Urban farmers operate at a disadvantage due to the scale of their operations. To be viable, they need to maximise productivity on minimal space, and to do so needs technology, from hard technologies to soft-human centred social arrangements that are productive. Below is a list of key technologies that urban farmers can consider for their operations. Before I discuss these technologies, I elaborate on how farmers must engage with technology. In all cases, the simplest solution that you can do yourself is the best starting point, and first build a system before you buy anything.
This list of technologies has been “workshopped” a few times at the lab and also in the Virtual Lab. This list can be extended and are aimed to suggest these technologies to farmers, but only those who implement these will know if they work and to what extent they are profitable. This follows on the previous blog (https://www.izindabazokudla.com/post/the-idea-of-a-liberation-agriculture-and-the-rise-of-a-new-food-system) that detailed the overall approach I recommend an urban farmer pursue. The technologies discussed below will create a complete system that can be integrated with the farm as enterprise.
Thinking about biological technologies
To realise a sustainable food system, we need to build the capacities of farmers to farm sustainably. This can be done by building knowledge and capacities to use biological technologies to great effect. Farming biologically also allows a farmer to manufacture inputs herself and this is perhaps the greatest benefit of biological agriculture. It de-links the farmer from expensive input markets and allows the farmer to produce food much more profitably, albeit at slightly lower volumes. A low-external input agricultural strategy also builds relationships between the farmer and local actors who can exchange resources for food. A biological approach also allows a farmer to guarantee the quality and safety of food, as no chemicals are used, and this has immediate health benefits. Biological systems are accessible and inherently safe, and it is in the ability to understand and manipulate them that the farmer can protect and extend their own ability to produce. Biological systems have the capacity to process wastes, and this enables inputs to become cheaper. This creates a new dynamic around inputs and outputs, and this is where opportunities for profitability lie.
If waste harvesting from consumers can be linked to food at below retail price, consumers will be involved in the lowering of their food prices. This will create incentives for the exchange of biological resources for food and is a key operation for an urban food enterprise. This creates a sustainability and a new value and revenue stream. This illustrates how a biological approach can be beneficial, not by virtue of its biological distinctiveness, but by virtue of the beneficial relationships it creates with the local community. People need to see that their “waste” creates a locally produced and competitive product. Biological systems need to deliver value to the farmer and customers, and this can only be done by constructing a very advanced and interlinked system of production that exploits consumers own waste habits and builds upon biological productivity in the ecosystem.
Below I will emphasise the basic technologies that a farmer can construct on their farm to produce at volume whilst building the ecological base of the farm. These technologies all draw on locally available materials and are offered as means to stimulate debate and further practice in implementing these. Once a farmer is able to use these technologies effectively, they will be able to use additional help and newer technologies even better. However, it really is necessary that the basics of engagement with technologies are understood.
When technologies are combined, or converged, circular systems are created, and benefits start multiplying. When one process feeds a next one, it reduces reliance on financial capital, and this is important. It is necessary to build a net value creating enterprise before you accept a financial injection for your farm. The construction of an enterprise is dependent on the identification of a simple net-value creating transaction structure. You need to see how to put together the first “deal” by streamlining systems and processes as this transaction, and the enterprise is in fact systems built to ensure this simple transaction. Once you have identified this net-value creating transaction, you can then build circular and productive systems of resource use on top of that, and once this is done, the organisation can deliver on new finance.
The enterprise design of the farm is where all the recommendations below converge. I set out how this could look like in the previous blog. To make the farm work, a number of key things need to be in place. Small farms are in competition with large supermarkets and their systems. To beat them, a few complex suggestions need to be made, and farmers need to take heed of this.
The reason supermarkets dominate the food landscape is because they can efficiently organise collective action amongst their suppliers, workers, their wages, labour contracts and employment schemes. Large organisations like supermarkets can interlink this with technology and management styles and draw on a base of commercial farmers. These farmers produce in such high volumes that they must sell their crop as soon as they harvest, if not before. This then builds the wholesale food market, and this is beneficial to supermarkets.
Farmers will not beat this, but they can find value in hidden niches in an economy dominated by large players. The cost of buying, transporting, distributing and selling kitchen vegetables is expensive and complex for supermarkets to do. Urban farmers can deliver these kitchen vegetables at a lower price, and this is the key point of entry into the market. There is space for this in our current societies. Farmers all need to understand what creates and makes possible this niche and opportunity in the economy, ecology and society. It is by working to protect this space that urban agriculture, as it emerges at the moment, will thrive.
The Essential Technologies
1. All gardens and farms need a beautiful name. Without a name you have no identity, and you cannot build up a reputation and value amongst your customers. A name will bring dignity to your farm, to you and to your area. A name and brand also enables people to talk about the farm, and if you farm with integrity, this will stick. This is about signalling to your community that you have their best interest at heart, and that you are there to serve them.
