The masseuse felt the broken bones and the scars and asked Chris Cline what he did for a living. Cline said he was in the energy business. What kind of energy?, she wondered. Maybe solar panels or windmills? No, not that, he said. You’re not a fracker, are you? No, not that either. Then what? “I own coal mines,” said Cline. Without a word she stopped working on him and left the room. He waited a while, but she didn’t return. Cline won’t name the resort (“I might want to go back there”). And the scars? From his years underground in Appalachian mines, where the coal seams have been worked so thin it’s like “crawling under a table all day.” Cuts on his back from a mine’s ceiling “felt like insect bites.”
Cline, 59, is one of the most archaic and unpopular specimens of capitalist: the coal tycoon. He doesn’t mind people not liking him. He knows that coal fuels 40% of the world’s power needs. “People deserve the cheapest energy they can get,” he says. “Tell the poor in India and China that they don’t deserve to have reliable, affordable electricity.”
Coal is far from dead. Global demand has dipped because of America’s shale-gas boom and tighter regulations in China, yet it remains 50% above its level in 2000, at 7.2 billion tons per year, according to the International Energy Agency. Even factoring in a carbon tax of $30 per ton, coal can compete on price with natural gas and renewables. And Chris Cline, relying on operating efficiencies that he has honed over nearly 40 years of running his own mines, intends to be the last man standing in the industry, supplying low-cost coal from Canada to energy-hungry consumers around the world.
Cline thinks the carbon crusade is folly: “I’m all for getting sulfur and mercury and nitrogen oxide out of the air – that’s common sense,” but ultimately, he posits, “global cooling” will be a bigger threat. “I believe in our children’s lifetimes that they’ll wish they had paid us per ton to put more CO2 in the air.” (It’s easy to forget that, as recently as the 1970s, fear of a coming ice age was part of the mainstream climate conversation.) Which is why he has no qualms about having built his $2 billion fortune with a series of all-in bets that have taken him from Appalachia to Illinois and now to Canada. He created one of America’s biggest publicly traded coal miners, Foresight Energy, and two years ago sold most of his interest for nearly $1.4 billion. He’s since sunk $150 million into a new mine in Nova Scotia that may produce 500 million tons of high-dollar metallurgical coal by mid-century. And he has permits to develop 1.7 billion tons more at the Vista mine in western Canada.
“If you had any idea where I started,” Cline says wistfully. Trim, powerfully built, 5-foot-11, he speaks in a quiet growl from the back of his throat, as if accustomed to keeping his thoughts to himself. Cline’s father, Paul, was a contract miner in Beckley, West Virginia; he operated rich men’s mines in exchange for a cut of what his team pulled up. When Cline was 6, his dad paid him a penny for each little bag he filled with dirt, which would be used to pack explosives into coal seams. When their front porch collapsed, it became clear young Chris had been excavating dirt from under the house. “It taught me the importance of engineering roof supports,” he says. He first went to work underground at age 15; the miners would hide him when inspectors came. Growing up, did Cline consider himself poor? “How much more poor can you get?”
Cline’s first, battered hard hat sits above the fireplace in his mansion in Beckley. He created a lake here by damming up the hollow; it’s big enough for waterskiing and features a 400-foot waterslide. There’s also a go-kart track and a pasture, where 150-pound Italian sheepdogs keep tabs on livestock – including Fabio, a white stallion that stands at stud in a luxurious stable. Cline has four kids, now grown. His first wife died of cancer; he’s divorced from his second. For four years he dated Tiger Woods’ ex-wife, Elin Nordegren.
Cline’s gun vault holds more than 50 firearms, including a Magnum .44 and a Gatling gun. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms comes out once a month to take inventory. A few years back, Cline was the subject of an extortion attempt that threatened his children. “Let ’em come,” he says with a grin. Today he’s armed with a sheaf of papers. There are architectural renderings for his island in the Bahamas and photocopies of old pics. A black-and-white shot shows a young Cline outside the little house where for fun he’d flatten bottle caps under the rails of the coal trains that ran a stone’s throw from the front door. “I’d hitch a ride on a train, hang on for a few miles, then grab one coming back.”
Cline has since upgraded his transportation. He spends 400 hours a year in the air – most of it on his $50 million Embraer Lineage 1000 – shuttling between his homes, making due-diligence tours of mines in Australia and Colombia, or hauling a Forbes camera crew to Nova Scotia, where he has been operating the Donkin mine since April. He applies the same philosophy to his planes as he does to his capital equipment: “We buy the best and run it hard.”
