Travel, Gardens

Urban Goes Green: Part IV. At 1 Fox, the Future Looks Sexy – and Green

Among restored warehouses in the historic Ferreirasdorp district in Joburg's CBD, hydroponic greenhouses thrive at the hands of three young women.
Valentina Nicol

In the heart of 1 Fox, amongst restored warehouses at the historic Ferreirasdorp district in Joburg's CBD, are three young women under 35 years of age doing the unimaginable. They are growing vegetables, fruit and herbs in hydroponic greenhouses. 

Zandile Khumalo, Puseletso Mamogale, and Fezile Msomi are among 22 young agri-preneurs who have been given business and technical hydroponic farming training, as well as allocated a farm to run (on a loan that they have three years to pay off). 

Zandile’s excitement is palpable, as a young student learning the ropes so she can run her own farm in partnership with a university in the Vaal. Her learning lab is the 100x200sqm Hola Harvest demo farm on the ground floor of the 1 Fox Precinct, next to the avant-garde Urbanologi restaurant and Mad Giant brewery. In this farm, you’ll see rows of leafy greens, juicy-looking strawberries, herbs, and colourful edible flowers sprouting from steel ‘plant trays’ constructed in an ascending A-shaped unit. Inside each unit is an intriguing micro-piping system that circulates water, keeping the plant hydrated and fed with PH balanced-nutrients. 

Their produce (like lettuce) takes an average of 6 weeks to grow from seedling – compared to 2-3 month in the soil. They use about R200 for electricity to run each 100sqm farm and reuse their water (changing it only every 1 or 2 months) – that’s about 95% less than traditional farms. The nutrients for the growing medium is added to the water and replenished only when the levels are low. 

There are many ways it is environmentally and economically sound to grow hydroponically. However, the market doesn’t only want leafy vegetables and hydroponic systems don’t currently grow root vegetables like beetroot, butternut or potatoes. 'We’re also experimenting with growing root plants like beetroot in a new system which some of our farmers have asked us to try,' explains Zandile, pointing to a pilot hydroponic system with beetroot growing in it. 

Zandile Khumalo

Fezile Msomi

Puseletso Mamogale

On the adjacent building rooftops, Puseletso Mamogale’s grows spinach hydroponically. Not far from her is the Hazile Group farm, where Fezile grows lettuce, basil, thyme spring onions and kale for the restaurant market. 

They’re all busy on this particular morning, preparing to harvest for clients. Fezile breaks into a sweat from harvesting lettuce for a presentation to a fussy chef. She speaks of how she spends an entire day on the farm on most days, checking plant water levels, especially as plants grow bigger, checking nutrients, pruning some of the plants, cleaning floors and doing business admin. 

The initiative is a partnership between WIBC (Wouldn’t It Be Cool) Innovation, Johannesburg Inner City Partnership’s Urban Agriculture Initiative and investors like SAB and Minerals Council. All 100x200sqm farms are essentially growth beds for young people with dreams to be part of something significant. Something that not only changes perceptions around agriculture but also forges stronger ties between retail, restaurants and food producers in the city; a relationship that should be as natural as breathing. 

Could we see a future where Joburg’s skyline includes a whole lot of greenhouses perched on Skyscrapers? How exciting!

Follow Hola Harvest and show your support on Instagram @holaharvestdemo.