A high school science project connected Kutlwana Tisane, Percyval Alset and Lerato Maphoto in 2013. The quick-witted friends outlined a plan to curb malnutrition in Mzansi and started their own company two years later to put their ideas into practice.
Today their manufacturing business, Oracle Farming Technologies, designs hydroponics systems for farmers, schools, businesses and households in Rustenberg in the North West.
They may be just 22 years old, but Tisane, Alset and Maphoto have big dreams. “We plan on becoming the largest black-owned, South African hydroponic company, as well as becoming an example for sustainable urban food supply,” Tisane exclaims.
When they were tasked by their grade nine teacher to present their ideas on building a sustainable South Africa, the three decided to tackle malnutrition. Their mission was to find a solution to increase the production rates of farmers that would help eradicate food insecurity. By the time they finished their presentation the trio were left with an intense desire to explore opportunities in farming.
After matriculating in 2016, they started talking to government stakeholders, farmers and attended agricultural conferences. “Eish, we spent most of 2017 doing research and finally decided to look into hydroponic systems manufacturing, but there was so much red tape to get through,” Tisane says.
In 2018, with help from their parents, they launched their self-funded enterprise. The co-owners individually bring unique skills to the table, Alset is a civil engineering student, Maphoto is a former marketing management student and Tisane has business experience after working in his aunts’ wine company, where he helped with logistics and admin.
Convincing the sector
Getting Oracle Farming Technologies off the ground wasn’t easy for these go-getters. Securing office space, equipment and a warehouse to construct their hydroponic structures was a huge challenge.
They didn’t know anything about quality control and had to engage with The South African Bureau of Standards. It was also difficult to convince corporates and government agriculture departments that their business could succeed.
According to Maphoto, people didn’t think that they could pull it off.
“What made it worse was that we had nothing much to show them, because we hadn’t started with production. We only had a few prototypes to show people, but they weren’t sold. Corporates would ask us questions, like ‘have you tested it?’ and ‘does it work?” Maphoto explains.
With commercial farmers not showing interest in their hydroponic systems, the trio changed their strategy and focused on producing a system for households. These are smaller in size and can grow between 40 and 50 vegetables at a time.
Alset, who does the designing work, says, “We wanted ordinary South Africans to have the option of growing fresh produce, right there in the comfort of their kitchen or backyard. No matter how small the space.”
No land needed, farm in your backyard
According to Maphoto, their larger hydroponic systems yields up to 7200 units of a desired crop per month, using less than 1500 litres of water.
“With our products you don’t need big space to start farming. Just imagine being able produce up to 7200 crops, right there in your backyard without any tractors or heavy farming equipment required,” she exclaims.
The group of entrepreneurs have also opened their own hydro farm, based in Sebokeng, Gauteng, where they grow red oak lettuce. The farm acts as a showroom for potential clients and the produce is sold at various open markets, including the Joburg fresh produce market.
Oracle Farming Technologies have also started introducing hydroponics to school children in Rustenburg and Tisane believes “if we want to make people aware of certain technologies we need to start with the young ones. We know that a lot of young people don’t consider farming to be a viable career, and it has become our mission to make agriculture fashionable to them.”
For now, the 22-year-old continues to promote their business at agricultural conferences and on their Facebook page.
Currently, their products are semi-automated. Once switched on, the water is pumped through the pipes and filters through to the plants. “This method still requires manual labour, but our goal is to have it run completely automatic by 2025 which means little or no labour at all will be needed. We also want to start producing environmentally friendly products and make it accessible for everyone at various retail stores,” Tisane explains.