When Phumzile Chifunyise ventured into business at the end of 2019, she had no idea that a global pandemic would be the lynchpin that would scale her business in five months’ time. Phumzile intended to open an agro-processing company – The Crop Box – that would showcase fresh produce grown by urban black farmers in South Africa.
The idea came to her after visiting a fresh produce packing house a couple of years ago on one of her site visits as an enterprise development manager for a leading South African corporate.
As she retells the story, Phumzile’s voice lightens up, she expresses how given her “typical township” upbringing in Hammanskraal she had never thought much about how food made its way to her table.
Like many, she thought the food transaction was a highly corporate one where one could only access food at the supermarket or at most the local green grocer! Little did she know at the time that she would one day form part of providing transparency and shortened supply chains between farmers and consumers.
“Here I am. Just a mere 30 to 40kms away from my house. I find myself walking through fields and fields of the very beginning of the food chain that I only experienced at the very end as a consumer on the store shelf. I was just blown away!”
Ironically, there are numerous farms near her childhood home, but she never paid attention nor did she visit these growing up. Now a self-professed foodie and “salad queen”, Phumzile was enchanted by what she saw at the packhouse and resolved there and then that she too would own her agro-processing facility one day that would create much-needed jobs in the country.
The Crop Box used social media to introduce consumers to the farms and farmers and various farming methods.
Five months later, in October 2020, The Crop Box was able to branch into wholesale orders, offering quality through same to next day delivery post-harvest. They source their produce from a network of at least six emerging local farmers in Krugersdorp and as far as Limpopo, for clients in Gauteng and as far as Mpumalanga and North West.
For Phumzile it’s a crucial time as it generally takes up to three years for a start-up to begin making a profit. As with any start-up, friends and family are also considered employees. According to Phumzile, The Crop Box has 5 employees; herself (chief driver and everything in between), her husband (right-hand man and operations), sister (packer and social media), mother (advisor), and her father (security and #1 cheerleader).
Navigating the growth path
Despite the gains made by The Crop Box, Phumzile cautions that challenges still exist especially with the uncertainty caused by the continued spread of the virus.
She recounts how demand grew exponentially as lockdown regulations eased, leading to a loyal customer base. However, at the beginning of the second wave of the outbreak (in December 2020), she has seen demand dwindle. Reasons for this ranged from customers going back to work, school, and general social activities, some who never returned from holidays over December, and a generalised fear about catching the virus.
Nonetheless, in tandem with the slowdown in the second wave of the virus, demand began to pick up in mid-January 2021 amongst her loyal customer base as well as those who wished to buy local.
Phumzile mentions she was able to both retain and attract a variety of new customers through social media. In fact, customers both old and new sought out The Crop Box due to the local values, her being a woman agro-processor that also delivers, plus the businesses’ sustainability efforts to drive the elimination of plastic in their packaging through the usage of boxes and paper bags for loose produce such as blueberries and mushrooms.
Looking ahead, Phumzile expects to build an agro-processing facility both in Johannesburg and in her hometown of Hammanskraal and hopes The Crop Box will become a vessel that can showcase the story of black African farmers.
For now, the story of The Crop Box is a marvel because of the impact that Covid had on the growth of the company. By tweaking an existing business model, to accommodate for restricted movements of consumers, the business was able to ride on the first Covid wave in South Africa.
Conversely, the second wave brought new challenges for Phumzile’s business model as the virus started affecting clients’ health and economic wellbeing, threatening the gains The Crop Box had made during the first wave of the virus.
It remains to be seen whether The Crop Box will be able to ride out the unpredictable Covid storm. However, given the trend towards the digital economy, that has been accelerated by Covid, Phumzile and the farmers she works with may have a very prosperous future.