Doyenne of advertising – check. Industry veteran – check. Supermom – check. Late hours – check. Sleepless nights – check. Time taken for self – “What’s that?” says Michelle Meyjes, the CEO of MEC Group and CEO of GroupM based in Johannesburg.
GroupM, WPP’s consolidated media investment management operation, has 36% share of all advertisements placed in the South African market. It serves as the parent company to some powerful media agencies such as Maxus, MEC, MediaCom and Mindshare.
Helming an operation of that stature and with an unstoppable career spanning over three decades, Meyjes’ question, then, is valid.
She makes two inferences here. One, that often women, in their relentless pursuit to balance work and life, don’t make enough time for themselves; most of what they do is “at the expense of the self”.
And two, that she is yet to take the sabbatical she had promised herself, 13 years ago.
Ever the unassuming CEO – her 27-year-old daughter Bianca calls her “humble as chips”, Meyjes, by her own admission, is not comfortable giving interviews. But when she speaks, she speaks genuinely and of matters close to her heart.
Not surprisingly, she begins with the state of the education system in South Africa (SA), and consequently, the lack of quality talent.
“I have that dream of giving the same amount of passion and same amount of drive I have given the ad industry, to the education department. I would go in there and start again. To me, that probably is an area we need to fix,” says Meyjes.
The topic leads to her own education. She had dropped out of Rhodes University (in SA) in the second year of her bachelor’s degree.
“I regret it to this day, it was a stupid decision,” she says. “I came from a very humble and disadvantaged family, [but] my mom got funding for me from friends to send me through university. Had I applied myself to it, I would have completed it, but I didn’t.”
Meyjes forayed into the publishing world, starting with Readers’ Digest on the sales side, then moving to Republican Press (now Caxton) where she worked across a number of titles.
“Then I went to the client side. I got into classical marketing, which is really where my heart lay.”
And then it happened. Her First Big Break – Panasonic, where she stayed for over a decade. She was the only female director on the board in the group’s history in SA.
“Panasonic gave me experiences in the marketing field that only a big brand can do today. We were playing in the big field. I worked with exceptionally creative individuals and great leaders. That’s what inspired my career,” says Meyjes.
Those were also the days when ‘Media’ was an in-house department in the creative agencies. Gradually, it started breaking away into specialized standalone agencies. That’s when Meyjes decided to “pack in” her corporate career, and join a business associate who was running one of SA’s first start-up media specialist agencies.
“Interestingly enough, I did it when I was 40 years old. In the corporate world, you have everything at your disposal – legal, financial, every possible function. And now I had become an entrepreneur, and got the biggest shock of my life! You do everything, you collect your own money and you only have each other.”
It was a successful partnership as the duo received offers from big brands. Soon, they sold out 100% to WPP and the business was rebranded Mediaedge, which is today MEC.
“At the time, my [business] partner said she wanted a sabbatical. I said, ‘strange you should say that, because I am tired too’. Building a business is not easy. So I said ‘you go, I will go later’ and came to an agreement with the shareholders that I would take a sabbatical later, which I might add, to this day, I have not taken,” laughs Meyjes.
She carried on, leading MEC. The group witnessed exponential growth. Currently, it is the fourth-largest media agency in SA with 11.6% industry share and billing of $370K. Meyjes has won some crucial awards along the way.
But for the second time during the course of the interview, she asks (for all women): “When you get to a role at the top, do you look back and say, ‘has it been at my expense’?”
“I don’t think women actually know what they want. I just see so many, you can tell they don’t want to be at the workplace, and have no option but to work. It’s circumstantial. Question is: are they going to make the most of it, or go by on just the bare minimum? …You have to work hard, there are no short-cuts. You have to make sacrifices and the biggest sacrifice is your own self. I think if you can get that balance right, that to me is the most critical.”
Meyjes is happy that her only daughter, who she calls an exceptional child, chose to break away from the corporate world, to follow her dreams, traveling the world, yachting and living in Monaco.
