A resourceful Johannesburg woman, who was the first person to transform the city’s concrete jungle into a farm, has secured a significant contract as a fresh produce supplier. She is cultivating vegetables on the rooftops of the city’s skyscrapers. She is now supplying one of South Africa’s largest fresh produce supermarkets – the Food Lover’s Market – while also addressing numerous climate challenges.

By Gontse GeE Hlophe

A resourceful woman from Sandton, Johannesburg has been awarded a lucrative contract to supply vegetables to Food Lover’s Market, one of the largest fresh produce stores in South Africa.

Zandile Kumalo, a farmer who cultivates a diverse range of vegetables on the rooftop of the Morningside Mall, situated in the heart of Africa’s wealthiest district, impressed the judges with her innovative rooftop farming method.

Kumalo, the owner of Neighbour Roots Hydroponics, won the third edition of the Food Lovers Market and Seeds of Change Supplier Development Partnership held in Cape Town in April. The win made her one of the nine finalists who will supply the food produce chain with their vegetables.

Neighbour Roots is the first-ever winner of the Food Lover’s Market Seeds of Change supplier development partnership, which aims to support and promote fresh produce. Challenging stereotypes and embracing diversity, all three finalists were women, with two of them making significant contributions to the farming sector.

Kumalo’s innovative agricultural technique effectively addresses numerous obstacles, including the significant problem of climate change. This phenomenon poses a major challenge by hindering the production of fresh and top-notch crops. Farmers have long struggled with the adverse impacts of climate change on their crops.

With this technique, the agriculture industry is poised to cultivate a new generation of farmers, ranging from those who work in urban areas with reliable electricity backup to township farmers with limited access to electricity.

Kumalo’s initiatives have served as a source of inspiration for Food Lover’s Market, prompting the company to initiate a comprehensive boot camp aimed at introducing this emerging social enterprise supplier to the Food Lover’s Market network.

Kumalo started making headlines in 2021 when her company launched rooftop farming on the roof of Sandton Morningside Shopping Centre. She grew a range of fresh vegetables, including lettuce, baby spinach, and a variety of herbs. Her products are used by several restaurants and businesses on the floors below her farm, as well as in the surrounding areas.

“Being the winner of the Seeds of Change Supplier Development Partnership is an incredibly exhilarating and fulfilling experience. It’s a validation of all the hard work, dedication and innovation that went into developing a sustainable and impactful business.

“The feeling of accomplishment and pride is overwhelming, knowing that our efforts have been recognised and rewarded by such a reputable organisation,” said Kumalo.

The first hydroponic enterprise was established in Sebokeng, a township situated in the Vaal, south of Johannesburg. Subsequently, Kumalo collaborated with Flanagan and Gerard, forming a partnership that led to the establishment of a 3000 square meter hydroponic farm on the rooftop of Morningside Shopping Centre.

According to Kumalo, the adoption of this innovative agricultural method has not only motivated her to surpass the limitations of sustainable practices but has also prompted her to contemplate ways of empowering the broader community.

“It’s a moment of celebration and gratitude, as we realise that our commitment to making a positive difference in the world has been acknowledged and supported.”

Despite the external factors affecting her business, the majority of her agricultural aspirations have been realised. However, it is the small yet significant occurrences, such as the visit from the Minister of Agriculture, Thoko Didiza, that make it all worthwhile.

“It was great to see the minister of agriculture visit my farm, and I’m grateful that she took the time out of her busy schedule to come to see what we do here. We spoke about the benefits of hydroponics, and how it can help farmers overcome these obstacles,” she said.

Her rooftop farm has garnered several accolades since 2021. She was honoured with the Excellence in Agriculture Award by the Charlotte Mannya Maxeke Institute (CMMI) for her pioneering efforts in agricultural innovation as the youngest female recipient. Additionally, in the same year, she was bestowed with the inaugural National Presidential SMME Award for being one of the most “Innovative in the Agri Space”.

Furthermore, despite the positive progress in Kumalo’s business, there remains a significant amount of work to be accomplished. This includes the construction of their third hydroponic greenhouse, which will not only enable them to meet the current market demand but also serve as a platform for educating and cultivating the next generation on the significance of the agriculture industry.

The industry is being made accessible to young people, as Neighbour Roots is collaborating with Green Urban Farms to provide skills and training for individuals aged 18 to 25.

At first, she began with six children and is now adding seven more to a one-year program that teaches them everything they need to know about hydroponic farming. This will be beneficial for them as they will learn the scientific principles behind hydroponic farming, as well as the technical and mechanical aspects of operating a hydroponic farm.

Neighbour Roots has successfully carried out various community development initiatives for multiple schools. For instance, they built a hydroponic farm for a primary school in Orange Farm. Furthermore, they are currently working on a project for a high school in Jabulani in Soweto. In addition, they have provided two smart gardens for early childhood development centres in Alexandra and organised farm tours to demonstrate the advancements in agriculture in South Africa.

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