To advertise your name and brand, find someone locally who can design and make a beautiful sign for your farm with your name and “branding” on it. This will advertise the value you can bring to the community. If you find someone, pay them handsomely, as you can be sure a good proportion of that money will come back to you in future sales. Use this opportunity as an opportunity to invest in your local area. This will signal that you are committed to your local area. The sign, brand and name are important indicators of your professionalism, and you need to be careful in cultivating it.
Make space on the sign to advertise your farm and its workings, and emphasise food safety, education and community needs. Streamline this with the Spaza shop or enterprise that you need to create. Indicate when people can come and buy and try to streamline this to a specific timeframe so you are able to work on the farm uninterruptedly. This will professionalise your practice, and stop people wilfully enter the garden for sales as this will interrupt your plating and other tasks. Making this professional will help in creating a competitive image for your farm. Remember you are in competition with the supermarkets.
The name of the farm is an important connection to the community that you serve and creates an opportunity for them to talk about the farm and the meaning it brings to their lives. This name will serve you well in documentation, fundraising and social media. A good farm with a beautiful name will attract customers. If all these features are showcased on the farm, it will really look good, and the produce will achieve the same status as expensive and packaged store-bought food.
2. The permaculture design of the farm. A farm has to be designed, even if it is small. It will be important to do some good homework on the layout of your farm. Good planning and layout can save you unnecessary effort and costs.
Permaculture design is an established tradition that can incorporate both science and indigenous knowledges into the planning of a farm or any other system. It is actually a common-sense approach to maximising the value inherent to the flows of energy, water, materials, and biology on any site. Permaculture design can enable you to build simple systems around how these energies flow on the farm and is the first step to a more complicated integration with higher technology. Smaller farms need to engage in this way of designing as every little bit counts. Even shortening the steps you take from home to, say, the chicken coop, will lead to savings.
Permaculture design starts with understanding and documenting all that you have already available on the farm. From this moment on, everything on the farm needs to be used, as little as possible wasted, and all wastes processed to a new by-product. Permaculture enable all materials to be used in a design process that can stack and sequence various technologies in a meaningful way. Do not simply work the land, you need to design your interaction with the world. You are making a world in designing the farm, and real opportunities lie here. What you have needs to be firstly maximised before anything else can be “bought”.
The garden needs to be planned in a way similar to established permaculture design. This will enable the farmer to make most of the locations, siting and local features of the farm or garden. Do good homework on “Permaculture” and “low external input and sustainable agriculture”.
Design is the conscious creation of and planning for or guiding the building or construction of a thing, an artefact, a process, system or just any idea. To design something, it must be “represented” in some way, as a drawing, a sketch, a computer programme or just in the mind of the creator and innovator. Before you design, particularly an urban farm, it is necessary to know what you are designing for. You could use design methods and methodologies to design a particular thing, if you know what you want, like a hydroponics system. You could use permaculture design thinking and methods to design an all-round robust farm and robust processes on the farm.
3. The garden needs a substantial amount of space devoted to compost or input production. Jon Jeavons said you need 33% of your farm dedicated to this…. This is future productivity and farmers without this will fail in the second year.
There are many kinds of compost. Any biological material, if left long enough in a heap, will become compost. This is the fertility new plants need to grow, and it can be made in simple ways.
The easiest way to make compost is to lay sticks on top of each other in a circle so air can enter the compost pile from below. Put on top of this any dead biological material, and layer this so you can cover the material every so often with soil or mature compost. Mix brown and green often. The bigger the better but bear in mind that the pile will lose 2/3rds of its size when mature. You need about one wheelbarrow of compost per square metre every year in your garden, at a minimum. You really need LOTS of compost!
Compost should be there where the roots are, where they feed. The best is to integrate your composting with a deep trench garden. Note that a compost heap will essentially become an above soil trench garden if designed and made in the right way. The idea behind compost is to have more compost than “sand” where plants grow, and the more compost the better they will grow.
One way to expand your composting is to ferment material as a liquid manure. These are effective but must be diluted with water. The idea behind this is to replace the bacteria and fungi in the soil with better bacteria and fungi. If rich “soups” are used you trick the plants to believe they live in a highly fertile environment and they will produce more. If these soups are given to a biologically rich deep trench bed the bacteria and fungi will immediately start processing the biological material and you will be constructing a highly fertile soil.
Making liquid manure.
Ordinary compost is great for a basic liquid manure that does not need diluting. Make a tea with compost and directly add this to the soil or your irrigation water.
You need to think of filtering the soup or tea as not to clog your water systems but this is a simple and effective way to improve fertility. Liquid manure can do specialised things for a garden. Liquid manure made with brown waste is good as a weed killer and soil conditioner. Liquid manure made with green waste is rich in nitrogen and can speed up composting and fertilise the soil immediately. Liquid manure always needs to be diluted if given to plants directly, and undiluted is very strong and can kill your plants and thus is a good weed killer. Here specialist knowledge is important, but these fertilisers are easily researchable.