Heels On Wheels
The freight and logistics sector is changing face. More women are at the helm – and speeding ahead.
For many years, the logistics and trucking industry in South Africa was dominated by men until a young woman from Durban saw a gap in the market and took the opportunity to overtake them. They didn’t see her in their rear-view mirrors, speeding ahead.
Nicci Scott is today the founder of Commercial Transport Academy (CTA), a program designed to help students enter the trucking industry. In an industry where there are few women even now, she is a formidable force.
In 1995, at the age of 21, Scott started Siyaduma Auto Ferriers, which she says was the first female-owned logistics company in South Africa. This was soon after the country had gained democracy and women were unheard of in the industry. But she had been an entrepreneur long before that. At the age of 18, Scott started a business and sold it for just enough to go to work in the United States where she spent two years.
“While I was there, during the sanctions that South Africa was exposed to, I got to experience services that I had never seen before, like delivery services. These were services we never saw in the country, especially where I grew up,” says Scott. She returned home, worked for a car rental company for three months, and during that time, saw a gap in the market. The company she worked for moved cars based on bookings, so she saw that as an opportunity to provide these companies with drivers.
That epiphany marked her entry into the industry.
These rental companies would either use labor brokers, who would just drop-off the cars, or use big car carriers which would load the cars on to trailers restricted to 80kmph, and there was nothing in between, she says.
She started her own car delivery service and her list of clients kept increasing.
Her clients didn’t want to work with labor brokers anymore because there was no screening process – drivers with licences who were barely vetted for their criminal records were allowed to drive.
Scott offered a 90-minute turnaround time and that grew the business immensely.
“The big organizations at the time were running like a cartel and they were ignoring me until they couldn’t anymore and these were men, it didn’t matter to them that I was a woman. There was no charter to develop women back in 1998; no one was doing anything to help women in the business,” she says.
What was key to her was that she was only as good as her last delivery. Every damaged vehicle was an absolute personal failure, so she had to make sure that all was perfect.
However, while the technology on passenger vehicles was improving, she had to find a new market and the technology on trucks hadn’t evolved as much.
“From around 1999, I moved on to the trucking side and offered the very same service solutions to deliver trucks and the industry had never ever seen such a turnaround time,” she says.
Her first customer was MAN Truck & Bus.
She then started phasing out the passenger vehicle market, sold the various regions that came under her purview to the young entrepreneurs and branch managers she had being working with for long.
For her, the commercial trucking industry was far more engaging and stimulating because her services were new to them and Siyaduma Auto Ferriers was innovative.
“In 2008, there was the recession, and by 2009, my business lost 54% market share within three months, not to somebody else, but because trucks were not sold. There were more trucks parked in South Africa than trucks on the road,” she says.
Again, the company had to look at how they were going to reinvent themselves to survive the recession. There was a lot of innovation from the industry during that time to try and cut costs, recalls Scott.
In 2011, the industry started revving up again and business was doing well. But by then, it came to a point where she was totally exhausted as an individual.
“I had made the worst mistake any entrepreneur could make; I had worked myself to the point where I was sick, I then decided to sell,” she says.
The business was making a turnover of R100 million ($6.7 million), employing 280 people in 2018 and Scott sold the 23-year-old business to One Logix and became part of a big organization.
She now truly wanted to develop young startups and wanted to give back the opportunity that was given to her in 1995.
The CTA became her new focus; she left the organization to focus on the academy. She started with Volvo with the very first program training 20 men, but at the same time, she knew she wanted to be a catalyst for change.
Her goal was to curate an academy focused on the development of men and women, with a special focus on women in the transport sector, offering bespoke training.
“We are currently running a program with Volvo called Iron Women, it takes women with a Code 10 driver’s license and then a Code 14; they then do theory about operating a combination vehicle successfully and safely,” she says.
Then, they are incorporated into the workplace and train for three months, driving all kinds of trucks. “I then go into the market and find them jobs and at this point, there has been 80% employment,” says Scott.
