Woorde: Hein Eksteen | Foto: Michel Dei-Cont
The route leading to Andile Matukane’s farm is rather peculiar – in fact, it borders on the bizarre. You travel along a dual carriageway on the outskirts of Tshwane’s CBD (the ubiquitous cars, trucks, taxis and delivery bikes in abundance) until you hit a busy intersection where you turn off into a gargantuan shopping mall, race up to Parking Level Six, elevate to the rooftop where you find Andile farming green and red oak leaf lettuce as well as spring onions.
The end of the surprises, however, is not nigh. Andile (she describes herself as late twenty-something) is fashionably dressed in unfarmerly garb (no two-tone shirt, ankle boots and an Ozzie Jackaroo hat for her) and sports vellies adorned with pink soles and laces. The portrait is rounded off by long braided hair and fashionista sunglasses.
Her farm, called Farmer’s Choice, is about 240 square metres in size and situated under what was once a covered parking area. The original roof sheets have been removed and were replaced by nets, keeping out most of the heat and pests and pestilence.
It is not unreasonable to wonder how a woman who would seem much more at home hanging out with the glitterati in the city’s upper-glam venues ended up farming on the roof of the Menlyn Park Shopping Centre (more commonly known as the Menlyn Mall)?
A paltry platitude puts in an appearance: Do not judge a book by its cover (although fine feathers do make fine birds). Andile says, “I grew up in Bushbuckridge in Mpumalanga in a home in which both my parents were educationalists.”
By the way, Sam Nzima, the photojournalist who took the famous and horrific photograph of murdered Hector Pieterson being carried away during the Soweto Uprising, also hails from Andile’s hometown, as does Trevor Nyakane, the Springbok prop and member of 2019 Rugby World Cup’s winning squad in Japan.
A parental background in agricultural education?
“Not at all.”
She did however study agriculture and is currently completing her master’s degree in plant pathology at the Tshwane University of Technology.
“Basically, the reason I started studying agriculture was due to the fact no one I knew had the slightest interest in agriculture. I could not understand this. People have to eat every day and therefore food must be produced.”
Having spent most of her adult years in Pretoria, Andile wanted to farm in the area. But, as we all know, wanting to farm and actually farming, usually reside in different and conflicting galaxies. As early as 2019 she became interested in rooftop farming. Andile certainly finds herself in good company. Zandile Kumalo of Neighbour Roots does the same at Sandton’s Morningside Centre. Not to mention JFF Rooftop Farm in Braamfontein. And numerous others in Hillbrow and environs.
And rightly so, as the benefits are legion. City air is stuffed with CO2 and plants obviously thrive on this kind of pollution which they turn into oxygen. These rooftop farms use a fraction of the water needed by open field farms for the simple reason that these are hydroponic farms – the plants grow in water rather than soil. As the farms are covered with netting, most, if not all, pests are kept outside and therefore no pesticides are needed – this puts the produce in the revered echelon of the organic. A further advantage is that expansion can easily be done vertically versus horizontally. Vertical expansion in its essence is placing the growing trays in tiers, one above the other, whereas horizontal expansion requires the buying or renting of more land, machinery and labour.
“A further advantage of being on the rooftop of a shopping mall is that there are numerous restaurants and I supply them. So, there is no need for refrigeration and transport. Restaurants place orders with me, I harvest exactly what they need and deliver to them on foot. Wastage is kept to an absolute minimum.”
All plain sailing? Think again.
Initially, Andile proposed her ideas to the owners. And they were flummoxed, asking questions like: Do you want to cart tons of soil onto the top of our buildings?
“No. There is no soil. Just minimal water,” she would patiently reply. “Eventually, after studying my proposal, the owners saw the light. Then COVID-19 hit and the process was prolonged by almost two years.”
However, as Wally Serote reminds us, all ‘seasons come to pass’, and so did COVID (sort off). Andile set out to make her dream come true. Experts were brought in to assess the rooftop’s structure and all the other intricacies related to turning a city centre rooftop into a hydroponic farm (in all fairness to the suits, they cannot be blamed for having thought they saw a bird flying over the cuckoo’s nest).
Andile states that her farm is the first of its kind in Tshwane. Johannesburg is already inundated with rooftop farms and it’s her goal to give people in this area the chance to benefit from this innovation.
In order to do so, Andile plans to convert the entire rooftop (which is large – think in terms of something close to the size of a rugby field) into Africa’s largest farm of this kind. To accomplish this, she established a training centre where she teaches agricultural graduates about the dos and don’ts of this version of unconventional farming.
“I also upskill other people who are interested in starting their own rooftop farms.”
All good. However, in the real world, there are always however . . . “You need to have knowledge of at least the basics of farming in general and hydroponics specifically.”
Fair enough. Andile is a Sector Education and Training Authority accredited specialist and is standing by to furnish prospective farmers with exactly those skills.
“But you also need cash. About R300K for a farm like this.” Although substantially less than open field farming (if you have access to land), you still have to buy seeds and plant and water them (if you have sufficient water and irrigation in place) and then the world is your cabbage.
“With hydroponic farming, you obviously have to construct the system.” And this consists of the structure holding up the netting. Steel frames on which the large growing trays are placed. Vast lengths of pipes for feeding the water from plant to plant. Pumps to circulate the water. Two 1,000 litre water tanks and the nutrition added to the water to feed the plants.
The setup costs are certainly prohibitive. Therefore, the follow-up question: If you find the capital to do all of this, will the endeavour be profitable? “Certainly. With a setup like this, one can produce ten times more than a farmer on an open field. And you need way less water. Not to mention less labour.”
By this estimate, an open field a farmer would need 2,4 hectares of land and probably ten times (if not more) the amount of water Andile requires for producing her 7,200 heads of lettuce per month. She needs a mere 4,000 litres of water per month because she uses a closed system in which 2,000 litres of water is circulated for two weeks and then discarded. “It is also important to note that, although one cannot drink the discarded water, it is not polluted with pesticides and is safe to be run off into the city’s wastewater systems.”
With all that in place, the next influence would be economy of scale. To farm bigger and produce more to get to be in a position to compete with the large producers.
“That is the plan. But at the moment with the infrastructure, I have available, I will not be able to produce the volume, but I am working on it.”
So, Andile is not challenged by drought, pests, unstable markets, refrigeration or transport. The reality is that no matter how many advantages any enterprise has, there will be challenges.
“The only one I have is with the closed system I use. If we receive one plant from the nursery that is infected by some kind of disease, the whole lot can eventually become infected. Remember the water circulates and the infected plant will in turn contaminate the water and that water circulates to the rest of the plants. It is essential that I keep a close eye on each and every plant and act quickly when I notice anything wrong.”
Obviously with the depopulation of rural areas and more and more people moving to the cities there is less agricultural land available, but more mouths to feed. And this is exactly why younger farmers like Andile are looking for more modern approaches, especially those implemented in the Netherlands. Despite the fact that our national scapegoat, Jan van Riebeeck, was from the Netherlands, inspiration may be found from that tiny country – the second largest exporter of agricultural goods in the world.
Andile’s farm may be small in size, but with her at the helm, it lacks nothing when it comes to vision and potential.
NAME: Andile Matukane | AREA: Menlyn Park Shopping Centre, Tshwane, Gauteng | CONTACT: https://farmerschoice.org.za