Playing a hand in more productive land

The HandPicked agricultural skills development programme from Mr Price Foundation is using vertical crop production to create entrepreneurial opportunities for agricultural students and home growers. The foundation is seeing valuable early results from this corporate social investment programme, including growing more food, closer to markets. African Farming’s Robyn Joubert visited the project.

In October 2020, when South Africa was in the grip of the covid­19 pandemic, Mr Price Foundation launched an agri­ cultural training programme in Hammars­ dale, KwaZulu­Natal. Dubbed “Hand­ Picked”, the programme specialises in vertical crop production, with a vision to stimulate youth and community farmers to become more productive and enterprising. HandPicked is showing encouraging early results.

Twenty­four home growers have completed training and set up 30 growing tunnels at households and community centres; and 10 youth from agricultural tertiary institutions have bolstered their theoretical knowledge with valuable practical and business skills.

Two micro agribusinesses and two seedling nurseries have also spun­off from the programme. This marks the first time that Mr Price Foundation has invested in skills training in the agricultural sector. It is funded primarily by Mr Price Group, with VeldskoenTM and CHEP coming onboard as partners to scale the programme for greater impact.

“Mr Price Foundation historically develops the skills of youth for formal employment in the retail value chain. Given the lack of formal job opportunities, we created HandPicked in partnership with FreshLife Produce to connect youth with economic opportunities in agri­ culture,” explained Karen Wells, head of Mr Price Foundation.

The first phase of HandPicked is a 12­month skills development programme, where participants learn life skills, business training and modern growing techniques. They also gain practical experience, including seedling production and growing crops hydroponically under greenhouse, in vertical towers of growing pods.

“We believe that with effective agricultural skills development, youth and communities can find innovative ways to generate a sustainable income through farming, with the added benefit of providing more food, closer to markets, using less scarce resources.”

HandPicked sources participants from agricultural tertiary institutions and from engagements within the Hammarsdale community. Located 50km west of Durban, Hammarsdale is the site of Mr Price Group’s main distribution centre.

“Candidates with a positive attitude to farming and a flair for entrepreneurship are selected. After training, growers can go on to create vertical growing hubs in communities or home gardens. They shift from consumers to producers – and stimulate local economies and community food production,” said Karen.

The HandPicked programme is implemented by Freshlife Produce, utilising the African Grower vertical growing system, and is supported by Thandeka Zulu, CEO of Niya Consulting.

“What sets HandPicked apart from many other farming projects is that candidates learn how to grow crops hydroponically in vertical towers, using water-saving coconut coir as the growing medium. By planting vertically, we can dodge common issues of limited access to space and water, and poor soil health. At the same time, you can plant more densely when you plant vertically,” said Thandeka.

The system has shorter lead times than traditional field farming and growers are seeing healthy yield improvements, Thandeka said.


The second phase of HandPicked is the establishment of sustainable growing hubs and microbusinesses. Of the 10 tertiary students trained, three have set up two agribusiness; and four others have erected growing tunnels at their homes.

The first agribusiness is a 0.2ha growing hub at Mr Price Group’s support centre in Durban. They plan their crops according to the demand of their onsite market, which is a bustling canteen and market days. The second micro-business is Amagalelo Agribusiness, on 0.5ha in Hammarsdale. Amagalelo is a dual model utilising both soil and vertical farming, as well as a seedling nursery. Market forces are key to HandPicked and it pays close attention to matching supply and demand.

“We want our agripreneurs to be self- sufficient. They need to create economic opportunities and run profitable growing hubs. Amagalelo is positioned directly inside the Hammarsdale community and grows crops according to community needs. Farmers have learned which crops are higher margin crops with a shorter turnaround time,” said Thandeka.


HandPicked has already upskilled 24 home growers with agricultural know-how, of whom 10 are people with disabilities. These growers have established 30 tunnels at their households and centres at Vukuzame, Mophela, Gugulethu crèche and Ward 5, and are improving the wellbeing and nutrition of 104 dependants.

The intent is for home growers to also become food producers, although those that cannot take it forward can still take care of their needs by growing for the table and selling or exchanging any surplus.