Ntombizodwa Khumalo from Sebokeng, a township in the south of Johannesburg, is one of the 80% women now employed as drivers.
Before that, Khumalo worked in a hotel, booking in drivers from parts of southern Africa. The inquisitive Khumalo would page through some of the truck manuals that she would find in their rooms.
About two years later, she heard from a friend that a mining company was looking to employ women. Out of the eight women that were interviewed and tested, she was one of four that got an opportunity to work for the firm in 2007.
Khumalo had never driven a truck in her life and received her Code 14 driver’s licence and a certificate to operate a truck.
“It was a success because they found that women drivers were better than male drivers, we were reliable, we were not involved in accidents, barely take sick leave or come to work with a hangover,” says Khumalo.
The 36-year-old was operating a dump truck in and around the mine.
In 2012, the contract ended and she was left unemployed. It was not easy gaining employment with logistics companies because she was a woman.
“This was until I met Nicci Scott, she made it easier for companies to trust that as women, the job can be done. Today, I am driving all industrial trucks all around South Africa for an international soft drink manufacturing company.
“Safety-wise on the road, you always have to be alert of your surroundings, and now, we have drivecams (cameras), but we also have convoys, we are never alone. So I feel safe on the road,” she says.
Khumalo is working towards getting her own fleet and becoming an entrepreneur.
The transport industry has seen drastic changes over the last few decades and thankfully, there are women in leadership positions too, specifically in road freight.
Matlhodi Senyatsi, Director: Logistics Infrastructure, of the National Department of Transport (DoT) in South Africa, has a commerce background and has been in the industry 10 years now.
Her work focuses on policy and regulations in the transport industry. Her portfolio revolves around freight, the movement of goods and services, and coming up with new policies or reviewing existing ones.
“We engage the industry and stakeholders to reach a consensus and after that, we take the processes to cabinet and portfolio committee to say this is what we think needs to happen in the industry from the policy point of view,” says Senyatsi.
That being said, going back to 2008, former transport minister Jeff Radebe had stated the sector would change the face of transport. The South African Network for Women in Transport (SANWIT) was established the same year.
“This umbrella body was established as a strategic vehicle to engage business and government on issues that impact on women in the transport sector, including entrepreneurship,” said Radebe in a statement.
Indeed, this has happened and Lebo Letsoalo is a perfect case in point.
Letsoalo is a supply chain coach, a thought leader in the sector, from procurement all the way to transportation and the logistics subdivision.
She currently runs her own organization; Sincpoint, founded in 2016.
The company offers integrated supply chain solutions in the industry. It also enables knowledge, skills and experience to assist in the development of procurement, logistics, information systems and distribution among other fundamentals.
A few months after Sincpoint was founded, she also founded AWISCA (African Women in Supply Chain Association), a non-profit organization, with the focus of building technical capacity and skills through mentorship.
“Part of what I do as a mentor and coach is focus on skills development; we develop capacity around the supply chain sector. I am passionate about supply chain and have being in the industry for 18 years. I started my career doing media studies and after the first year, I dropped it because it wasn’t in sync with what I wanted,” says Letsoalo.
She, therefore, researched the future around certain careers, and the one that caught her attention was the supply chain sector. Her focus was always logistics, she says.
“During my third year, I was recruited into the industry and worked for my first big corporate company as a procurement officer. Over the years, I was moving companies and getting promotions and eventually worked as a senior manager at a mining company. The last organization I worked for was a petroleum company as a general manager for one of their business units, was then promoted to vice-president for supply chain running the logistics of the chemical sector which was about 60% of the organization’s income.”
She learned as an employee that the industry is male-dominated and realized there was a bigger gap in upskilling, especially around logistics and procurement; she built relationships and currently contributes to upskilling in the sector.
Today, she employs six permanent staff and works with about 10 associate companies, including freelancers.
