Living in the concrete jungle of Sandton, where towering buildings almost press up against one other, nature can feel like a somewhat distant concept. But with her stunning hydroponic rooftop farm, 29-year-old Zandile Kumalo is on a serious mission to make the concrete jungle of Gauteng green.
Kumalo’s co-owned farm called Neighbour Roots is neatly situated on top of Sandton’s Morningside Shopping Centre.
There, she grows a variety of fresh vegetables such as lettuce, baby spinach and a variety of herbs. She sells her produce to several restaurants and businesses on the floors below her, as well as in surrounding areas.
“We wanted to bring produce closer to market because we realised during Covid-19 restaurants were struggling to get fresh produce, especially leafy green vegetables,” Kumalo says.
“We saw that we could take the opportunity to build this type of system on a rooftop. We wanted to test if this concept works, and it is working very well.”
The greatest part about her business, she says, is that her clientele enjoys easy access to her produce from her rooftop farm. “They can get it easier and quicker. I mean they can literally place their order as late as 16:00 in the afternoon and get it the delivered the same day,” she says.
The 300 square meter hydroponic farm was founded in partnership with the centre’s co-owners, property development firm Flanagan & Gerard, with some creative thinking from the nearby Redhill School’s grade 9 pupils.
The learners were tasked with the job of preparing a business pitch, to Flanagan & Gerard as investors, to establish an urban farm on the roof of the shopping centre.
“When I heard about the project, I approached them. Lucky for me at that time they were looking for a Technical Partner in the project,” Kumalo explains.
Because her clients are high-end restaurants, Kumalo says she spends a lot of time ensuring the quality of her crops. Using the hydroponic farming system, she explains, supports her mission for quality produce.
“It also helps mitigate a lot of issues that other farmers have such as access to land, water scarcity and produce wastage. Hydroponics helps you to be a precise farmer and to grow what you need for your clients,” she says.
According to Kumalo, Neighbour Roots saves up to 80% of its water compared to conventional farming enterprises. This, she explains, is because they recirculate their water enabling them to save litres upon litres.
“I think that as the population grows land is going to become a scarcity and we’ll find ourselves growing on concrete places.”
“I think it’s better for new, young growers to start learning now how to become much more innovative and better leaders in the agricultural space, so that they can be able to compete in the innovation of farming.”
Rural hunger awareness
This, however, is not Kumalo’s first rodeo. She’s been growing food for as long as she can remember.
It all started when she decided to utilise her family’s 2000 square meter backyard space in Henley on Klip to grow food. At the time, Kumalo says she was on mission to create awareness of zero hunger in her community.
“No one in my family ever took an interest in agriculture, so I’m the first. I was always just that child that loved nature. My mom would yell at me for getting clothes dirty after ‘messing up’ her garden,” Kumalo recalls with laughter.
Initially, she thought that her love for growing food would not go any further, but it eventually developed into more than just a side hustle.
While studying towards a diploma in analytical chemistry at the Vaal University of Technology (VUT), Kumalo wanted to immerse herself even further into the agricultural space.
“I thought, how can I use my chemistry education in a different sector such as agriculture. It was important for me to spend a great deal of my time in the conventional farming space, understanding how to run a successful farm and how to deal with nature’s unpredictability,” Kumalo says.
With a leap of faith Kumalo founded her first hydroponic farm in 2017 in partnership with VUT. The farm called HyHarvest is situated at the VUT, Science and Technology Park, Sebokeng.
While most hydroponic farming systems are found near urban areas, she wanted to take the concept home. “I brought hydroponic farming to the townships. So, my farm was the first hydroponic farm in the Vaal in a township area,’ she says.
When Eskom switches off the plugs
Of course, Kumalo was not excused from challenges and starting HyHarvest was no small task.
“I realised that load shedding in the townships is not the same as load shedding in the city. So, when it first hit, I was like, ‘Load shedding for two days? No ways! This won’t work,” she laughs.
Kumalo recalls losing a lot of her produce. However, they managed to raise funds to buy solar panels and the hydroponic farm started doing much better.
Today her company brings exposure of agri-tech farming technologies to the township. The company used to operate a packhouse in Johannesburg for farmers in need of improved agro-processing standards. Unfortunately the packhouse had to close down.
Even with the start of Neighbour Roots, Kumalo had issues with load shedding which would last for about four hours per day on average. They have since connected to Morningside shopping centre’s generator in order for the rooftop farm to have a supply of electricity when Eskom switches off the plugs.
Her current challenge is securing funding to expand, so that they can meet the demand for the off-take agreements they are getting.
But amidst challenging times Kumalo says she won’t lose spirit, even when the going is tough.
“I have big future plans to make Sandton green and bring food closer to the market” Kumalo says.