Start with what you have and where you are. That is agri-preneur Nonkululeko Britton-Masekela’s advice for anyone keen to start their own vegetable garden.
Nonkululeko started her agri-business, Kula, as a way to make her parents’ land more productive. She started by first cultivating seedlings in her own backyard in a space about as big as two door frames. Simultaneously, over the course of a year, she started to prepare her parents’ plot in Midrand.
“My parents own this plot of land and my dad has always been in livestock farming but I felt that, while the livestock is useful to have (and it’s made the land fertile over the years because they poop all over the place), it was under-utilised. So, I asked him if I could help to make that space more productive,” she explains.
What followed was a year of cultivating the 2 500m2 plot of land and, when the seedlings from her backyard were ready, planting them progressively. “It was very interesting. Essentially it was a training ground for what I do now.”
Learning to farm was a huge learning curve for Nonkululeko as she shares her story of how she started out. She sought out Amon Maluleka, an organic farmer and a member of Bambanani cooperative who ran an urban farm in the heart of the inner city Bertrams. “He became my mentor. I found him when I interviewed him for a business school case study. He spoke about agronomy, food security and permaculture – essentially being in harmony with nature in the way that we farm. When I asked him whether he had documented his knowledge, his answer was no. I challenged him to write it down and I would help him to turn it into a manual. Over two months he just wrote like a beast… on paper, so I had this handwritten manuscript. It blew my mind how much he knew, but it also went over my head.”
That’s when she asked Amon for practical lessons to turn the theory into something more accessible that people could use to learn to farm either in backyards or on a larger space. And, so her year of planting seedlings in her backyard and cultivating her parents’ land started in 2017. “Initially, we brought in a couple of guys to work the land because it was a lot of work and I went in about twice a week to do my part of the training while they did the cultivating.”
Kula has changed completely since the business was started. Initially a fresh veggie delivery service, Nonkululeko and her team now provide a service that uses what she learnt three years ago and shares it with others. “We come to your backyard and teach you how to make your land more productive. We’ve even installed chicken coops alongside a vegetable garden. Someone’s talked about starting a rabbit and chicken farm alongside what we’ve done for their vegetable garden.”
The vegetable delivery service was very successful until the start of lockdown, but it started to take its toll on Nonkululeko and her family. “The few weeks before the hard lockdown, when people started becoming more conscious of the importance of [organic veggies for a healthy body], I was extremely busy. I think I suffered from burnout. When everything came to a halt, so did we. And after you’ve just been running so hard – not just the few weeks before lockdown, but the entire few years prior – the moment you stop, you’re overcome with exhaustion and fatigue. We spent a great deal of time on the road doing deliveries – first myself and later on my husband, too. He was great, but it was exhausting. And with the hard lockdown we also had to deal with our two boys (aged nine and six) cooped up in a townhouse. It was a lot!” Nonkululeko laughs.
To add to this, she suddenly had to become a teacher to her sons and stay on top of her regular job working remotely as a contractor at a major bank, leading a team of user-experience content writers. It makes sense that they decided to stop everything and regroup during the first few weeks of lockdown. This time also gave Nonkululeko a chance to focus on her business plan – something she’s been working on intermittently for over a year.
“I decided to use the time to really look into the business model and how to scale it. I went back to the reason I started doing this in the first place and the values I ascribe to: sustainability, health and wellness and building a community of people. Kula means ‘to grow’ in Tsonga (in Nguni it would be “khula”), but the name came from my Tsonga mentor, Amon. When I attended the food forum in Stockholm in 2018, I met a Swahili farmer and he told me ‘kula’ means ‘to eat’ in Swahili, which is amazing! It’s also a Sanskrit word that means ‘community’. And all of that just resonates with my values. It’s about building a community of people who are conscious about what we eat. And as we are doing that, we are growing together, while we grow our own food.”
In addition to helping people cultivate home-grown gardens, they are working on branding and selling herbal remedies, such as African woodworm, from their online store. “I collaborate with a herbalist who produces the remedies and I try and educate people around how we’ve always had access to these indigenous herbs to heal ourselves – and we can grow it in our backyards. As such, I make sure that people have the basic medicinal herbs in their gardens.”
I don’t know where to start…
Nonkululeko shared a photo of a matronly woman standing proudly alongside her neat vegetable garden. She cleverly used a tiny space and a hodge-podge of basins, tyres and even an unused toilet bowl and cistern as planters. Her caption sums up her philosophy: “Been trying to tell my family & friends elokshini (in the township) and townhouses about this. Start where you are, with what you have... just start!”
When asked about this photo she explains. “People always think ‘I don’t have space. I don’t have money. Just start with what you have! We complicate things… we want to make these perfectly manicured vertical walls. Or we can’t move ahead until we have this huge space, because we feel we need space. Ironically, during lockdown, part of what we’ve been doing because of the small space that we have at home, is mostly growing out of planter boxes – and we find those to be far more productive than the small bed that we had in the ground.
"And of the plants that we’ve been growing during winter it was the ones in the planter boxes that survived, while those in the ground were hit by frost. A planter box on your balcony or your veranda can produce enough for you to eat from it for the entire season. If you don’t have a fancy planter box, but you have an old bucket, or a tub that you’re not using anymore, or some mealie meal sacks, use that. You could grow potatoes in the sack, your greens in the tub and you could even grow a few more things in the bucket, such as your carrots and other vegetables. Having grown up in the township and now going back, I see how many people have transformed their yards into these very neat, paved areas, but now they don’t have space to grow food.”
Ready to start your own edible garden?
Nonkululeko recommends checking a seasonal planting calendar for determining what to plant when. When she and her team create vegetable gardens, they recommend starting a compost heap.
“You’ll be eating a lot of vegetables and you can throw that organic matter in the compost. We’ll bring in earthworms to be part of the compost heap so that you can create that ecosystem. And once you have that, you can have a long, sustained season of growing.
Connect with Nonkululeko on Instagram.
Author: Leanne Feris