“HandPicked promotes localisation and is capacitating and promoting agripreneurs in the community. Consumers can purchase directly from farmers and they are not carrying the deadweight of logistics and cold chain management,” said Thandeka.


By the end of the 2023 financial year, HandPicked aims to have established four more growing hubs, with four agripreneurs and 10 home growers upskilled per hub.

It is also investigating value-adding through food processing, for example producing chilli sauce for local outlets, such as community centres, households, markets and crèches. It has identified the need for remote technological business support for agripreneurs, to trouble shoot and provide quicker support and aftercare to its emerging farmers.

“HandPicked is operating in niche markets and is still quite new, so the impact is not fully tested. However, it is yielding positive results and indicates that the programme can scale well and is cost-effective. Agripreneurs are evolving towards their own financial sustainability and food security,” said Karen.



The 0.2ha growing hub at Mr Price Group’s support centre in Durban is operated by two young agripreneurs: Mandisa Mathenjwa and Phumelele Godlo. Their site holds seven greenhouses, each equipped with vertical towers and growing pods.

The agripreneurs have formed a microbusiness, MP Agribusiness, and a seedling nursery, and produce crops such as tomatoes, peppers, spring onions, lettuce, thyme, coriander, baby spinach and chillies.

Originally from Empangeni, 21-year-old Mandisa holds a B.Agriculture majoring in crop production and management from the University of Free State. After graduating in 2020, she was selected for the HandPicked programme, and was then placed as an intern at the Durban hub.

“I have been working here for one year. As an intern, I learnt about planting, irrigating and researching pests and disease. My farming skills have really improved. I only had theoretical knowledge from university. We learnt from pictures. But when we got to HandPicked, we could find out for ourselves how plants behave, how to harvest, how to package, as well as the business side.

“Farming is not just about planting and selling. You have to consider market demand and margins,” said Mandisa. Mandisa believes that her experience will equip her to be a successful agri-business owner.

“My passion is farming and with the experience from Mr Price Foundation I am now more than fit to run my own business. At times like this, it does not make sense to wait for someone to hire you,” she said.



Once you’ve had a taste for an easier and more productive way of farming, it’s hard to go back to old ways. That’s why Amagalelo Agribusiness in Hammarsdale is pursuing their goal to convert their whole farm from field farming to tunnel farming.

This venture is run by five family members: sisters Nosipho Mkhize and Mbali Nyawuza, brothers Vusi Mkhize and Russell Mkhize, and their mother, Nikeziwe Nyawuza.

Staple crops like sweet potato, butternut, peppers, carrot, spinach, onions and iceberg lettuce are planted in fields, while peppers, tomatoes and frilly lettuce are among the crops grown under greenhouses in vertical towers.

Vusi, 35, entered the HandPicked programme in December 2021. After his training, HandPicked set up four greenhouses on the Mkhize farm, each kitted with 24 towers and 96 growing pods. Since then, Amagalelo has seen yields increase by 71%. It opened their eyes to the benefits of vertical tunnel farming.

“Growing vertically and in tunnels is much better than soil farming. We can harvest Mba 90% of our expected crop whereas with soil we get less than 60%. Plus, it is easier to manage and control pests. You have to work longer and harder with soil. There are so many pests and diseases to control.”

When Hammarsdale came under heavy rains in April, flooding caused severe crop damage and soil erosion in the fields. Yet the tunnels were unharmed. “It is very clear to me which system is passing and which one is failing. If this whole farm could be run under tunnel, things would be much easier.”

Vusi says vertical farming also allows them to plant more densely, over a smaller footprint. “We can grow so much more in tunnels. I can harvest six to eight crates of tomatoes in one tunnel. We can’t compare this harvest to soil. We want to grow 100% under cover.”

The family is in the process of applying for government funding to erect tunnels and to build storage, packing and training facilities. “My main calling is to teach younger ones for their agriculture career. Farming is key to fighting against starvation,” Vusi said.

You can watch a video of the HandPicked project here:

For more information visit handpicked/

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