Underground, 1,000-horsepower mining machines rip the coal face with rotating claws; roof bolters hammer steel rods into the ceiling to hold the rock in place. Cline saw early on how much more coal he could produce with reliable equipment. Productivity and profits correlate strongly with uptime. If a vital machine breaks down and needs parts, Cline thinks nothing of sending one of his jets to fetch spares from anywhere on the continent. The math is easy: Every minute his crews are not ripping coal out of the earth equates to hundreds of dollars in lost revenue. And, yes, it’s dangerous. “It used to be brutal,” he says. “We’re trying to get all the hard work out of it.”
In 1980, when Cline was 22, his father had heart bypass surgery, and his partner offered $50,000 to buy him out. “My dad was going to do it.” But Cline had no doubt he could work harder and smarter than anyone else. “I said, ‘Why don’t we buy him out?’” And so they did, borrowing every penny. The first two weeks he worked 16-hour days and never saw sunlight – whatever it took to make his payments. With every success he doubled down. He lays on the table some pictures of himself from the 1980s – grinning, mustachioed, standing in front of an early mine named after his daughter Candice. His first big success came with Pioneer Fuel, a mine he acquired for $1 million and flipped for $17 million.
He bought a Lamborghini and a 200-foot yacht called Mine Games, but most of the money went back into the Appalachian ground. He implemented worker-friendly innovations like air-conditioned cockpits for mining machines. And he began handing out daily bonuses in the form of dollar coins, based on how many feet of coal a team had mined that day. “A man can go home and give it to his wife. Or buy some beer,” Cline says. At year’s end he’d hand out checks to cover taxes due. “Those guys would run through a wall for him,” says Andy Fox, an independent mining engineer who first met Cline when Cline pulled up to his office in a red Porsche 928 on the way to the beach and unloaded five bags of coal he needed Fox to analyze.
Still, it’s not enough to be innovative. “You need a little luck,” Cline says. In the late 1990s he had acquired enough reserves to build six new mines. Enron was big in natural gas and wanted to diversify into coal, especially coal trading. Cline got $85 million in loans and equity from Enron to build three mines. After Enron’s 2001 collapse, he bought back the interests for $13 million, then turned around and sold a similar stake to ArcLight Capital Partners for $151 million. By 2003 he was out of Appalachian coal altogether.
The coal industry had watched intently as the EPA cracked down on emissions of acid-rain ingredients like sulfur dioxide in the early 2000s. The quickest way for many power companies to comply was to stop buying high-sulfur coal (e.g., from Illinois) in favor of low-sulfur varieties (like those from Wyoming). Panicked holders of high-sulfur reserves just let their leases lapse and walked away.
Through a new company, Foresight Energy, Cline started accumulating 3 billion tons of high-sulfur reserves in Illinois for less than 30 cents a ton, some of it from the likes of Exxon Mobil. What did Cline know that they didn’t? He believed in technology and was encouraged by power-plant innovations like scrubber systems that capture toxins before they go up the smokestack, enabling them to keep right on burning high-sulfur coal. Plus, he was used to making money on mines with seams just 3 feet thick. Those Illinois seams were 6 feet or thicker. “If it gets to where you can vertically stand up, it’s a lot more pleasant.”
“I didn’t see it as a huge risk,” Cline says. He took on private-equity capital on one condition: no second-guessing. “He didn’t want to be tinkered with,” says Bartow Jones, a partner at Riverstone Holdings, which invested $600 million between 2007 and 2008. Not only did they acquiesce, Jones says, “we insisted on it.” Cline put $2 billion into four mine complexes, which soon became the most productive underground operations in the nation, averaging 13 tons per man-hour at costs of $23 per ton with output of 20 million tons per year.
Cline had created a market for high-sulfur Illinois coal. “Coal is not a commodity,” Jones says. “You can’t just shove it into a pipeline like natural gas.” Cline swayed power plants to his coal by paying for their sulfur-catching upgrades out of his own pocket. He acquired docks on the Mississippi and built rail spurs to load coal from 100-car trains directly onto ships bound for India and Europe. Cline needed an exit for his investors. In early 2014 Foresight held an IPO and hit a market cap of $2.5 billion. By early 2015 Riverstone had exited, having nearly doubled its money at a time when many coal giants like Peabody Energy and Alpha Natural Resources were headed toward bankruptcy. Foresight’s relative soundness made it an attractive target for Robert Murray, a 77-year-old coal magnate whose privately held Murray Energy paid Cline a little less than $1.4 billion cash in 2015 for most of Cline’s Foresight stake. The two coal barons had been at odds for years in Illinois, blocking each other via strategic land purchases. Cline stepped down from the Foresight board of directors last March, though he still owns 2 billion tons of Illinois reserves, a slug of Foresight bonds and around 29% of Foresight shares – which have traded down 75% since the Murray deal.
