A rooftop hydroponic farm in the city

From a backyard garden in a township to a flourishing hydroponic farm in the city

Inspired to create a brighter future for herself and help solve hunger in her community, Zandile Kumalo, agri-entrepreneur and co-founder of Neighbour Roots, established her first hydroponic farming system on 2 000 square metres of backyard space in a little township called Sebokeng in 2020. 

Today, she has a world-class hydroponic farming system on the rooftop of Morningside Shopping Centre in the affluent neighbourhood of Sandton, from which she supplies fresh vegetables to the centre’s restaurants and shops all year round. Her agribusiness, Neighbour Roots, also empowers others who wish to start hydroponic farms in their own backyards.

But what is hydroponic farming exactly? Simply put, it means growing plants in water that is enriched with minerals and nutrients (fertiliser) instead of soil. As a result, the plants grow much quicker than with conventional ways of farming, and the produce has a much higher nutritional value (which makes it very popular among consumers).  

The type of crops that can be produced are also regarded as “high-value crops” and include the likes of lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, strawberries, celery and herbs. The promise of achieving a quicker turnaround from seed to crop, combined with the ability to produce high-value crops that are more nutritious, explain why more and more people are looking into hydroponic farming.

As if that wasn’t enough, there are even more advantages to this unconventional way of farming. Firstly, you can install a hydroponic farming system in underutilised spaces such as pavements, garages, parking spaces, or (of course) rooftops – like Zandile did. Secondly, because hydroponic farming systems are usually placed in controlled environments, you are not dependent on weather conditions. This reduces your risk of losing crops and means you can produce through all four seasons of the year. 

One of the major obstacles that prevent people from trying their hand at hydroponic farming is the general belief that the start-up costs are very high. According to Zandile, the infrastructure needed for commercial hydroponic farming is indeed quite expensive and can easily go up to about R500 000. She explains that one can, however, start on a much smaller scale and then expand later on, as and when your market and demand grow (which is in any case a safer route to follow). 

“All you really need to get a small hydroponic farm off the ground is a space of approximately 300 square metres and about R5 000 to buy a hydroponic system,” she says. Plus, even though you plant your crops in water, you need much less water and energy to run your hydroponic farming system, so your overheads will be much lower than that of conventional farming as well.

There is a wide range of hydroponic farming systems you can choose from in South Africa, depending on the space you have and what you would like to grow. This includes the likes of deep-water culture (DWC) systems, wick systems, nutrient film technique systems, ebb and flow systems, drip systems, and aeroponics. Generally, South Africans prefer the “drain to waste” system for tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers and the “gravel flow” system for lettuce and herbs. 

Zandile’s best advice to all those who are ready to turn small spaces into big hydroponic farms? Check that you’ll have a constant supply of water and sufficient electricity or backup power for when there is loadshedding. Plus, find the right people to work with and make sure they are equipped with the right information. As such, her agribusiness Neighbour Roots also helps to equip aspiring hydroponic farmers and their people with the right theoretic and practical information by offering internships to two people at a time. For more information, go to https://www.morningsideshops.co.za/neighbour-roots/.