For these specialised liquid manures, you are making a kind of vinegar, and this is a process to cultivate bacteria and fungi that starts to break down material releasing nutrients. For all cases use a little bit of sugar, one cup, with 4 – 5 cups of salt and a packet of yeast to start the process of fermentation. Add this to the material in a large 20 litre or more container. You can add a starch (about 1 kg) to feed the bacteria and fungi and any starch, even old “expired” maize meal can be used. Stir once a week and the liquid manure will become ready in about a month. You will smell when it is mature.
Green liquid manure is when you use only green material, like grass clippings, to make liquid manure. This is rich in nitrogen and can be added diluted to the soil. It also speeds up composting.
Brown liquid manure is when you use brown, dry material. This creates a liquid manure that is a good soil conditioner, and it can be added undiluted to the soil 2 weeks before planting. This will also burn weeds and may kills some of them after repeated watering. This is a great liquid manure to speed up the composting process. Do not add brown liquid manure, even undiluted, to plants as these contain the “dead” bacteria and fungi and need to be combined with green manure to have an effect on growing plants.
Leaf mould can create a very important liquid manure. Find a forest that is undisturbed, or a grassland that is undisturbed, and find the richest, darkest and most fertile soils. Gather about 4 kg of this and place this is a container with your starch, yeast, salt and sugar. Stir this once a week. Here you are now cultivating the bacteria and fungi that were present in this highly fertile soil. This can be added to your irrigation or diluted and added directly to soils. This then replaces the bacteria and fungi in your soils with apex bacteria and fungi from the highly fertile soil.
Specialist liquid manures can be made with bones and sheep and cows heads to generate bacteria and fungi that will release calcium.
Nitrogen rich liquid manure comes from green manure, from fish and fish bones, and from fermenting legumes like beans.
Phosphorous and phosphates, which is important for flowering, can be made by fermenting chicken manure.
Wormeries release a liquid manure also called worm tea. This also needs to be diluted before application. The casings of the worms, - the “compost” is also highly effective as a tea and this has to be diluted but less than the “vinegars”.
Liquid manures, if diluted, can also be sprayed with an old plasterers’ brush to plants’ and this will combat Aphids, but may lave a smelly residue on the plants. Do not do this for 2 weeks before harvest as your product might still smell of liquid manure.
String aromatic and poisonous plants can be made into a liquid manure that will combat pests. Jimson weed (or “Malpitte) leaves which are stinky can do this., “Kakiebos” Tagetes minuta or “Mbanje” in isiNdebele, and most strong smelling plants can be used in this way. Spry your plants with the liquid manure with a plasterers’ brush, and avoid doing this 2 weeks before harvest.
Farmers also need to be aware of the uses and benefits of chemical fertilisers. When handling them always use gloves and masks. If you are unsure about them, and have some to use, mix it in with the compost heap. All of this will be metabolised and will over time become “organic” or metabolised by organisms. You will not lose this fertility in this say, and it will be safer to use it this way.
When applying chemical fertiliser to the soil, always use it sparingly and try to bury the fertiliser, else you may lose most of it with watering. Do not eat or ingest it and always wear protective equipment.
Biochar is a charcoal dust that has emerged recently as an affective way to boost productivity. Biochar, like charcoal, is a porous substance that will increase the volumes of space in your soil. Biochar holds water and also is effective in minimising water use and evaporation. Bacteria and fungi inhabit the spaces in a biochar particle and the crop roots will have more volume to link to material in the soils. Biochar can be added to the soil after immersing in water or liquid manure. It can be added to compost and also used to make a specialist compost that can be sold.
Biochar needs to be mixed with compost or liquid manure to encourage bacteria and fungi to colonise it before applying to soils. It will absorb a lot of water. They will make your soils dark and more fertile. Biochar can be made by crushing charcoal to a fine dust. Some sell a specialist biochar, but it is unclear if it is much different than ordinary charcoal. Buy charcoal and crush it with a hammer or any other instrument and start using it widely on the farm in all compost and all deep trench beds. Adding biochar to the deep trench bed when you build it is best, as it will absorb water and become part of the soils, fertilising it significantly.
A system of harvesting waste from customers is necessary to always have enough compost on the farm. We discuss this below, and please note the importance of this. Composting is next harvest, and this is the most important part of the farm.
4. The planting needs to be done in a deep trench raised bed or similar technology. The point here is that sufficient fertility needs to be in the ground to make farming productive enough to give the farmer a livelihood. Fertility can be achieved by burying biomatter in these trenches. Biochar can be very beneficial for a trench bed, and try to add a lot to it when building it, as discussed below. Some say an above-soil “trench’ or “hügelkultur” bed is best as it needs less labour, whilst others are satisfied by digging a deep trench and depositing the biomatter below soil level.
A deep trench bed is made as follows:
First dig a trench as long as you want but as wide as two arm lengths. This is to make it easy to work the bed from either side.
At the bottom you can lay old newspapers to make a kind of “bath” at the bottom of the trench to conserve and hold water. Add biochar from here on and have a lot of this, and ordinary compost available. The newspaper will decompose over time and add fertility and create a bath wherein water will sit in the beginnings of the making of the bed, immersing the biomatter and speeding up decomposition. In the process described here, have lots of water handy as you want to fill your trench as deep as possible with water when you build it. All of this water will stay below ground, and one day will still be used by the plants… You can also add pipes to the trench, so you water “from below” and this will minimise evaporation losses. You could also integrate buried soda bottles with holes is as an irrigation system.
