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Urban rooftop farmer making a difference in the sky

A servant of Hillbrow, organic farmer Sibongile Cele is a rising agricultural star

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Hillbrow, Johannesburg. 2019. A veritable den of wantonness and bedlam. A place where violent crime is as every day as the rising of the Jozi sun. Where peace and tranquillity for its denizens are absent and the shadows of poverty that stalk them are profuse and death-defiant. A black hole into which the hopeless have been sucked and where predators lurk around every bend.

Or, so some would have you believe…

Sibongile grows spinach, lettuce, basil, parsley and other herbs.
Sibongile Cele grows spinach, lettuce, basil, parsley and other herbs. Photo: Funiwe Ngwenya

Every morning on the top of The Outreach Foundation building, you will find Sibongile Cele working on one of just a handful of urban rooftop farms in Gauteng. Woman alone, tending her crops, which includes spinach, lettuce, basil, parsley and an assortment of other herbs. Her hands bring to harvest organically grown produce of the highest quality and, in the process, debunk the malignant stereotypes that beset the national view of Hillbrow as a slum beyond repair and rescue.

“I am a social agripreneur,” she says. “As much as I am into business, I can’t idly sit by and watch people go hungry.”

It’s only been two-and-a-half years since Cele left her high-flying accounting job at Deloitte to start the Mcebo Wealth Rooftop Farm. It has begun to see progress on the financial front, with the business breaking even. On account of its owner’s mighty heart, the farm has also catalyzed social transformation in Hillbrow in an array of ways.

Sibongile works hard. Things are not easy.

Sibongile Cele tending to her organic vegetables on one of her urban farming rooftop farms in Gauteng.
Cele tending to her organic vegetables on one of her urban rooftop farms in Gauteng. Photo: Funiwe Ngwenya

Although a growing phenomenon worldwide, urban rooftop farming is fairly new to the South African agricultural industry. Cutting-edge technology has advanced the sector significantly, enabling agripreneurs to forego farming as we know it – on the ground in far-away, rural areas – and make it accessible to our inner cities. The technology Cele uses is known as the hydroponic system, where her produce is grown in A-frame shelf racks with props used to hold plants upright to ensure roots reach nutrient-rich water underneath them.

However, while the system is economical and fairly simple to manage, this year’s summer has challenged the machinery’s ability to keep at bay Gauteng’s blistering heat waves, forcing her to purchase industrial fans to avoid damage to her produce. This, she says, has come at a huge cost to the farm.

Additionally, as organic produce is priced slightly higher than conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, there is a real difficulty, she says, “in penetrating the markets, as the commission that the agents we use to sell our produce charge, cuts into our profits and make recovering our costs challenging”.

Yet, despite these challenges, Cele has sallied forth. Her resolve remains undiluted. No obstruction has been allowed to prosper long enough for her to forget that she’d built her business in large part to function as a servant of the Hillbrow community.

Among the many of her philanthropic efforts, she provides spinach to the Outreach

Sibongile Cele
Sibongile Cele. Photo: Funiwe Ngwenya

Foundation’s kitchen at no cost. She provides free food to a local orphanage. She sets aside portions of her produce in the event she stumbles across anyone who may be in need of food. She imparts her farming knowledge and expertise to any young person willing to learn. She provides use of her rooftop as space for other organic farmers to sell their products and, as if all of this is not enough, she volunteers her accounting services to younger up and coming farmers on a pro bono basis.

About the source of her desire to see others benefiting through her business, she cites the example her parents set for her as a little girl. Her dad owned a community garden and would often encourage her to “teach others how to do it, to put in your time, to change the world one community at a time”.

Remember the name Sibongile Cele. Remember her not only as an agricultural star on the rise, but as one of many whose exploits are often lost in our casting aside of Hillbrow as a place without hope. Remember her as one of many in Hillbrow making real, life-saving changes on the ground and, indeed, way up in the Jozi sky.

Faeez Van Doorsen
Faeez Van Doorsen
Faeez van Doorsen is a freelance writer and content producer with over 18 years of experience across multiple media platforms, including television, radio, print, social media and film. The only three things he loves more than writing is… writing, writing and more writing!
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