In 2010, as Foresight was hitting its stride, Cline was hungry for something new. He formed a company called Gogebic Taconite that tried to get permits for a Wisconsin iron ore mine on the shores of Lake Superior. But in 2013 the plan ran afoul of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians, who farm wild rice in the area. Cline canceled the plans, he says, because of low iron prices. “It will be mined someday.”
Canada was more hospitable. On the day of Foresight’s IPO in 2014, Cline rang the bell on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, then hopped on his plane and three hours later landed in Nova Scotia to go down into a mothballed mine shaft on the eastern tip of Cape Breton, in a town called Donkin. He was drawn to the huge 12-foot-thick seam and the coal’s high energy content, which at 14,000 British thermal units per ton can be readily turned into high-value coke for steelmaking.
He was also impressed that the highest-risk capital had already been sunk. The Donkin Project was a Hail Mary by the Canadian government to prop up a dying industry; it spent $50 million in the 1980s to bore twin tunnels 2 miles out under the Atlantic Ocean to tap a massive 500 million ton coal bed. By the time the shafts were cut in the late 1980s, benchmark coal prices had dropped (see chart, p. 68). When 26 miners died in a 1992 explosion at Nova Scotia’s Westray mine, it seemed like the end of the industry. But time – and higher commodity prices – heals all wounds. And Donkin was the perfect size for Cline, who bought 75% of it in late 2014 for an estimated $20 million (he’d snap up the remaining 25% the following year).
Since then, 10 of Cline’s old Foresight lieutenants have jumped to Donkin, where they’ve overseen $150 million of investments. That includes a 6,000-hp conveyor system to carry raw coal out of the mine, run it through a cleaning plant and hoist it 100 feet in the air, from which pulverized chunks drop onto jet-black pyramids. In time the conveyors will extend a half-mile to a barge-loading dock. For now front-end loaders scoop coal into trucks that carry it to Panamax-size ships at nearby Sydney. Legendary coal trader Ernie Thrasher is Cline’s partner on the logistics side. He says Donkin’s location, nearly halfway across the Atlantic, makes shipping costs to Rotterdam at least 30% ($5 per ton) less than they would be from central Appalachia. The best coking coal fetches more than $200 a ton today. The simplest way to sum up Cline, according to Thrasher: “He sees value in assets others overlook.”
Environmental opposition in economically depressed Nova Scotia is restrained. “Even those protesting the trucks know the coal is a good thing for the community,” says Paul Carrigan of the Port of Sydney Development Corp. “It’s in our blood.” European settlers mined the first coal here 300 years ago. Through the 1970s mining and steelmaking thrived, employing 20,000 before competition from the likes of China wiped it all out. There’s talk of using some of Donkin’s output to fuel Nova Scotia’s remaining coal plants. With plentiful wind and hydropower, Nova Scotia is well within Canada’s emissions standards.
Even First Nations peoples, like the Mi’kmaq, have been placated with jobs and a royalty on every ton. The mining jobs, paying $100,000 a year, are “an economic lifeline,” says Geoff MacLellan, a rep in the Nova Scotia legislature. But how many jobs will there be? At first, Cline had said 200. But in early November – six weeks after Forbes toured the Donkin site with Cline – the mine laid off 49 of 130 workers. Just a bump at the start of a long road, Cline says. After they did some test drilling for a few months, productivity wasn’t high enough, so they need time to bring in new equipment. Cline is patient. He has no equity partners or outside financing on Donkin. Once the mine is rocking and rolling, within 10 years it could be generating $500 million in annual revenues and putting $100 million in cash into Cline’s pocket. The reserves are vast enough to last for decades.
Is there anything that keeps Chris Cline up at night? “Sago,” he says, the name of a West Virginia mine then owned by International Coal Group where in 2006 a methane explosion killed a dozen miners. Initial reports claimed there were many survivors. Which only deepened the anguish once the bodies were found. Then in 2010 came the disaster at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, also in West Virginia, where 29 died. Cline had nothing to do with either incident, though over the years four workers have died in his mines, including his best friend. There are other risks. The Illinois attorney general sued and settled with Foresight for just $300,000 (plus $6.9 million in mine “retirement obligations”) over the pollution of groundwater with toxic coal slurry. Lisa Salinas, a critic of Cline who owns a farm 100 yards from an unlined slurry pond in Carlinville, thinks the settlement is a joke because it “calls for little to no valid mitigation of the existing pollution and, in fact, only encourages more damage.” A Foresight mine near Hillsboro, Illinois, has been shut since 2015 because of a dwindling coal fire.