The name, Sincpoint, came about synchronizing all the subsectors in the supply chain industry which are driving the GDP, and AWISCA was created for students, women, entrepreneurs and professionals.
“With the student chapter, we have partnered with universities that drive the transport economy, logistics, supply chain, and we have a memorandum of understanding with these institutes. We prepare them [the students] for the workplace and also show how you can be an entrepreneur in this sector, like owning a truck in road freight and going into the clearing and forwarding business,” she says.
Letsoalo goes on to add the issue with women driving trucks are the safety measures. “If you are a woman and you have to drive from Johannesburg to Cape Town, you are not allowed to drive non-stop, they need to rest. So the concern of having women on the road has always been a challenge. There is the issue of rape or cargo getting stolen while they are resting, but now the landscape is changing. There are a whole lot of young women that are looking to driving, and trucks have cameras now so that drivers can be monitored. Technology has played a major role in terms of safety for women,” says Letsoalo.
However, in the number of years that she has worked and managed in this sector, she has never met a female truck driver moving freight, although, there are a number of female truck owners.
“It’s an entrepreneur’s space,” she says.
The issue of women empowerment has brought a lot of opportunities for women and Senyatsi testifies to that.
“In the late 1980s, there was a deregulation of the law that trucks were not allowed to move certain commodities, and out of that, we saw a lot of trucking businesses mushrooming,” says Senyatsi.
She says anyone can get into the business; it just depends on which type of business you are interested in. What the DoT finds is that it is easy to get into the industry and people want to own trucks without looking at factors like maintenance and management.
As government, they are looking at making sure there are quality regulations in the industry.
The Road Freight Strategy document will regulate that everybody competes on an equal footing, be it male and female, and this will highlight that owners are properly operating, the truck is serviced regularly, the driver is competent, trained, and also have a person who manages the business for the owner if the owner has other priorities.
“We find a lot of women in the clearing and forwarding business because you don’t have to have a lot of money to start, you must just understand the trade. In the value chain, there is insurance, maintenance and not just owning a truck, people seem to think that those trucking industries are not as important,” says Senyatsi.
The journey for women in this space has just begun, and they are here to stay.
The Baskets Holding Them Together
The female basket-weavers of Rwanda. When destiny failed them, they saw hope, in gentle strands of sisal and grass. The art helped them heal, reconcile and live again.
‘Art As A Reconciliatory Tool’
As dusk descends on the verdant valleys of Kigali, the green of the city’s rolling hills and its red terraced homes relinquish their arresting appeal to the most sparkling jewel of the night – the landmark Kigali Convention Centre (KCC), easily one of Africa’s brightest spots, with its multi-tiered colors and unique architectural aesthetic.
It is striking in contrast to the landscape around and occupies center-stage, both in the city as well as the psyche of the proud Rwandan. Resembling the traditional, intricate, hand-woven Agaseke basket, the KCC stands atop the hills as a symbol of hope in Rwanda, and as a beacon of a new Africa.
It’s a sight most reassuring for the plethora of female artisans and entrepreneurs in the country. In villages and districts far from this dome in the city center, women sit huddled together in tiny cooperatives weaving with nimble fingers beautiful Agaseke baskets, in all forms, shapes and sizes, oblivious to the impact their creations have on the tourism economy – and more so, in their own lives.
Bella Rukwavu, Project Coordinator of the Agaseke Project, which was initiated by the City of Kigali in 2007, recounts the beginnings of some of these cooperatives, after the new government took over, post the horrific genocide against the Tutsi that left a million dead across the country.
“When the city was trying to reorganize itself, part of the problem was the streets were filled with women hawkers, prostitutes, the disabled and the sexually-abused,” says Rukwavu.
There had to be a sustainable, lasting solution that gave the destitute women, most of them widows and survivors of the genocide, a viable alternative, and the idea for cooperatives training them with the art of basket-weaving was born.
