As the global community struggles with plastic pollution, and amid growing calls for a circular economic model to reduce its effects on the environment, a South African-based farming system is showcasing the value of recycled bags.
According to Nonhlanhla Joye, founder of Umgibe a vegetable growing system, which uses recycled plastic bags in a portable vertical growing system, the innovation was born out of adversity. “It all started in 2014 when I was diagnosed with cancer and being unemployed meant no food for my family so I decided to grow organic vegetables to ensure good nutrition for myself and my family. Unfortunately, the chickens ate everything and, needless to say, I was devastated, but I knew I had to think of a plan that would enable me to grow vegetables. That is when the Umgibe Frugal Vertical Growing system was born,” she explains.
In order to cultivate her vegetables above ground, Joye built wooden structures on which she hung rows of plastic bags – which would otherwise have ended up in landfill sites – filled with soil for planting her seedlings, and at a height the chickens could not reach. “I noticed that [with this system] not only was I growing vegetables in surplus, I was also saving a lot of water,” Joye explains. As her yields began to increase, she was producing more food than her family could eat and she started selling the surplus.
Supporting circular agriculture
Joye’s innovation is perfectly designed to suit urban farming and for those with limited land as the system requires minimal space and can be constructed anywhere. Umgibe also promotes eco-friendly practices, using organic pesticides – such as garlic mixed with neem – and compost to provide plant nutrients. “We use recycled plastic bags to ensure no plastics go to landfill. Over the past 5 years, we have diverted more than 10 t of plastic. We even run out of plastic waste to use sometimes and when that happens, we go to recycled plastic vendors to buy it. Our plastics are later converted to create up-cycled portable Umgibe gardens,” Joye explains.
According to available statistics, around 330 billion single-use plastic bags are produced worldwide each year and tend to be used for just a few hours before being thrown away. Joye hopes to reduce this number in order to contribute towards the goals of a global circular economy system, whilst supporting thousands of people with sustainable livelihoods.
“Umgibe is the rope of hope that pulls unemployed and underserved communities up using the principles of the circular economy. I would therefore like to remind most entrepreneurs that in every sector, the circular economy is the one thing that could open up a lot of revenue streams,” Joye asserts. And she believes unlocking the potential of entrepreneurship could also be key to achieving a circular economy.
Sustainable food and income security
An Umgibe system, which includes crop seedlings, a growing medium and installation, costs R14,500 (€930), which Joye says is cheap. The structure, which can be used to grow over 250 different vegetables and herbs, has been adopted by local farming co-operatives who also receive technical production advice and training in organic farming and food processing from the company. Furthermore, Umgibe collects produce harvested by the coops using her system and delivers to various buyers and markets in return for just the transport fee. So far, more than 18,000 households have been able to increase their food security through the system. “Umgibe is providing a sustainable source of income for thousands of families through its 95 partner co-operatives, and through the creation of a local market for organic products,” Joye explains.
In schools, the Umgibe production structure is also being used to deliver lessons in cost-effectiveness and sustainable solutions. There is also an extra curricula income-generating initiative involving ‘seed-preneurs’, where participating pupils geminate seedlings for Umgibe as they start their own family gardens. “They benefit through our 80:20% principle (80% for business and 20% self-consumption). One hundred learners from each school are identified to germinate seeds from the 25 schools we are working with,” says Joye.
At a personal level, Joye’s life has dramatically transformed as a result of her business. “When I started, there was only R400 [€25] between me and poverty, but today, my revenue is over R1.9 million [€120,594] annually, and the business is worth more than R10 million [€634,708].” As a result of her innovation, Joye has been awarded a number of awards including the Impact Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Award in Paris in 2017. “My purpose in life is to stop hunger,” she says.