Cline is amused by the popular misconception that coal is on its deathbed. Yes, coal-fired power plants do continue to close, and U.S. coal output, currently 700 million tons a year, is down 30% from its peak. And yet the U.S. still relies on coal for 30% of its electric power, compared with just 7% for wind and solar combined. Worldwide demand for coal continues to grow, possibly (but not definitely) peaking by the mid-2020s. Policy and technology are the wild cards; Paul McConnell at energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie figures that advances in solar and battery technology plus worldwide carbon taxes have the potential to erode coal demand by 8% a year.
But the death of coal – if it comes at all – will be long and slow. Cline aims for his next project, in Alberta, to be a survivor. He acquired the Vista project via his takeover of the Toronto-listed company Coalspur in early 2015 for an estimated $75 million. The seam is 70 feet thick on the surface, so Cline will build Vista as a pit mine, then go underground to eventually tap 1.7 billion tons. By 2022 it could be doing 10 million tons per year. Cline is cold-blooded when it comes to pushing marginal operators out of business. His Illinois mines took business from Appalachia. His Canadian projects will take business away from Illinois. “I think [Vista] could be the last mine operating after they’ve shut down all the rest of the coal in the world,” he says.
Cline plans to enjoy the rising sea levels in splendor. He recently acquired Big Grand Cay, a 280-acre archipelago in the Bahamas that used to be owned by Bob Abplanalp, inventor of the aerosol spray can. On his iPad, Cline scrolls through plans for a serene resort amid azure waters and non-judgmental massage therapists. It’s too expensive even for this billionaire to haul in enough diesel to keep the generators running, so he’s installing solar panels and researching Tesla batteries, and has three wind turbines on order. “Where it makes sense,” Cline says, “I’m absolutely for it.”
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.
Applications Open for FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 class of 2020
FORBES AFRICA is on the hunt for Africans under the age of 30, who are building brands, creating jobs and transforming the continent, to join our Under 30 community for 2020.
JOHANNESBURG, 07 January 2020: Attention entrepreneurs, creatives, sport stars and technology geeks — the 2020 FORBES AFRICA Under 30 nominations are now officially open.
The FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 list is the most-anticipated list of game-changers on the continent and this year, we are on the hunt for 30 of Africa’s brightest achievers under the age of 30 spanning these categories: Business, Technology, Creatives and Sport.
Each year, FORBES AFRICA looks for resilient self-starters, innovators, entrepreneurs and disruptors who have the acumen to stay the course in their chosen field, come what may.
Past honorees include Sho Madjozi, Bruce Diale, Karabo Poppy, Kwesta, Nomzamo Mbatha, Burna Boy, Nthabiseng Mosia, Busi Mkhumbuzi Pooe, Henrich Akomolafe, Davido, Yemi Alade, Vere Shaba, Nasty C and WizKid.
What’s different this year is that we have whittled down the list to just 30 finalists, making the competition stiff and the vetting process even more rigorous.
Says FORBES AFRICA’s Managing Editor, Renuka Methil: “The start of a new decade means the unraveling of fresh talent on the African continent. I can’t wait to see the potential billionaires who will land up on our desks. Our coveted sixth annual Under 30 list will herald some of the decade’s biggest names in business and life.”
If you think you have what it takes to be on this year’s list or know an entrepreneur, creative, technology entrepreneur or sports star under 30 with a proven track-record on the continent – introduce them to FORBES AFRICA by applying or submitting your nomination.
NOMINATIONS AND APPLICATIONS CRITERIA:
Business and Technology categories
- Must be an entrepreneur/founder aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
- Should have a legitimate REGISTERED business on the continent
- Business/businesses should be two years or older
- Nominees must have risked own money and have a social impact
- Must be profit generating
- Must employ people in Africa
- All applications must be in English
- Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up
- Must be a sports person aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
- Must be representing an African team
- Should have a proven track record of no less than two years
- Should be making significant earnings
- Should have some endorsement deals
- Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
- All applications must be in English
- Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up
- Must be a creative aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
- Must be from or based in Africa
- Should be making significant earnings
- Should have a proven creative record of no less than two years
- Must have social influence
- Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
- All applications must be in English
- Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up
Your entry should include:
- Full Names
- Company name/Team you are applying with
- A short motivation on why you should be on the list
- A short profile on self and company
- Links to published material / news clippings about nominee
- All social media handles
- Contact information
- High-res images of yourself
Applications and nominations must be sent via email to FORBES AFRICA journalist and curator of the list, Karen Mwendera, on [email protected]
Nominations close on 3 February 2020.
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