The women had a natural flair for it, as basket-weaving was an inherent part of their upbringing and culture, so they could be easily skilled. The women were a mix of both ethnic groups, Tutsis and Hutus, and slowly, surely, through their collective efforts sewing sisal fiber and grass to make and sell objects of beauty, put their ugly past behind them.
The City of Kigali now oversees the Agaseke Project with 2,000 women, distributed among 50 cooperatives in three districts across Kigali.
“The project acted as a reconciliatory tool and promoted peace,” says Rukwavu, in the car as we drive from the City Council to Gatsata sector in Gasabo district to meet with some of the artisans at the cooperative located there. “In some cases, both the victims of the genocide and the wives of the perpetrators worked together, and the art unified them. They have forgotten their differences. Today, they all live as Rwandans.”
Past the thatched homes on the hillside, and up a muddy road, the red earth leads to a one-storied edifice with yellowing walls and blue windows. Here, a group of 25 women sit on the hard cement floor, indulging in light banter and expertly weaving dyed sisal, grass and papyrus reeds to create a raft of colorful basket containers. These are arranged on a wooden shelf and on frayed floor mats.
On the shelf are two wooden boxes with locks. This is where the women store their money as part of their self-styled loan-and-savings scheme; the boxes a repository of their collective earnings – and trust.
The cooperative receives orders from clients in the United States (US), Europe and Japan. The baskets have given the women economic security and a social network. Says Rukwavu: “Some of these women are doing so well and have become so successful they have come out of these cooperatives to start businesses of their own, making diversified products and selling them elsewhere.”
The Agaseke Project is but one snapshot of the larger community of female basket-weavers in Rwanda. In the pages that follow, FORBES AFRICA visits more social enterprises, profiling the artists, artisans and entrepreneurs this industry has spawned. In a country where drones are delivering medical supplies and innovation is a daily buzzword, these women are keeping alive a traditional art form that has found its way into the snazzy department stores and boutiques of the world. To them, fortune is not dollar figures, but mere survival. Their future is in their own hands.
The Single Survivor
Catherine Uwimana, 48
In Gikondo, about a 30-minute drive from the city, a dirt road with a morass of overhead power and telephone cables leads to an unassuming grey gate with colors bursting within. These are the premises of Talking Through Art, a not-for-profit focused on art-related employment opportunities for people with physical disabilities. It was started by Petr Kočnar, from the Czech Republic, who initially came to Rwanda from Kenya to learn French. He encountered destitute people with disabilities on the street and decided to start the center in 2015 with his own savings, to rehabilitate them with art therapy and traditional basket-weaving.
Each of the 25 women, young and old, at this center make about $5 for each of the medium baskets they craft. Placide Ndacyayisenga, the manager, offers a cup of steaming Rwandan coffee, and pointing to the dainty handcrafted bowls on the walls, says: “The baskets we make are inspired by nature, such as the sun, the birds and the baobab trees. Foreign tourists buy from here and our products are also available in premium boutiques and gift shops in Kigali. The artisans here were wandering the streets before, now they can sustain their families, and even have bank accounts.”
One such is Catherine Uwimana. She lost her right leg during the genocide, hit by a grenade when in hiding at her home in Kacyiru.
Save for her older sister, all her family died around her. Having never married, Uwimana lives alone and is grateful she makes enough money weaving baskets to feed herself and pay her rent. “I have been here four years now and this is my family,” she says in Kinyarwanda, her eyes not concealing the pain of her past. “These baskets give me hope for the future.”
Baskets To Theater
Emilienne Muhawenimana, 35
Muhawenimana arrives at the Talking Through Art center in Gikondo riding a scooter. It’s hard to tell she is polio-afflicted and needs crutches to walk. Muhawenimana’s nature-inspired paintings light up the walls here just as she does. She leans against one of them, posing genially for pictures. One of the most prolific basket-weavers at the center, she is today into stage plays, and even traveling outside of Rwanda as part of theater groups. “She was one of our best basket-weavers and is a good actress today,” beams Placide Ndacyayisenga, the center’s manager. The multi-talented Muhawenimana also recites poems and mentions her work with the British Council; one of the many empowered at the center to make a living through art.