Fill the lowest part with hard material like bones and large logs. Logs must not be too large, and large logs can best be used to make contours and the downstream side of a swale on the farm. Bones bring nitrogen and calcium and is highly effective. Some will even add roadkill to the bottom layer, but you may want to feed this to your chickens… If you only have large logs, keep using them, but try to find green stuff to deposit next to it.
If you can, have lots of compost, chicken and other animal manure ready, and also keep some of the topsoil you removed handy as you fill the trench. You want to pack this trench as full as possible as this is the food for your plants in the upcoming seasons.
It is best to use smaller logs and sticks as large as your hand can fit around, as these have a better carbon to nitrogen ration than larger logs. Large logs will “steal” the nitrogen from your plants as they themselves decompose, but one day this will be available once again, so large logs are not a bad idea. If you have only large logs, try to fill in the spaces next to them with green manure, chicken manure or cattle dung. Smaller sticks have the right nitrogen to carbon ration (7 carbon: 1 nitrogen) so add as many of them as you can to the trench. Every now and then jump on top of the material to push it down. The trench will subside and go down as it decomposes so have a lot of topsoil or compost handy in the next two seasons. Add water as you go along, and as the trench gets fuller, add smaller and smaller pieces of biomatter. The top should be covered with good compost and some topsoil. Now you are ready to plant. Plant shallow rooted crops in the first year as the trench decomposes.
This deep trench will take many years to decompose, and fertility will steadily increase until you have exhausted it. This may take many years. If you add a wheelbarrow or more of compost every year to every square metre on this bed, you may never have to open it up again and fill it again. This is why you want to add as much as possible in the first round of building this bed, and animal bones which decompose slowly, is the basis of this.
Integrating this deep trench bed with liquid manures will also boost fertility as the liquid manures will immediately begin decomposing the material in the trench. In this way you can maintain fertility as the bacteria and fungi will immediately start feeding on the material in the trench. You should also add liquid manure, undiluted, to the trench as you build it. The trench is a compost heap under the ground and will behave in the same way as an above ground compost heap.
These beds will be the hardest work you will have to do on the farm, except perhaps building infrastructure. They need to be well integrated in the design of the whole farm. They are a big investment, and you need to plan to build them as you need all material at hand when you do so. Take a few weeks to collect enough material and of the right kind so your investment will pay off.
It is also necessary to consider intercropping in your planting strategy. It is a good idea to plant Marigolds or Afrikaners alongside your best as these combat pests. Some plants also do well with others, whilst some do very badly with others. Consult specialist knowledge about intercropping, as this can minimise pests and also crate synergies amongst plants. For instance, legumes like beans and peas fix nitrogen in the soils through root structures, and these make nitrogen available for the next crop.
5. The beds need to be mulched. This is a key sign of a good farmer. Mulching is next years’ topsoil. Leaves, wood chips, grass, plastics and even chicken feathers can be used as a mulch. Mulching is next seasons fertility, if it is biological. Mulch could also substitute for the wheelbarrow of compost you need to add to your beds every year and the much decomposes whilst lying on top of the soil. Good much will minimise water use and farmers should aim to cover every inch of surface of the farm with mulch. Mulch should be harvested from trees in the city and from grasses from clippings.
6. The beds need some kind of irrigation system, and this could be a simple “one pipe” gravity fed irrigation system or a more complex one. The simplest irrigation, and very effective, is to plant soda bottles up to their necks (or upside down) in the soil. Puncture the bottles with holes and fill them with water. After a few waterings the holes will clog, realising the water even more slowly.
We have developed an irrigation system in the Lab and please note the need, particularly in a small set-up, to have the dripper pipes in a “circle” to equalise pressure on each hole. This is a key design characteristic of a small irrigation system. The pipes overall must be in a circle so there are no dead-ends in the irrigation pipes.
The holes can be made with a simple nail and a bent wire should be pushed through it. Take shopping bags and shred it a little bit and then push this through the eye of the wire that goes through the hole, and pull it back into the pipe. The shredded bags should fit the hole tightly so the water has difficulty exiting the pipe. This will allow only a small amount of water to exit, making a drip-irrigation system.
The system can be built with bought or salvaged black pipes and any size will do. The water container is particularly important. You need to have this at a large enough size, or, it must be elevated above ground. This is to get enough pressure to make it work.
Any size container will do, but the larger the better, and it must also be elevated. Try to add a tap to the system so you can control the water flow.
An irrigation system primarily releases the farmer from the drudgery of watering the garden or farm. Large systems or lots of small ones can be built. Consider also using bottles with small holes in the sides and bottom, buried to the neck in the soil, as these are effective, simple and inexpensive.
