Claire Reid, Sean Blanckenberg and Emily Jones from Reel Gardening.
Food for thought: Claire Reid (front) Sean Blanckenberg and Emily Jones © FT

Interest in social entrepreneurship and the positive impact it can have on society is increasingly attracting the attention of business school students.

Many schools now offer social entrepreneurship programmes or run dedicated centres helping students to apply their business skills to global social problems.

The Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business is the first of its kind on the African continent to specialise in social innovation.

François Bonnici, director of the centre, explains that South Africa is a “hotbed of social innovation” which stems from the nation’s mix of significant social challenges and an entrepreneurial culture. However, the country has vast inequalities, he adds, with food security being one of the greatest issues.

Reel Gardening, a start-up which is working with the Bertha Centre, believes that one solution could lie in helping people to grow their own food. Launched in 2010, the Johannesburg company has developed user-friendly and cost-effective products to enable people to grow vegetables, herbs and flowers.

Reel Gardening produces biodegradable paper strips with seeds, nutrients and organic fertiliser, already inside the strips. The strips, which are sold in reels for R10 ($1) a metre, can be planted in soil, but for those without access to land they can also be placed in newspaper. All that is needed is sunlight and the right amount of water.

Claire Reid, inventor of the product and founder of Reel Gardening, says the paper strips use 80 per cent less water than conventional means of gardening as they absorb most of the water and indicate where watering is needed. Planting instructions are written on the tape and there are step-by-step illustrations for those who cannot read. Each tape is colour-coded to indicate the sowing depth.

Reel Gardening’s product range includes pre-packaged seasonal goods such as the “Spring/ Summer garden combo” containing seed tapes of five different seasonal vegetables that can be planted on an area of 2 square metres. Another product, the Garden in a Box, aims to make large-scale gardening easier. The box holds a selection of seed tapes of vegetables and companion plants – specific flowers to attract pollinators or deter pests. A colour-coded diagram illustrates where and when the seeds must be planted, eliminating the need to understand technical aspects such as crop rotation.

Reel Gardening is working on many community projects in poor areas where there is a shortage of water and low levels of education. As well as growing their own food, the communities can earn an income by selling surplus produce.

Last year, Reel Gardening – with Emily Jones as project manager and Sean Blanckenberg director – won a social venture competition run by the University of Cape Town GSB. The contest was set up by Mr Bonnici to identify and support the best student social ventures in South Africa.

The win enabled the company to benefit from the school’s Student Social Venture Programme where they learnt about business management from practitioners on an executive education course known as “Find-Make-Grow-Realise”.

In addition to support from GSB’s teaching staff, Reel Gardening has joined forces with MBA students Greg Macfarlane and Dianna Moore, who are helping the company develop its business plan, offering advice on strategy and financial modelling.

Earlier this year, the team won the London regional final of the Hult Prize, a global social entrepreneurship competition for students. Reel Gardening will compete against five other teams in the final in New York this September, for a prize of $1m in seed capital.

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