Meet TotalEnergies 2018/19 StartUpper of the Year Challenge winner Nonhlanhla Phalama

Nonhlanhla Phalama is the founder of Davinon Hydroponics, a project that originally aimed to establish 50x30cm hydroponic farms in rural schools and orphanages across the country. The project will reinvest some of its profits back into the schools and contribute to sustainable employment in the community.

What was your earliest experience of entrepreneurship?

My earliest experience of entrepreneurship was back in 2014 when I was exploring the concept of mining gold and other minerals from electronic waste. It seemed like a great opportunity at the time due to the potential high returns associated with the products. Unfortunately, the business did not materialise due to the harmful side effects that came with the methods used to recover the minerals.

What did you appreciate the most about your experience participating in the TotalEnergies StartUpper Challenge?

What I appreciated the most about the experience of participating in the TotalEnergies StartUpper challenge is the relationships that I formed and have maintained since the beginning of the competition. The relationships have expanded my business network, source knowledge and business practices. It is always wonderful to meet up and engage with people like minded people who are as passionate and driven.

How has your project progressed since your win?

The progress of the project was hampered by COVID 19. I lost the 10-hector land that I was leasing at the time I won the competition. My business model depended a lot on schools being open and running on daily basis, but schools were closed due to COVID 19. This has led to me going back to the drawing board to re-strategies and change my business model.

The lessons from the mentorship provided with the help of TotalEnergies has really come in useful in empowering me reshape our business. Despite the setbacks that COVID-19 presented, I have managed to acquire an even bigger farm (25 hectors) of my own and I am currently busy with an adaptive business model that will serve the same purpose as the original one.

The win has essentially equipped and empowered me to build better and more strategically.

In laymen’s terms, what is Hydroponic farming?

Hydroponic farming is the cultivation of plants without the use of soil whereby only water and nutrients are supplied to the plants roots for absorption.

The noticeable advantages of hydropic farming are:

  • It uses 90% less water than traditional farming
  • Higher yield is achieved per square meter as compared to traditional farming (you can get up four times more plants per square meter as compared to traditional farming)
  • Supply of produce is throughout the year since farming takes place in a controlled environment.

What inspired you to zone in on hydroponic farming?

I was inspired to zone into hydroponic farming because it doesn’t require a lot of land to produce plants and water can be recycled to be used again. It’s not easy to access land to farm and water is a scarce resource in South Africa.

Hydroponics overcomes the challenges associated with lack water and land availability. You are also able build consistency on the kind of plants you farm as the produce is not season dependent.

What advice do you have for other women considering entering the competition?

My advice for women considering entering the TotalEnergies StartUpper Challenge of the year, is that they should not at any moment doubt their ideas and concepts. You should go ahead and enter the competition. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain. It is platform where great ideas and concepts especially those that are formulated by women are fully supported, financially and through mentorship.

Is Hydroponic farming the new cool kid or has it been around for a while?

Hydroponics is not a new cool kid. Hydroponic dates back to 600 BC where it was practiced in the ancient city of Babylon. Hydroponics then gained traction in 1100BC where its methodology was practiced by Aztec Indians. One of the first books about hydroponics was published in 1627. However, Dr Frederick Gericke was the person to use the word hydroponics to describe cultivation of plants without soil in 1937.

Interest in hydroponics grew around the world and today it has its application in space and space travel as well as in the army. The practice of hydroponics is fairly new in South Africa as compared to countries like the USA but has gained traction in the last decade or so.

Does one need special equipment or training to get into this field?

One does need special equipment and training to get into the field. The practice of hydroponic farming is centered on the supply of carefully mixed ratios of nutrients and water at a predetermined rates, intervals and temperatures to plants of interest.

Since plants differ in characteristics, different hydroponic methods are used for different plants. Due to these dynamics, one needs to go through training to ensure the most effective hydroponic methods are matched to the relevant plant characteristics so that the system is utilized and maintained accordingly.

Farming is a vital part of rural development. Do you feel the government should dedicate increased focus to this field?

I think the government should dedicate increased focus to this field because hydroponic farming has the potential to create a huge number of jobs and decrease the poverty statics in the country.

We are currently facing challenges related to food shortages, water scarcity and climate change. Increasing efforts towards the practice of hydroponic farming will greatly assist in mitigating these challenges. This could also be an opportunity to improve South Africa’s global competitive positioning through innovative farming.

Practical ways in which these can be done is:

  • Introduce a compulsory subject in school that is dedicated to innovative farming and business;
  • Make it compulsory for commercial farming business to adopt farming students as bursars;
  • Intensify access to farming programmers and funding through social media.

What’s next for Nonhlanhla and Davinon Hydroponics in the next 5 years?

From here we are going all the way up! As the economy recovers from the impact of the pandemic, it serves as an opportunity for us to rebuild and fill in the grey spaces in the market. I am working on expanding my project to go beyond community schools to hospitals and clinics in rural areas.

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