If growing a vegetable garden at home helps a family increase their food security, and gives them more control over the procurement of their food, and shields them from the sharp swings in prices of purchasing fresh vegetables, then why aren’t more people planting?
At the age of 16, Claire Reid discovered the answer to this question when she tried planting a small vegetable garden in her backyard in Johannesburg, South Africa. At the store, seeds only came in packs of hundreds and the fertilizer came in several kilogram bags, which Claire reluctantly bought even though the costs were much higher than she expected. Back home, Claire had asked her nanny, Meggie, to read the directions on the back of the seed packet while Claire sat in the dirt ready to follow her directions. Meggie confessed to Claire that she couldn’t understand the information on the back of the packet nor how to calculate the correct distance between seeds, or the depth in the soil they should be. Meggie continued, saying that she had once tried planting her own vegetable garden at home and ended the experience feeling frustrated and embarrassed.
To overcome these barriers of language, cost, literacy level, and math skill, Claire designed Reel Gardening: a special paper strip, pre-packaged with organic open pollinated seeds and organic fertilizer spaced at the correct distance from one another thereby ensuring the plant is positioned at the correct (optimum) depth in the soil. Surprisingly, these strips are able to save 80% of water in comparison to traditional gardening methods. And, by using simple pictures, Reel Gardening can overcome language and literacy barriers in a country with 11 official languages.
Pilot Early, Pilot Often
Since 2010, Reel Gardening has planted over 120 community and school gardens and has sold smaller household gardens and individual planting strips to families throughout South Africa. This experience has allowed the company to prove the ease of use, the demand, and the quality of the strips. This real world experience has allowed Reel Gardening to continuously refine and perfect the product and business model, and plan a path for future partnerships and scaling.
The $1million seed funding (no pun intended) from the Hult Prize competition would enable Reel Gardening to increase production capacity and expand distribution. By doing so, Reel Gardening could simultaneously create employment opportunities and quicken the rate at which they could help people in urban slums take food security, literally, in their own hands by growing their own vegetables in a way that can adjust to their space and water constraints.
In addition to the kick-start funding, the Hult Prize has also offered the group a chance that few start ups get: an opportunity to step back from the busy day-to-day, to look at the bigger picture, and develop a clear path to maximize the company’s positive social impact.
The six-week, Hult Prize start-up accelerator in Boston, challenged the Reel Gardening team to oscillate between exploration and consolidation. Every week was an opportunity to think (explore) outside the box: to walk through what it would mean to include a new design aspect, or partner with an unlikely organization, or add another dimension to the business model, but still be able to bring it quickly back to the core of the company’s business operations; including the level of positive impact it would bring to urban food security in comparison to other options, and the ability to scale.
“By stepping away from the up-and-running start up for a short while, the team was actually able to dive in and try new aspects of the business model quicker.” – Claire Reid
Profile of reel gardeners
Reel Gardening was started by Claire Reid and Sean Blanckenberg (not seen in photo). Sean’s background in change management consulting and Claire’s experience in architecture helped the company set the structured, yet flexible business model necessary when establishing a start up. Greg Macfarlane (L to R) heads up finance for the Reel Gardening team, a perfect fit given his background in finance and supply chain consulting. Emily Jones, Reel Gardening’s main project manager, brought her background in developmental economics and training in Community Based Planning and Sustainable Livelihoods Approach to Reel Gardening which has helped to ensure the company’s plans and implementation adequately address the underlying factors contributing to food insecurity. Dianna Moore focused her MBA on sustainable agriculture and brings experience in business development and sustainability consulting to her role in business development and strategic implementation.
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Mari Anixter is Managing Editor for Innovation Excellence. She is a communications professional living in the Boston area.