Were it not for the Foundation’s July 2014 Jamboree, business partners Lillian Maboya and Bianca Vernes would not have met. Lillian (a Candidate Fellow doing her Honours in Environmental and Geographical Science) and Bianca (a Candidate Fellow in her final year of a BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics) both study at the University of Cape Town and probably passed each other at Foundation events and on the UCT campus several times before. Yet it took a gathering of like-minded individuals with an interest in green technology for them to get in touch.
At that point both young women had their own plans for taking action in the arenas of sustainable development, vertical and permaculture gardening. It took a few meetings to compare notes to get the ball rolling. It’s been less than seven months since they met but they already have a registered company – Grow Up – with four employees. Equally impressive is a prototype that’s being refined with a launch date a mere two months away. Synergistic magic!
A meshing of ideas
Before commencing her studies at UCT as a Candidate Fellow, Lillian was enrolled at the African Leadership Academy (ALA) where she came into contact with EarthBox – a company that developed a gardening system by the same name. Lillian was excited by the unique system’s compact nature, conservative use of resources and resistance to weeds and micro-organisms. During high school she worked on gardening and environmental projects that earned ALA recognition and prize money. After completing high school, however, Lillian neglected her passion for greening the environment and it was only last year that she was ready to get her hands dirty again. Her attempts to reconnect with EarthBox revealed that the company had ceased operating, which is when the idea of buying and reviving the company was born.
On the other side of campus, Bianca was also thinking about ways to express her passion for environmental activism and community upliftment. Before coming into contact with the Foundation, she thought that her empathy and passion for human progress would only ever find a place within the non-governmental and non-profit sectors. Since then, however, she has realised the potential that businesses have to effect change and has become well-acquainted with social enterprises. She developed a knack for spotting such ventures everywhere – particularly in New York where she was struck by the scale and popularity of urban agriculture and vertical gardens. She started thinking of how these concepts could be replicated in South Africa without reinventing the wheel, bearing in mind the space, infrastructure and resource limitations that were unique to home.
When the two finally got together it was a relatively simple task to fuse the best parts of each other’s ideas and address a problem they were both exhausted by: non-profits with great ideas waiting on for-profits to fund those ideas.
They were going to design their own product that combined the best of EarthBox with the upward-planting characterised by vertical gardens. And that was the birth of Grow Up.
Capitalising on competitions
The next phase of their business progress was influenced by the Foundation’s ongoing support. Through Jamboree, the annual gathering of Candidate Fellows from across South Africa, Lillian and Bianca heard Ludwick Marishane’s advice on obtaining startup funding. As the inventor of DryBath, Ludwick advised them to seek seed funding through entrepreneurship competitions. He motivated that it required relatively little effort to put together a pitch and that this kind of funding usually had no strings attached.
The other type of support they enjoyed was the direct feedback of mentors like their Entrepreneurial Leadership Development Officers. In Lillian’s case, Jonathan Dickson was invaluable in providing feedback on her pitches, telling her what to include and exclude.
They jumped right in and submitted their first entry to the Western Cape Premier’s Entrepreneurship Recognition Awards mere weeks after their initial meeting. Though they didn’t win first place or the prize money in this competition, they made the most of the networking opportunity and were invited by the Department of Economic Development and Tourism to pitch their idea. Their pitch was successful and they received R25 000 to create their prototype.
Refine, get set, launch!
Bianca then called on an architect friend to help with the structural design of Grow Up. Clem, as he is endearingly known by the girls, was pivotal in helping them refine both the design and brand identity of Grow Up.
They are now on their second prototype and they have a horticulturist on their payroll to test it, determine harvest yields and help with the writing of the Grow Up instruction manual. It’s all very exciting and both Lillian and Bianca are counting down the days to their proposed launch, set for May – in time for winter planting and harvesting in Spring!
When excitement looms it’s often a challenge to think beyond the thrill of the moment but not so with Team Grow Up. They have already discussed plans for their national and international roll out as well as the differentiation of subsequent products and the potential of customers to customise their gardening systems.
1 + 1 = more
‘One plus one equals more’ makes no sense in pure mathematical terms, but in the case of Grow Up ,and its mission, it’s perfectly logical. Grow Up is certainly more than the sum of its founders and will go far beyond the sum of its parts. It has considerable potential: saving businesses money, being a basis for income generation in communities and serving as a tool in entrepreneurial development.
As Bianca puts it, the possibilities are endless. She explains, “That’s really what we wanted it to be … a tool that we could get out there that would not just meet needs but also enable and empower people. I’m excited to see what some people end up using these gardens for; I’m sure we’re going to get some amazing stories.”
Both Lillian and Bianca have acknowledged the role that the Foundation has played in the establishment of their business. It’s fair to say that Grow Up is a result of the support and networking opportunities provided to Candidate Fellows. It is also the result of being trained to see problems as mere inefficiencies that can be solved without reinventing the wheel.