An irrigation system should also be used or combined with liquid manure. Liquid manure contains solid particles that can clog up the irrigation system and care should be taken in adding it to the water. Filter your water through a cloth before adding to the irrigation system. Use the residue in the cloth in the composting system. The system, if simple, should also be cleaned every so often.
An irrigation system is a key piece of technology for any farm, and without this, the use of the time of the farmer is undermined. Farmers need to use their own time most effectively and an irrigation system allows you to do new and interesting things on your farm, besides watering.
7. Seeds. A farmer needs to know seeds. Farmers should participate in a seed library, or host one at their farms. This is a complex requirement that is dependent on the networks between farmers. Seeds however are becoming expensive and a seed library can lower the cost of seeds, and build networks amongst farmers. Farmers can slowly start selecting genetics for their farms, and could potentially develop urban-suited seeds. The major questions and issues you need to be familiar with in building a seed library are the following:
Do you understand what a hybrid seeds is, an open pollinated seed, an heirloom, and a landrace?
What is a GMO seed?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of hybrid vs open pollinated seeds?
How does the modern seed industry operate?
Selecting your own seeds: How should you select your own seeds?
Seeds and soil: what are most important? How do these interact?
When should you invest in hybrids?
Seeds and product design: Can you advertise your produce as “locally grown and developed”?
8. Animals: Animals need to be integrated with crops to maximise productivity.
Worms can further process ordinary compost and these worm casings are a product that can be sold at higher price than compost. The worms can also be sold, but if you want some, it is best to attract them to your farm with a compost pile. They will come and once you have them, move them to a wormery. A wormery is basically two containers on top of each other, with a screen, like an old carpet between them. Deposit food for the worms – any biomatter – in the top container (which must have holes in above the carpet) so the casings can fall to the bottom container. Worm tea will accumulate in the bottom container.
Small animals like chickens need to be housed in a good chicken coop. You would have to be careful as by-laws (see Johannesburg’s By-laws: https://www.joburg.org.za/documents_/By-Laws/Pages/By-Laws.aspx) regulate the keeping of small animals. Up to 5 chickens or rabbits can be kept by a household in Johannesburg.
There are others who keep larger animals like cattle and sheep or goats in urban areas. These farmers produce a lot of manure, and I would recommend forming a partnership and building a crop garden right next to the kraals of these larger animals. The manure will enable highly productive farming, and this is a key opportunity that must not be missed.
9. Bees and insects. Bees pollinate and a farmer with many bees may see higher yields of fruit crops like Tomatoes. Ivan Brown has developed the Beegin Beehives (https://www.beegin.co.za/) and these are available as a manufacturing system so a manufacturer can invest in this technology and thus create a sector of beekeepers. Honey can be sold.
Breed insects for your chickens. Ayanda Booi developed a system for breeding cockroaches for human and animal consumption and please see: https://ujcontent.uj.ac.za/esploro/outputs/graduate/Low-resource-cricket-farming-in-South-Africa/9912360107691.
10.Tunnels and infrastructure. A tunnel does not have to be an expensive tunnel. Small tunnels can be manufactured with long bendable sticks, PVC electrical conduit pipes, and also with steel rods (8mm is best). See the farming kit Kyle Brand developed in 2013: https://ujcontent.uj.ac.za/esploro/fulltext/graduate/Design-and-development-of-a-single/9911763507691?repId=124789660007691&mId=135670970007691&institution=27UOJ_INST.
Plastic or shade cloth can be added to any structure, and some have recommended a simple box structure of welded steel to make a greenhouse. There are real opportunities for welders to develop such light low-cost small tunnels, and this could be done at very low cost. They can also make composting boxes out of steel that can keep rats out.
Tunnels keep plants a little warmer and also stop birds and rats from eating the produce. Plants do not know how much you spent on the tunnel, they only want to grow, hence, any structure will do!
A tunnel is a key investment on the farm. Note that every cent, moment or drop of water added to a tunnel brings more returns than in an open soil garden. Hence it makes sense to spend more time and effort in the tunnel, as this brings greatest returns. Build your raised beds in a tunnel. A tunnel also enables the use of hydroponic technologies, and it will be a good idea to combine these two. I discuss cheap hydroponic technologies below and please take a look.
11.Vertical and controlled agriculture systems
Agriculture is proliferating, and we are seeing new and exciting ways to farm emerging amongst innovative practitioners. One area that is ripe for innovation is in the vertical space. People in cities, informal settlements and on top of roofs and in small yards and spaces are pushing the boundaries of agriculture.
Bags filled with soil and compost can be purposed to grow food and they can hang off the ceiling so rats and vermin do not eat the crops. They can be stacked on top of each other. I believe there is a really good opportunity here for a creative and innovative seamstress to manufacture bags that are good for growing plants. The design of such a bag could include a receptacle at the bottom to keep water as growing in a bag quickly drains a bag of water. This is a real good opportunity for a new enterprise. Old “streepsak” or poly-fibre bags can be repurposed to enable the growing of crops in confined spaces. There is simply no shortage of opportunities in this regard!
