After working in the information technology and software engineering space for almost 17 years, Nerudo Mregi decided to branch out into farming, eager to incorporate data science and technology into this field.
“I’m from a technology background, and I got really drawn into trying to figure out better methods of farming and better methods of growing vegetables organically,” he says.
So, when his mother, Sudzai, brought up the idea that she wants to start farming just before her retirement in 2019, a side hustle partnership was born.
The 30-year-old from Springs, east of Johannesburg, says the more he and his mother discussed the matter, the closer she got to retirement. “So, I then just told her, you know, I think let’s just do this! She was very keen to start because she had already had the idea of starting a chicken business,” he recalls.
Mregi took a mortgage from the bank and bought a five-hectare farm in Springs in 2020. With the assistance of his neighbour and sister they started planting vegetables on the farm.
“We do commercial market gardening, so we grow kale, spinach, spring onion, pepper, lettuce, coriander, mint, oyster mushrooms and beetroot. We also farm with chickens on the farm,” he says.
He explains that the reason why they chose those vegetables and herbs is because they are currently in demand in most households in the country.
The mother-and-son team decided to call the farm Mum and Son Farm and they supply their produce to three different Food Lover’s Market stores in Johannesburg, as well as the Joburg Market.
He says they became suppliers for these outlets simply by being courageous enough to walk into those establishments and sell their products to management. He shares, however, that winning in the Joburg Market is quite hard.
“We supply to the produce market, but because we don’t produce in large quantities, it’s harder for us to make it profitable. Essentially you are taking like 1000 bundles of spinach and the market makes it very hard for you to predict how much you can make. So, you can’t really create a sustainable income,” he says.
The Mregis have since shifted their business from predominately supplying the Joburg Market to supplying consumers directly.
Using data and the ‘internet of things’
He says his technological background afforded him the opportunity to farm effectively. He currently works in the financial services and IT space at Standard Bank.
He says, “looking at data has always been my passion and I’ve always kind of dabbled in IoT (internet of things), AI (artificial intelligence), predictive analytics, and stuff like that. So, farming just presented a great opportunity because you’re almost predicting what your crop is going to do, but in the same way you want to track every single aspect of your crop.”
Mregi explains that when an error happens that could mean you are making a loss from a crop that might have been in the ground for three months. Something about these risk calculations reminded him of his day job.
“Bringing in the sensors and the IoT stuff, which is what I just dabbled in, made it easier for me to look at it from a different perspective compared to what a farmer would look at. So that’s my approach to it.”
Mregi says from a practical perspective they started using the IoT (the network of physical objects which are connected and exchange data through the internet) on their farm to tackle their farming challenges.
One of the challenges they had was that their chickens were dying due to fluctuating temperatures.
“We built a sensor system to take the chickens’ temperature. We control everything that has to do with their wellbeing [remotely],” he says.
Mregi explains that they were also incurring a lot of costs from most of the produce that they had, so they started using the software to help them track every single aspect of how they produce.
This careful tracking enabled him to keep careful track of costs and match them to income using accounting principles.
“We started counting that this number of plants took us this number of hours. We know that this amount of labour, water and drilling is needed, to a point where we can have a report of how successful we are from a measurable reporting basis. So that’s one of the things that we’ve recently employed,” he says.
Mregi explains that they are also currently working towards figuring out how to create better packaging for their products to attract more customers and optimising their transporting process so that they can reach more consumers.