbock, Texas, Friday, May 01, 1953
  • The Morning Call, Paterson, New Jersey, Monday, August 17, 1953
  • Fort Lauderdale News, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Friday, May 15, 1953
  • Wausau Daily Herald, Wausau, Wisconsin, Tuesday, May 19, 1953
  • The Tampa Tribune, Tampa, Florida, Friday, May 08, 1953
  • Sioux City Journal, Sioux City, Iowa, Thursday, May 07, 1953
  • The Knoxville Journal, Knoxville, Tennessee, Sunday, May 03, 1953
  • Hartford Courant, Hartford, Connecticut, Tuesday, May 12, 1953
  • Dayton Daily News, Dayton, Ohio, Tuesday, May 12, 1953

Oupa Eben is my role model for creativity and innovation and has been for my entire life.

Oupa Eben on his farm Stillehoogte on one of his later acquired tractors.

Ouma Susan on Stillehoogte, bringing coffee and refreshments to her husband.

Oom Jan Kok (my uncle), eldest son of Eben Kok writes, “I remember the incident like yesterday. Japie’s dad, Uncle Freek phoned to say that the shed was on fire. Oupa Eben immediately jumped in his jeep and hastened to Stillehoogte (his farm). In the corner was a few 44-gallon drums with power paraffine used for the tractor. Fortunately, the fire was put out before they exploded. The parts of the tractor that could burn or melt were all gone. Oupa Eben and Uncle Rademan Marx, who had a garage on Reitzburg, re-did the wiring and everything that had to be replaced was bought. Eventually, the tractor could be used again. It was a blue Fordson.”

Oom Jan continues that “the thing that made a huge impression on me was Ouma (grandmom) who sat on the bed with her head in her hands, crying.” Oom Jan again tells about the disagreement brought about by the use of the tractor. “There was a serious argument between Oupa Eben and his father in law and mother in law over the tractor. The first year they used the tractor there was a complete harvest failure and Oupa Giel and Ouma Santjie staunchly believed that this was the tractors fault that the harvest was so bad.”

Such is the course of events of all great innovations and creative moments. What is innovative today, real proper innovation becomes the normal and generally accepted of tomorrow.

The Woodys Example

In Woodys we did many things that speak to a culture of innovation and creativity. One of the first things we had to do was to project an image “bigger than ourselves.” Dawie Hyman was instrumental in helping us achieve this by creating four memorable adverts for Woodys which instantaneously got us appointments with the right buyers. I remember how one of these adverts was featured at a national conference of the largest retailer in Africa. Oscar, myself and Ehrhardt were there to represent the company. We were nobody in everybody’s eyes, but the advert made an impression and got us appointments with the right people.

As the company grew we continued to meet challenges with creativity based upon a thorough understanding of the principles of curing and meat technology.

It is very cold again tonight. I can hear the waves crash on the rocks below our apartment. I am looking forward to an early night!

Lots and lots of love from Cape Town,

Your Dad.

Further Reading

Nose-to-Tail and Root-to-Tip: Re-Thinking Emulsions

Eben Interviews Food Mavericks

The History of Bacon, Ingredients and related technologies

The Present and Future of Food Processing


(c) eben van tonder

Stay in touch

Die Kompleet Werke van JW Kok (Oom Jan/ Kokkie)

The Collective Works of JW Kok (Oom Jan/ Kokkie)