Hydroponics can be developed also at low cost. The cheapest is to fill any container (5 litres minimum) with river sand and add a hole to the bottom of the container. These can be watered 2/3 times a day with the hydroponic salt solution. If you want to expand over and above this, you can start making your own “systems” with toilet and sewerage pipes. Many sell such systems already.
Aquaponics is when fish are grown in containers and the fish waste and water is used to irrigate crops. This is a complete biological system but is expensive. INMED (https://inmed.org/inmed-aquaponics-in-soweto/) operates an aquaponics farm in Soweto next to Elias Motsolaledi clinic. This is a worthwhile investment for those who have the appetite but needs expert help. Aquaponics is a complex endeavour and revels the dynamics of high capital investments in agriculture. Aquaponics would need a significant investment to be commercially viable and points towards a large system with capital costs. Because you need large scale to make this financially viable, this is best done in a place where you have ownership of the land and are able to afford the infrastructure.
12.Safety and security
Biosafety is important, but less of a concern if integrated biological systems are developed. Integrated biological systems maximise the flow of organisms and is “dirty” but this “dirt” also creates a diversity that minimises the occurrence of any single pathogen. However, it may be good to think about the following:
Wash hands before and after harvesting.
Wash hands after handling compost and liquid manure.
Minimise the use of liquid manure before harvesting and selling.
Destroy any plant that looks sick in the field and monitor those next to it.
Practice biosafety and check your plants and animals regularly.
Fencing and security is also important. If people are stealing from your garden, plant a row of Spinach along the outside of the field, and encourage people to harvest those outside your fence. Try to bring them into the garden by explaining what you are doing and make the food wase exchange known to them.
Your Fencing is a marker of the limits to your farm, and it is important. Try to build a neat fence that will also contribute to your branding.
From a farm to an enterprise: Farmers need to understand that the way they sell is most important in their business development, and this is even more important than how you produce. In the previous blog I present this as a unified whole, but the key features of such an enterprise will be the following:
The production of food in a safe and healthy agro-ecological way.
The establishment of a retail presence on the farm.
The pricing of foods as below supermarket process in order to capture the market.
The development of a food waste for 2nd grade food exchange system.
The development of a recyclable wase for 2nd grade food system.
The development of a loyalty programme.
The development of a bulk buying programme.
The development of community events at the farm.
Limited packaging and processing: you have to sell per weight just like supermarkets do so you can show people how they themselves lower the price of foods. You need to invest in a scale!
A traceability system: let people know how you produce and where their foods come from.
Connect nutrition and good living with the foods that you sell and produce.
14.WhatsApp. The ICT Promise:
A good farmer will keep a list of customers on a WhatsApp group, and this will be the basis of sales, consumer education, and the waste harvesting strategy. On social media you can also present your branding: With a beautiful name, everyone will know you and you will sell more. A social media presence doubles up as a communication and education channel. It is also key to marketing, and your loyalty programmes. Bulk specials can also be communicated through this channel.
Social media is a great way to advertise and to build a reputation as a farmer with high quality produce. A farmer is a leader in her community, as the farmer is the one producing food, and one who accept wastes as inputs, contributing to the health of the township or local area and the health of the people. Advertise this and make yourself heard!
Consider changing your WhatsApp or other account to a business account. Start playing with the analytics of the service. This will tell you where people come from and will reveal many things about your customers. React to these and build a comprehensive social media presence in your area.
15.A retail system. Farmers lose lots of value by selling to middlemen. All farmers should consider a retail outlet on their farms, especially if the farm is small and located in a township. The smaller the farm, the more important this is, as it will enable a farmer to sell some or all of her produce at retail price which is the highest price the farmer will be able to receive for her produce. Key in achieving this is:
a. A small retail outlet will also enable a farmer to process and package a bit, and allow sales of other goods as well:
b. Sourcing from the open market or Fresh Produce markets. Buy in bulk vegetables you cannot grow yourself and sell at a low markup to build a customer base for your higher value vegetables.
c. Farmers can also establish relationships with local spaza shops, and they could carry the produce of a local farmer. In this case, the beautiful name and branding of the farm will be important, as this will show the customers what value lies in the food.
d. Your Pricing strategy: A 5% “Discount” to supermarket prices to establish your market and build it further. You will also attract the bulk of the market with this strategy. Aim to give good value to your customers.
e. Grading and differentiating products: Divide your produce into 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade. This enables many things from allowing customers to choose the best value for their pockets and to allow selections from bulk, and first and second grade produce.
f. Integrate it with the HH food waste and recycling system: Try to only use 2nd grade for this. This will ensure your profits. Make your 1st grade really high 1st grade!! This will ensure a higher price (5% lower than stores) and allow shoppers to select 2nd grade and 1st grade together. You will sell for same price but will offer higher value to your customers.
g. Integrate this with a loyalty programme. Integrate loyalty programme with recycling and food waste for food.
h. Keep a sign outside with prices.
i. Use 3rd grade food for animals.
j. Bulk purchasing can be made available on food nutrition and education days and sold alongside higher value first grade foods.