The 8-To-5 Weaver
Vestine Nyiravesabimana, 49
A mother of nine children, Nyiravesabimana has been weaving baskets at the Agaseke Project cooperative in Gazabo district for the last 12 years. Making an average of $5 per fruit bowl that she handcrafts, over time, she has been able to send her children to school. She makes a minimum of $100 a month, working 8AM to 5PM through the week.
She is vaguely aware her creations sell well locally, to NGOs and at retail shops, but also “far, far away”, in America and Japan, lands she will perhaps never see.
Some of the women working with her face immense hurdles to come to work. But the project has helped Nyiravesabimana attain economic independence. Her husband, who works as a plumber, respects her more now, she says; they have fewer quarrels.
“She also knows how to bank,” says Agaseke’s project coordinator Rukwavu. “She has an independent bank account.” Nyiravesabimana is also a part of the loan-and-savings scheme at the cooperative with her fellow female weavers. Working collaboratively in a group with the other women has helped her speed on the time-intensive art, as the more baskets she crafts, the more money she makes.
Dressed in a cheerful red chitenge outfit, her megawatt smile fills the small room she is in, as she gives the finishing touches to yet another signature fiber container that will make its way out of Africa to the world beyond.
Farida Umuhoza, 43
A bored housewife for a long time until she discovered her skill crafting baskets, Umuhoza was with the Agaseke Project cooperative in Nyarugenge district for seven fruitful years from 2010.
A self-made entrepreneur today retailing her own range of handmade products, she is thankful for that epiphany, as today, she is the sole bread-winner for her family, supporting a sick husband and two children – a son aged 23 and a daughter aged 21.
We meet Umuhoza at her make-shift shop at the far-end of the car-free exhibition zone, by the towering citadels of capitalism in the heart of Kigali.
At the Agaseke cooperative, she shone with her expertise weaving baskets, quickly moving on to open her own permanent shop, named Chic, in a shopping mall in downtown Kigali. Umuhoza has been expanding her business since.
She also designs chitenge clothing, but her specialty is “the peace-maker, a sort of an oven made of fabric, sponge and cotton wool that saves energy and time and keeps food warm”. She sells it from $20 to $40 a piece, depending on the size.
As we speak, she pauses to “hello and welcome” curious shoppers, mainly international tourists, who walk in to look at her collection of baskets, clothes, and African bric-à-brac. Her attentive son hovers around her, as she settles the deal with a woman bargaining for a wooden stool.
Her finances have been stable, she says, as she has been able to meet her husband’s medical expenses, educate her children and re-stock her shop. She has traveled across East Africa, invited to showcase her baskets, and even once to the Netherlands for further training.
She has come a long way from her 18-year-old self when she lost her entire family in 1994, during the genocide against the Tutsi.
As the sun dips on this August evening, her shop gets busier with office commuters and government workers, her largest clientele.
She is grateful for every sunrise and sunset. “Back then, sitting under the hot sun, weaving them, the baskets taught me about life. I knew they would take me out of poverty. Dare to start, don’t ever quit!” she says, before attending to yet another paying client.
The community builder
Mukeshimana Grace, 52
The Nyamirambo Women’s Center, an NGO on a bustling street in Nyamirambo, is a hive of activity the afternoon we visit. The cooperative doubles as a charming shop retailing all kinds of delectable African print clothing, accessories, home decor and trinkets, and buzzes with dollar-waving foreign tourists. Grace is about to give a presentation on the art of basket-weaving to them when we meet her. She has been mastering the craft for over six years now and says she has had a life-long connection with weaving, having learned it at her mother’s knee.
In an ante-room at the center, women are hard at work at their sewing machines. There are 55 seamstresses here turning cloth into craft.
