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Nonhlanhla Mokoena-Chimhandamba article


How a young urban farmer is sowing into SA agriculture and planting more female farmers

Somewhere near Pretoria, lies a 23Ha farm called Urban Grown. While crispy green spinach leaves are being picked by the hundreds, fields are being prepped for next season’s crops. With a team of upbeat workers and a fresh litter of puppies running around, there’s an undeniable youthfulness in the air.

Behind it all is Nonhlanhla Mokoena-Chimhandamba – a young business woman who’s making farming fresh again.

Nonhlanhla, better known as Nonny, is the co-founder and Managing Director of Urban Grown Organics. “We are a team of urban farmers based in Diepsloot (Johannesburg) and Pyramid (Pretoria) who are dedicated to growing and distributing the best, fresh produce in the city,” Nonny explains as we join her at the Pyramid site.

Together with her husband Simbarashe Chimhandamba, Nonny started Urban Grown in 2015. From the get go, it’s clear that this husband-and-wife team complement each other with their different strengths. “Simba is our visionary with the green thumb,” Nonny says, while she brings 11 years’ of experience as a brand and marketing manager to the table.

The heart and head behind Urban Grown

Urban Grown is a 100% black woman owned and youth run entity and exemplifies a business built on a passion for innovative agriculture, fresh food and people. They farm and pack vegetables like spinach, cabbage and baby marrow and supply to a range of companies including British Airways, City Lodge Hotel and Pick ‘n Pay.

Nonny says that they believe in sustainable farming and use technology such as drip irrigation to save water. “Drip irrigation is better than sprinkler irrigation because we focus the water directly onto the plant. That way we use 50% less water.”

Their will to uplift others while their business grows is at the heart of Nonny and Simba’s vision. They currently have 16 employees but are honest about the challenges that goes along with a growing team. “We have a lot of casuals,”

Nonny says. “It’s very difficult with non-skilled labour who don’t have bank accounts so FNB really helps us to pay our casuals with e-wallet,” Nonny, who is an FNB banker, says.

Empowering women in agriculture

Nonny is particularly passionate about cultivating an interest in agriculture among women and raising up more female farmers. “Farming is a male-dominated industry so what we as Urban Grown would like to do is empower more women,” Nonny says.

One way she’s doing this is through facilitating internships. Dagada Thabelo Debra, an agricultural student at Vhembe TVET College, is currently an intern at Urban Grown and says that she’s learning a lot through the experience. “It means so much to me because they (Urban Grown) help me to pursue my dream,” Debra says.

Nonny says she’s been able to look to the many strong women in her family for inspiration over the years. Her father passed away when she was very young, and her mother had to fulfil the role of both parents.

“I saw a woman who was running her own business, who was rearing a family and who was quite influential,” Nonny, who is a mother of two, recalls.

“Even in the workplace I had great leaders and bosses who were female. I knew being female was never a disadvantage but more like a powerhouse and I wanted to make sure that I was a woman like that as well.”

Constant learning results in constant growing

From working for corporates like DSTV, Colgate Palmolive and Unilever to heading up a new venture in agriculture, Nonny has been able to grow across industries. Earlier this year, she was recognized as the Top Female Entrepreneur by the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and Urban Grown was also picked as the Top Youth Commercial Farmers for 2018/2019.

Nonny is humble about her successes but attributes them to three things: patience, curiosity and perseverance. “My constant curiosity and will to learn has driven me to keep on discovering new things.” As she walks us through the fields of Urban Grown, she says that, like farming, it’s important to allow yourself time to grow.