16.Distribution and logistics and marketing
Logistics is how you organize the complex activity of distributing your produce.
A “sustainable” logistics system would have to build on the value and savings that an organic or regenerative farming system will create. Because we use the ecosystem, which is inherently productive, we are saying a sustainable logistics system will build on the value and savings that a regenerative system will provide. A regenerative farmer can supply food at lower than market costs, as the market in general is not sustainable or regenerative, is large and loses value, and an urban farmer is close to its customers, and this makes value as well. These savings can then stimulate another entrepreneurs to deliver a processed product also at lower than “market” cost. A sustainable logistics system conserves the regenerative benefit as it travels up the supply chain. If the distribution (and general logistics) uses renewable energy, is lean, and builds on synergies, it crates additional value. Sustainability is always a system…
The logistics system has to be focused on the customer of Urban Agriculture. Because their behaviour needs to feed into the enterprise, it has to be based-on relationships and synergies. These relationships can be built by using engagement methods and an Urban Farmer should consider hosting an event on the farm to build these relationships that would become the logistics system that will distribute the produce. They can use engagement methods like Open space and World Café (and please take a look: http://theworldcafe.com/#; https://openspaceworld.org/wp2/.)
Here customers are important, but additional relationships with hawkers, informal traders, formal traders and others like Ward counsellors are important, and engagement methods can create these relationships.
Social media can be used to manage and maintain this system, and the functionality of a business account needs to be exploited, as this gives insight into customers and their behaviour. This should also include an electronic payment system, as this can create a database of customers that can be coordinated with other social media services, and this is how a customer database can be created and maintained.
The engagement methods can also “sub-contract” logistics, say with hawkers, and this will also force urban farmers to professionalise their offering: this can help with processes, volumes, quality and consistency. Because someone else may be selling on behalf of the urban farmer, it may be important this point to develop a brand so people can know where the food comes from. Here regenerative systems can develop a narrative about this product as a sustainable product that is good for the community. Name all your products “imvelo” which means “natural”. This is the selling point that urban farmers need to develop further. At this point, a farmer could sign up to a standard like the Participatory Guarantee Scheme for organic produce and this could build a reputable brand. This brand can be built by also using professional electronic payment systems and by the technology on the farm – particularly to process food waste to compost – and the impact the urban farmer will make on the lives of her customers. Urban agriculture is good for communities, and this is the selling point!
The first thing an urban farmer wants to do is to reduce food miles – the time and distance food travels to the customer. By eliminating these, the urban farmer becomes competitive. This is important, as urban agriculture can only produce low volumes of food, but at highest quality, and this is what needs to be promoted in marketing – freshness. Logistics need to enhance this by eliminating food miles and to make “same day” deliveries.
However, collaboration in this context would need to coordinate amongst many farmers, particularly if a larger order is filled. Urban farmers need to identify their markets, and it may pay to focus on immediate markets as this is where the logistics can make a difference. This needs to dictate the ways the logistics will operate and where the food will be distributed to amongst customers. Find the local market!
The use of social media can help a lot, as farms can be plotted on Google maps and farmers can coordinate from here. This will also place the farm on a larger map, and this could reach customers.
The distribution system will also bring in wastes – through an exchange programme – which can now be identified and re-processed into valuable products, like animal feed or compost or worm casings. Once a farmer is on the map and able to trade, they can use current apps – like the Khula app – to reach additional markets. An electronic payment system will also professionalise the sale and leave an electronic trace from the customer on the app (if it has this functionality) which enable a customer to be reached again for new sales.
17.Events: Engagement and inclusion of stakeholders
Most businesses would see inclusion, trust and engagement as “nice to have’s” but not essential for the pursuit of profit. From the above it is clear that engagement is a key consideration for urban farmers. There may be many other things that make profit possible, but the development of a sustainable and circular business needs to place inclusion, trust and stakeholder engagement at the core of the enterprise. This is due to the convergence of technologies, wastes and by-products, systems and behaviour, and relationships and interests that are combined in a sustainable and circular enterprise.
Usually, we use engagement opportunities to explore marketing and advertising, but we engage all the time with regulators, technologies, customers and competitors, even if it is not always directly. It pays to elevate is as an activity on its own, and this opens our minds on what we can do with engagement opportunities. What we describe here is a simple example to use engagement methods as a means to develop the systems in an enterprise, but the exact ways these systems will be converging to create the complex system of the enterprise in unique to each enterprise. This does not mean the systems are complicated – remember that these all flow and work on their own once set-up – but that we need to sequence the inputs and outputs of engagement processes so that they create real value for the enterprise. They are complex because you can do very many things with one system.
Engagement opportunities like this is a lot like a group discussion on an important topic. Anyone can do this, and it could become a feature of your enterprise. In this way, you will always be ready to develop new products or services for the customer, and customers will become familiar with how you work, and become active in helping you developing new products and services.
