Long Way Down : Africa Under the Spotlight

I walked out to the arrivals hall, passing maybe a dozen taxi drivers. I was clearly told not to use their service. “Take Uber instead” a friend once told me. I rushed out to the exit, no longer than 2 minutes passed before the driver I ordered pulled his car near the sidewalk. He placed my suitcase in the trunk of his car and patiently waited for me to realize I would be sitting on his left side rather than on his right.

“You are in South Africa” he gently smiled.

 

The trip to South Africa was on the back of my mind for months yet nothing could have prepared me to what I would be soon experiencing. How could one possibly talk about Vertical Farming when 47 percent of the sub-Saharan population live on 1.90$ a day or less? Clearly a different approach would be needed.

Maggie Tan, CEO of Magenta Global, an independent business media company based in Singapore, was the lead organizer of the Urban Agri Summit 2017 in Johannesburg. We agreed I would be presenting a talk about vertical farming on the 2nd day of the 2-day long conference. Days before my flight to Johannesburg, I spent hours reading reports on Food Security, Agriculture and the African market. I can’t say I learned much.

What I couldn’t pick up from my hastily printed grey-looking reports, I quickly caught up during The Urban Agri Summit. There were plenty of opportunities to learn about this vast yet mysterious continent: Smallholder Farmers, Investors, Researchers, Analysts, Vertical Farmers and outright enthusiasts!

 

It was, relatively speaking, an intimate event and the chemistry between the speakers and the audience wasn’t like anything I’d witnessed before. It kept reminding me of a preacher delivering a Sunday sermon in church, where the audience would faithfully chime in with an “uh-uh” or a more poignant “damn’ right!” whenever an important point or a pun was made. These dynamics also resonated to the more informal networking sessions. The energy, the drive to share one’s prospect of a better future with his fellow ‘comrades’ (as South Africans kept referring to each other) allowed me to safely shed my own inherent skepticism and happily delve into conversations.

 

There were many who left a great impression on the audience, yet one’s vision stuck to me, clearly suggesting there is more to Vertical Farming than meets the eye. The Siyakhana Farm, situated on almost a hectare of land, was transformed from an arid and infertile dump site into a flourishing and productive garden, that focuses its activities towards social development in and around Johannesburg. The founder and director of Siyakhana was also the chairman of the Summit, Professor Michael Rudolph.

My main takeaway from almost every conversation I had with Michael is that the underlying connection between health and agriculture is key to the sustainable growth of the African economy. This basic yet crucial link, to which we have all grown accustomed in developed countries, is far from obvious in so many African countries. The numbers are staggeringly high; 55.4% of South Africans experience hunger or are at risk of hunger.

 

These are not just numbers we are talking about, these are the far larger and less obvious implications of food insecurity. The most prominent one, affecting lives and economies across the continent, is an everyday struggle to provide communities with an adequate, nutrient-rich diet. A healthy diet – the nutrients and micronutrients found within it – are key to a functioning immune system, to prevention of non-communicable diseases, and to ensuring the growth and cognitive development of newborn babies (as well as children).

The City of Johannesburg’s Strategy, Policy Coordination & Relations Unit under the auspices of Office of the City Manager commissioned Prof Rudolph and his Siyakhana Initiative team to carry out a food security survey across the city. The findings have provided an important baseline which will be closely monitored and evaluated as part of the City’s Growth and Development Strategic Plan. Based on standardized household food security indices, complemented by demographic and economic questions, the findings provided the reader with a view of ‘both sides of the coin’. A serious matter that must be dealt with on one side, and a unique opportunity for the urban farming industry on the other – simply termed as Urban Food Insecurity.

 

It was day one of the Urban Agri Summit, I was sitting near a table where I had a clear view of the podium. I was fretting over my presentation, previous speakers seemed to talk about most of what I planned to talk about the next day. Most of the attendees, predominantly South Africans, met for the first time at the summit. It only seemed obvious that for viable long-term collaborations to emerge, one would not only need to attend a conference or collect a bunch of business cards – but also create a space for opportunities to ripen.

A space which is equipped with all the tools and contacts necessary to engage with both the local and the global vertical farming industry. Hence the Association for Vertical Farming introduced the AVF Online Collaborative Platform (OCP) for the first time at the Urban Agri Summit. The platform is set to be launched next year and will include an Online Research Platform, a Vertical Farming Yield Calculator and a comprehensive directory of about 300 AVF members from around the world. Below is a demonstration of the OCP.

 

Three days later, with two flights and a ten-hour layover ahead of me, I knew I had plenty of time to let my impressions from South Africa sink in. Uber said the cab would come pick me up to take me to the airport in about two minutes. I fumbled my way down the crooked staircase of the guesthouse I stayed in. Still pondering whether I should follow up on these contacts I made during the summit as soon as possible, I didn’t want to forget why it was that we exchanged business cards in the first place.

 

The cab driver is already waiting, his arms stretched out and a curious yet joyful smile on his face. He slid the luggage into the trunk of his car with little effort. I took a step back and casually walked to the driver’s seat, still assuming it would be on the right side of the cab. I wanted to turn around and wave goodbye to the friends I made at the guesthouse I stayed in.

“I should definitely come back to…”

“…oh right…”

Smiling apologetically to the driver and walking over to the left side of the car.

“…we’re in South Africa”.

 

 

Author: Stephane Razzon

Assistant Operations Manager at the Association for Vertical Farming

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