“I enjoy being a part of a community, and building it.– Mukeshimana Grace
The shop offers a sense of community and camaraderie as visitors stop by to chat to the staff. Launched in 2007 by 18 Rwandese women to address gender-based violence and inequality, today, the center provides skills and training to women so they can better their chances for employment. It’s a self-sustaining model, also offering tours into the neighborhood. The profits from the tours go back into paying the seamstresses and funding more community engagement initiatives.
Mary Nyangoma, Project Manager at the center, who has been a part of it from inception, finds time to break away from the unending stream of clients. She says: “Sewing is very popular in this neighborhood. Some of the women with us never got a chance to go to school, so we also taught them to read and write. And we came up with the idea of the neighborhood tours. Six years ago, we also started selling the in-house products we make.”
Nyangoma is effusive in her praise for Grace, who is too shy to speak. She was the first basket-weaver that joined the center and is now working full-time with them, making the baskets at home, and earning about RWF300,000 ($330) a month. A widow, she has four children to feed. Yet, there is no where she would rather be.
“I prefer working here, in a group,” Grace opens up, “as when I am alone, I tend to think of my worries. I enjoy being a part of a community, and building it.”
In Johannesburg, city-dwellers like Linah Moeketsi have taken the future of sustainable farming into their own hands. Where land is becoming scarce, they look to the skies.
Doornfontein is one of Johannesburg’s older inner-city suburbs with decaying buildings and dingy alleys that wear a dour, monochrome look.
Daily commuters and street surfers jostle with delivery vans and mountains of metal scrap but the grey of the concrete city makes it hard to believe that there could be a patch of green in a most unlikely location.
Above the humdrum of life here is a rooftop hydroponics farm looking down on the city, but upwards to a new route to restoration and urban preservation.
Atop the eight-floor Stanop building – offering a breath-taking view of the city and the landmark Ponte Towers in the distance – one woman has made it her mission to turn a grimy grey terrace into a green lung on the city’s skyline.
“City life is taking on a totally new direction… even people who think they couldn’t one day farm, find themselves on rooftops,” Linah Moeketsi tells FORBES AFRICA.
Moeketsi grows herbs, used to treat non-communicable diseases (NCDs), in a 250m x 500m greenhouse on the building’s terrace. But her rooftop farm is sans any soil – it uses a hydroponics system.
“I think because we are in the city and we would like to produce for people in the city, hydroponic farming is one of the answers because you can actually harvest more than twice the produce, and the growth rate is quicker and there is produce that you can have throughout the year that people demand because it is in a controlled environment,” she says.
On a windy Wednesday morning in October, we meet Moeketsi at her aerial green facility, a couple of days before she is to send some of her plant produce to the market.
She talks about her journey as an offbeat farmer. It all started when her father fell ill in 2013, when doctors failed to correctly diagnose his disease.
“They couldn’t see that he was diabetic. He didn’t show the signs of diabetes, but he had this foot ulcer that just wouldn’t go away,” she says.
“The future of city farming is great simply because we have more and more young people getting into this space. Even though it’s farming, they are looking at it from a very different angle.
Moeketsi decided to do her own research, so she read up books on African medicinal plants and used some herbs that belonged to her late mother, who had been a traditional healer.
“It took me a good eight months to help my dad and I actually saved him from having an amputation.”
The news of Moeketsi curing her dad’s diabetes using herbs spread. Sadly, her father died in 2016, at the age of 87. But she is proud to have helped prolong his life.
“So he passed away in his sleep, not sick, nothing, he was just old. But he was always grateful; he was like, ‘even when I die, I’m going to die with both my limbs’, so we would make a joke about it.”
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After her father’s demise, Moeketsi rented some land and turned her knowledge on natural herbs into a fully-fledged farm. However, when the owner of the land returned, she was forced to vacate.
Land was always going to be a problem in the city. But instead of giving up, Moeketsi looked to the skies.
“Because of this passionate drive for an answer, I found myself researching what’s happening outside Gauteng and South Africa, and I saw in Europe, they were farming on rooftops,” she says.
