Neighbour Roots – a farm on the roof

I have lived around the corner from Mornigside Shopping Centre (MSC) for over four decades. And while the MSC is now very different from when I walked there as a kid to get mulberry leaves for my silkworms or to go to the greencrocer with my mum or visit Declan, our Irish vet, the MSC is still a community shopping centre with a lovely vibe. And a rooftop farm …

Despite hating shopping – and shopping centres – a lot, MSC is my go to spot – for cutting my hair at the best barner in town (Cassim has not only won many international barber awards, he knows everything about everyone), grocery shopping at Woolworths, meeting at Paul’s or Tashas, stocking up on books at Exclusive Books or, much to the horror of most of my friends, popping into the Birkenstock store. The Refillery is another favourite and with the centre management constantly refining the mix of tenants, you really can get everything you need from boutique, niche retailers to chain stores.

I also love bumping into mates who live in the area and rare is the time that I don’t have the pleasure of seeing Pete and Aston getting an ice-cream at the ice-cream deli, negotiating with Carolynne over the last spinach at Woolies or hearing someone call my name as I walk in the centre. And in a world that is so rushed, these human interactions always give me an adrenalin rush. Pure joy.

An added bonus is that my mate and CN&CO partner Josie has a connection with the MSC – her cousin John (yep, he of Iconic Africa which CN&CO loves) works with the Flanagan & Gerard (F&G) team who are co-owners of the centre. So I often get to chat to John and while meeting with him and a few of his colleagues last week (watch this space for an EasyEquities activation coming soon) we chatted about the Neighbour Roots farm on the shopping centre’s rooftop. Yes, you read that right – a farm in the heart of Morningside. On a roof. Despite knowing about the space, I had never actually been to see it. What a privilege to do so.

Neighbour Roots currently consists of one tunnel, but the vision is much bigger and I cannot wait for it to be realised (part of the EasyEquities activation will be to help raise the cash for a solar installaton). With strong support from F&G and Redhill School, the agri-entrepreneur who runs Neighbour Roots is Zandile Khumalo. When you meet her, you are immediately taken by her passion, smarts and dedication to the project. Spending just a few minutes with Zandile and John on the roof during a beautiful, bright Jozi winter’s day, I was reminded again how lucky I am to meet the people I do.

Zandile has already accomplished much in the world of farming despite bieng in her early thirties!

“After completing her qualification in analytical chemistry from the Vaal University of Technology, Zandile started her farming journey by planting crops on a 2000m² space in own backyard, creating awareness of zero hunger in her community.

Throughout her varsity life, Kumalo spent a great deal in the conventional farming space, where she learnt a lot about how to run a successful farm, dealing with nature’s unpredictability and gathering the necessary experience that groomed her into the farmer she is today.

Hydroponic farming refers to the growing of crops, using water-based, nutrient-rich solution as an alternate to the soil used in conventional farming. Contradictory to what one may think about using water to grow crops, hydroponic farming is an excellent solution for the environment, saving on space and reducing water consumption by up to 80%.

Dedicated to learning inspired by the agri-tech sector, Zandile started her research by creating an edge to supply clean fresh produce all year through hydroponic farming. She founded her first hydroponics business based in Sebokeng and formed a partnership with Flanagan and Gerard by creating and installing a 300m² hydroponic farm on the rooftop of Morningside Shopping Centre.

The primary focus has been to supply all the MSC restaurants and retailers who include The Refillery, Wellness Warehouse and Pick n Pay who have climbed on board to support this initiative. With this overwhelming support, Neighbour Roots has been able to grow in strides and provide the many benefits that include:

  • Produce that is free from chemicals.
  • Harvesting lead times reduced by up to 40%.
  • Soil-less farming – Produce is always clean.
  • Uses less energy.
  • Water efficient by using 90% less water than conventional farming.
  • Can grow in small spaces.
  • Reliable and consistent produce.
  • Locally produced fresh, high quality and flavourful options that retain their freshness for longer periods.
  • Harvest from farm to plate.

As a hands-on farmer, Zandile enjoys spending time at both farms as well as educating students at various schools. Zandile values professionalism, giving back to the community and the experience of working with nature through learning and teaching others about the Agri-tech industry. Zandile’s husband shares her passion for farming and works alongside her at Neighbour Roots and they have two daughters together.

Waiting for others to fix our problems, pointing out the obvious negatives, being cynical or fearful won’t get us anywhere. But supporting entrepreneurs like Zandile, finding niche opportunities to do good and to earn an income, that certainly will. And with all the phenomenal people in our country, opportunities abound. Thank you Zandile, John, F&G, Redhill and the MSC for reminding me of this. Here’s to the Neighbour Roots farm going from strength to strength.

Carel is an investor in people and businesses, believing that 1+1 = (at least) 22. Working with a few basic concepts – best encapsulated in his believe that unless we are dead, anything is possible – Carel aims to build long-term sustainable value with like-minded individuals and companies, while having (a lot of!) fun.