This approach also shows us how an enterprise can incur savings by reorganizing people and society. In a sense the operations of the enterprise, like collecting recyclable materials, takes place outside the enterprise (as customer behaviour does). However, engagement methods brings this outside behaviour within the sphere of control of the entrepreneur, and this then extends the activities that enriches the enterprise.
This way of organizing the community also allows them the opportunity to shape your enterprise and the services and products that you offer. They will feel that they have a say in your enterprise, and this means you can develop further programmes like loyalty programmes and also organize events like a harvest day.
Consider the following as means to build customer loyalty to your enterprise:
Community nutrition days
Bulk selling days
Launch of new products after harvest
Integration with social media
Engagement with stakeholders like Ward counsellors. Combine these with nutrition, and other pubis issues and you will build a network of stakeholders that can protect your farm.
An entrepreneur should organize an event at the enterprise, and this will set up a system of engagement. In this event, the entrepreneur could aim to set up a recycling facility or food-for-waste system at their enterprise. An event could be organized that would have to start with the basics of consumer education about good food. This is ‘fresh food’, and every urban farmer should realise this is the unique advantage that they have in society: to be able to sell at retail level food that is very recently harvested. The consumer education should go further and show the importance of conserving and enhancing the soil, as this guarantees good fresh food (and deals with waste in general). This can be done by processing food waste into compost, and people need to be shown how this takes place. When they see the dark compost, that smells rich and hearty, they immediately see the difference with stinky rotting food.
You as the entrepreneur need to start a process of them realizing how they can contribute to the improvement of their own quality of life by cooperating with you the urban farmer. This sequence of events and incentives that you create, is in fact the core operation of your entire enterprise. You have built the enterprise based-on the behaviour of your customers. You want to keep them close and secure their inputs into your enterprise, as this will sustain you over time. A food-for-waste system that would enable the entrepreneur to collect recyclable materials in exchange for discount on food sold would realise this new process in your enterprise, and this can be set up with an engagement process.
In proposing this offer, people could be organized into a workshop. This workshop could ask the following questions to your customers:
Is enough recyclable materials available to make this worthwhile? How much recyclable materials are available from an average household? This would include both plastics, metals, glass, paper and others like batteries, and food waste. We think each person generates about 100g of food waste per day, and this can give you an idea of what could be available.
Would people be prepared to change their behaviour and bring these materials to you? Let them know you are not bewitching them!
What would the enterprise need to accept recyclable materials in an acceptable way? Do you have the right technology to accept these (and this would mean acceptable containers for the recyclables and the food waste). Build a steel cage to process recyclables safely.
What else can be “doubled-up” to ensure savings for the customer and loyalty for the enterprise? (After asking this question, you can start introducing your food-for-waste offer.)
18.Environmental and Social Governance and “community benefit”
Many farmers aim to “benefit” the community with their farms. Please note the most important impact you can create for your community is to sell food at a competitive price. This must be the highest achievement you can make, and this enables people to thus spend their own money mush wiser.
Engaging with the community is however important and this is done to ensure future sales and customers. Many farmers use such engagement to educate learners about good food as the learners perform some labour for the farm. The organising of such community events can save labour for things like planting, and this brings people into the farm. Integrate this with your loyalty programmes so learners and their families receive good value from you for the labour performed. This process can release labour to beautify your farm, and the place, often a school, that gives you the land.
Do not sell yourself short when organising such events, but also invest in the community as they are key in your profitability. Keep in mind your leadership position as a farmer in the community: you can help with waste, beauty, education, learning and eating.
19.Compliance Land and access: informal and formal tenure
The most important part of an urban farm is the access to land. Many can help in this regard, and keep in mind the bylaws of your city, as there may be some support for gaining access to land.
Many farmers succeed in signing a lease contract, often with schools, to gain access to land. Try to gain security by having the lease run for more than 10 years and speak to farmers who have succeeded in concluding leases to gain access to land.
When concluding a contract to gain access to land, note the following:
a. Time duration: you want at least a 10-year lease.
b. Water: Make sure all costs and access to water are clear.
c. Electricity: Make sure all costs and access are clear.
d. Infrastructure: Make sure you will keep ownership of all infrastructure that you build.
e. Levy’s, rates and taxes: Make sure you know if you are liable for this.
f. Waste: Develop a waste harvesting system so you keep your farm and the school neat and clean.
g. Schools: Schools have ample land available, but they may ask that you give something in return. Even if you deliver food to a school feeding scheme as part of the lease, record how much you deliver for record keeping and to justify your involvement in the school.
h. Teachers: Link with teachers so you can use your garden for entrepreneurship education, nutrition education and to build relationships with the teachers.
i. Learners: Learners can be used as a from of labour but note that this will have to be reciprocated.
j. SGBs: Let the School governing Body know what you are doing and let them understand the impact you are making.
k. Parents and learners as clients: Parents and learners can be easily linked to food for food waste and recyclables schemes, and the bulk-buying schemes.
The above constitutes the minimum any local, township or emerging farmers can do to be productive and capable. We will listen to three experts on not only how to implement this system, but also how to go very far beyond it!
I will see you on the 24th of June in B3 UJ at 9 am!