Farming in the sky – farmer makes the most of an urban space

Andile Matukane took farming to the rooftops in a move that meant she could enjoy the buzz of city life while she realised her farming dreams. She grows fresh green produce on the roof of one of Africa’s largest shopping malls in Pretoria. Peter Mashala visited her there.

Andile Matukane took farming to the rooftops in a move that meant she could enjoy the buzz of city life while she realised her farming dreams. She grows fresh green produce on the roof of one of Africa’s largest shopping malls in Pretoria. Peter Mashala visited her there.

Andile Matukane, an en­ terprising young farmer originally from Nkuhlu, a small village outside the little town of Bush­ buckridge in Mpuma­ langa, built an agri­ business on the roof of the Menlyn Mall in Pretoria. Establishing a hydroponic farm on the roof of the mall was no easy task and it took Andile two years to convince the centre’s management that she would not collapse their roof with heavy machinery and tons of soil, nor disturb tenants with the loud noise of tractors.

Andile’s vision of a farm was always one of large tracts of land with crops stretching to the horizon. Now she runs her hydroponic farm on the Menlyn Mall rooftop. “If ten years ago someone told me I’d be doing this, I would have laughed,” she says. She grows lettuce, spring onions, rocket and parsley which she produces mainly for restaurants and retail stores in the shopping centre.

LEARNING ABOUT THE FOOD WE EAT

After graduation Andile worked for the Dry Beans Growers Association, and the Agricultural Research Council. Then she did a stint at Dicla Training and Projects in the Eastern Cape where she promoted entre­ preneurial skills in the farming community.

“While I worked at the Dry Beans Growers Association, I was an agronomy advisor and later, at the ARC, I worked mostly in research under a plant pathologist who collected data from various farms,” recalls Andile.

This is where she developed a keen interest in plant pathology. “The idea for me was to understand the science behind growing plants, from start to finish. Being in the food industry, I have always been fascinated by how food is grown,” she says. Her goal was always to become a farmer but she wanted to know everything she could about plant production before she started farming.

RESILIENCE AND A GOOD ATTITUDE

When the time was right for her to venture out on her own, Andile posted on social media that she was looking for land to farm in Gauteng. Her post quickly got some positive responses. There was land available in Magaliesburg to rent.

“In 2017 I established my company, Farmers Choice, and set up an operation on about 4ha producing a few different lines of vegetables, but mainly spinach,” says Andile.

Within months, she had become known as the spinach lady of the Magaliesburg. “I was producing good quality, so everyone wanted to buy from me,” she says. Unfortunately, things went sour with her landlord, who wanted the land back so that she could farm for her own account. “I had made the mistake of not setting up proper contracts and agree­ ments and I didn’t have a leg to stand on,” she says. After such a promising start, Andile found herself stuck without a job or land and went home to Bushbuckridge to try and make it on communal land.

In Bushbuckridge she got 4ha of communal land on which she grew spinach and cabbage. She also started a small piggery that she still runs today. But business was slow, and she had the added frustration of having to deal with theft. During this time, her determination, drive to succeed and the desire to give back to the community, kept her spirits up.

She started a process to acquire AgriSETA accreditation for Farm Choice so that she could offer training to the community, and she trained people outside Bushbuckridge, mainly in Gauteng.

At the time she was also studying through the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) and was often in Pretoria. “The excitement of the city still attracted me and made me want to move back and farm in Gauteng.”

As part of her mission to find a way back to Pretoria she made a point of visiting various farms in the area. “Because of the set up in Gauteng, the farms are smaller and many of them use the hydroponic system.”

While researching hydroponic systems, Andile came across an article about urban farming that described how people used rooftops, among other spaces, to produce food in cities. “I found this fascinating and because of my love for the city, I was instantly attracted to the idea,” she remembers.

PITCHING THE ROOFTOP FARM

Through her research, she learned that although urban farming was taking off in South Africa, most city farming was done on the ground. “The community was very small and generally urban farms were run as NGO projects. The challenge was to create some­ thing that was commercially orientated.”

She began to connect online with, mostly international, farmers who were farming on rooftops. At the time there were only about two or three functioning rooftop farms in Johannesburg. “I applied through the NGOs for an incubation programme but couldn’t get in, so I decided I was going to do it on my own,” Andile says.

In the beginning, Andile did not think it would be hard to find a building from which to launch her urban farming project. “This was a new and exciting idea at the time and everyone was talking about green buildings. Why wouldn’t anyone want to jump at the opportunity of making their building ‘greener’?” she says.

But to her surprise and shock, no one wanted to offer her their building. She tried residential flats and shopping centres with no success. “I had responses such as, what if this farm collapses my building, what if it causes leaks… but the funniest one was how am I going to get the soil and a tractor up to the roof,” Andile recalls with a laugh.

Then a break came when she pitched the idea to the Menlyn Mall management in 2019 and some of the members showed an interest. “Still, it took time before everyone involved was convinced. The covid­19 lockdown was also part of the delay, drawing the process out to almost two years,” she adds. This delay put her under a lot of pressure as her financial backer considered pulling out of the deal with the delays in getting the right building.

ECO-FRIENDLY FARMING

Once the proposal was approved in 2022, and the agreements signed, Andile started construction of a 240m2 shade net tunnel with the capacity to handle 7 200 plants per growing season. Before production started however, Andile did some market research. Her target market was the restaurants and retailers in the centre.

“I needed to know what the demand was so that I knew what to grow for this market. One learns valuable lessons through research, for example, it’s unwise to choose a crop based on personal preferences. The market dictates what you need to produce,” she explains.

When the research was done, she pitched her offering to the buyers. Her selling points included helping stores cut their carbon footprint, reducing transport costs and offering fresher products. “Instead of the product being in transit from the farm to the market, and again from the market to the store and losing quality in the process, they could get freshly picked produce,” explains Andile.

“There is no need for refrigeration and transport. Restaurants place orders with me, I harvest exactly what they need and deliver it to them on foot.” Andile’s main crops are specialty lettuce lines (butter, cos, red oak and green oak), rocket, spring onions and parsley. These fill restaurants’ demand for salad greens.

She grows her plants from seedlings and uses cocopeat as a medium in the growing trays. The reticulating water system she uses mean that seedlings work better in the system than seeds. “The water mixed with nutrients circulating from plant to plant for 24 hours a day and can be reused for up to two weeks,” explains Andile. The cocopeat holds moisture for the plants in case there is loadshedding, or a fault in the system when no one is there.

She says besides saving water, her system has a few other advantages over conventional open-field farming. “With the current setup, I’m able to grow about 7 200 plants, compared to growing in an open field where I would probably need over half a hectare, depending on the crop,” says Andile. She explains that expanding vertically would make it possible for her to triple her production.

Andile reminds us that plants have a positive impact on pollution as they absorb CO2, which is abundant in urban areas, and release oxygen. The tunnel is covered with shade net, which means there is virtually no need for pesticide use and this helps keep input costs down.

Andile’s expansion plans include developing the entire available, and accessible, space (1ha) into Africa’s largest rooftop farm.

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