Smart businessman builds compact vegetable gardens for the poor


A clever plan to help poor communities grow their own food has earned a man from Bellville a string of awards, including a prize from the United Nations. He was also recently honored by his alma mater, the North West University (NWU), with a prestigious alumni award for excellence.

Louis-Gillis Janse van Rensburg (34) actually obtained a BCom degree in industrial psychology and labor relations and several postgraduate qualifications in business at the NWU. However, his interest in agriculture and passion for sustainable food production encouraged him to come up with a unique plan to grow food in a cost-effective way.

His award was for a compact vegetable garden that challenges traditional methods of fresh food production. It fits poor communities with limited resources like a glove.

This hydroponic system is a simple, multi-purpose, vertical garden in which above-ground and underground vegetables can be planted, with the minimum of effort and input. In addition, it is produced from renewable material and consists of bowls that are attached to a central pipe on top of each other. In this way, pest infestation is limited, water efficiency is increased, limited surface area is used and crop yield is increased. One grower can grow 16 plants to supplement a household’s diet with fresh vegetables.

Janse van Rensburg is focused on sustainable food production. “I believe there are other ways to supply households, communities and cities with food than to have a few large-scale producers who grow food.

It all started in 2014 when his friend told him about a technology called aquaponics, where you grow fish and vegetables together in an integrated system,” he says. “I learned everything I could about it and in 2016 I got the opportunity to build my first roof garden at Intaka Island at Century City,” says Janse van Rensburg. However, he soon realized that this technology would never work for the low-income communities where he wanted to be involved. “So me and my father, Rensie, started with the development of a hydroponic system, called African Grower, which is more suitable for poorer communities. We started using it in projects right across the country.”

His company’s name is Fresh Life Produce, with a factory in Table View and his new training and demonstration site is a “farm” on top of the Kenilworth shopping centre’s roof.

However, such a product does not naturally find its way to the people who need it most.

Rensie also played an important role in his son’s dream to help his less fortunate fellow man. “He worked for the CSIR in rural development and I saw the difference he made, so I always wanted to do something worthwhile and offer value,” says Janse van Rensburg.

Therefore, Janse van Rensburg has joined hands with aid organizations such as the Mr. Price Foundation’s HandPicked project was taken to place these systems in places where food security is not a given. “We have already built 39 pitching greenhouses at nine community centers nationwide and placed more than 1,600 systems in low-income communities. At these community centers producers can sell their products, share knowledge with each other and develop their skills. We want to empower them with the knowledge and tools to become self-sufficient.”

The rooftop farm at the Kenilworth Center also aims to transform unused urban spaces into productive agricultural zones, where unemployed young people from the Langa community learn how to set up their own urban farms.

Janse van Rensburg has received quite a few awards all over the world. After winning first place in Cultiv@te, the United Nations Development Program competition in 2020, his project found favor in Uruguay, where it was implemented. In the same year he was the runner-up in the French-South African Agricultural Institute’s agricultural competition.

He also won Cape Talk’s 2017 Small Business Award and the 2018 Investec Agricultural Competition.

Janse van Rensburg’s dreams do not stand still and like a true entrepreneur he wants to expand his operations.

“Currently, African Grower systems only supply our projects, but hope to open it up to the commercial market soon. We are in the process of making sure that our factory can handle greater throughput.”

For the needy communities, he investigates the possibility of combining a market with a soup kitchen to provide healthier meals for schools and development centers for young children.

“We will have to make our communities more robust. I believe Covid-19 was just a small taste of what could potentially go wrong, so we will have to be more self-sufficient and work together to get the food we need.

“We don’t want to replace large-scale farms, because that’s not possible; we want to help households grow vegetables, supplement their diets with fresh vegetables and expand them to hopefully one day generate an income.”