In 2017, her dream became a reality when she secured a deal with the City of Johannesburg as part of an urban farming program, and started the rooftop project a year later.
When we visit her greenhouse, we are welcomed by the sweet lingering scent of herbs. It’s hot and humid, and two fans whir away to cool the air.
Moeketsi walks around the greenhouse wearing dark glasses and a white jacket, with a syringe in hand – she could easily pass off as a medical doctor.
She elaborates on the hydroponics system. There are four pyramids, each attached to their own reservoirs of water. On each pyramid, different plants, ranging from spinach, lettuce, sage, parsley, basil and dill, rest on beds with pipes connecting them to the reservoirs. Moeketsi plucks out one of the pipes and inserts the syringe; water spouts out of the tube and she returns it to the bed.
“Twice a day, you have to check that water is actually going through the pipes, because that’s how the plants get water and nutrients,” she explains, as she unblocks a pipe using the syringe. She says it’s one of the best ways to farm using little water.
“When you put in certain plants in the greenhouse, you know you are guaranteed sustainable farming because you can produce those plants and harvest them,” she says.
Moeketsi adds that this allows her produce to stay consistent season after season.
“So, from that point of view, it makes the city more sustainable in terms of food produce that is easily accessible and cost-effective for the consumer because not everyone around here can afford the high prices of food but they can at least afford what we sell, whether it is at R10 ($0.5) or R15 ($1).”
As Moekesti continues to tend to the plants, a farmer she works with walks in and begins filling up the reservoirs.
Lethabo Madela has known Moekesti for almost six years.
“When you look around Johannesburg, there is no space, so rooftops have saved us a lot, especially those of us that love farming,” says Madela. “I’m learning a lot and I think she [Moekesti] changed the whole concept of farming for me because I used to farm vegetables. I didn’t know culinary herbs or medicinal herbs.”
Moeketsi speaks of other farmers around the city who have taken to the rooftops to farm plants such as strawberries, lemon balm, spinach and lettuce.
In a suburb called Marshalltown, a 10-minute drive from Moeketsi’s farm, Kagiso Seleka farms lemon balm also using hydroponics.
He produces sorbet and pesto from his produce which is then used to make ice cream.
“It [hydroponics] is great for farming sensitive plants in terms of temperature. Lemon balm does not like frost. But it’s better to grow even out of season so you can set a higher price,” he tells us.
However, he says hydroponics farming is a luxury not many farmers can afford.
“It [hydroponics] does have a bit of a higher capital upfront, but you get a higher yield and higher quality, so people are willing to pay more. Hydroponic planting saves about ninety five percent of water soil farming in a water-scarce country,” says Seleka.
“We do have water shortages, and I know people are on the whole ‘organic trip’ but, is it more important to have an organic plant versus a water-saving environment?”
The Program Coordinator for Agriculture at the City of Johannesburg’s Food Resilience Unit, Lindani Sandile Makhanya, says there certainly are more rooftop farmers in Johannesburg now than ever before.
Converting idle terraces into avenues of profit is becoming a norm. There are new rooftop farms being set up every day, offers Makhanya.
He regularly visits Moeketsi’s farm to check on the progress and collect produce to sell.
“Urban farming in Johannesburg is rising, mainly because the idea of producing our own food is very important because most people are moving to urban areas and therefore it stands to reason that we have to try to produce as much as possible,” says Makhanya.
“[There is growth] even in animal production, although we are moving away from the bigger numbers, but we are involving the smaller ones; because of the space issue, they are increasing overall.”
For Moeketsi, her farm has changed her life and given her hope for a better future. In addition to the teas, tinctures, ointments and medicinal products she processes from her plants, she plans to include more by-products such as syrups in the future.
“The future of city farming is great simply because we have more and more young people getting into this space. Even though it’s farming, they are looking at it from a very different angle,” she says. “That is why the city is changing and rooftop farming is going to get bigger and bigger.”
Clearly, farming in Africa is covering exciting new ground.
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