This interview details Vitagrow, an indoor farming company based in Zimbabwe. The interview is with Keith Chipudhla, Co-Founder of Vitagrow.
What is the origin story of Vitagrow?
The origin story of Vitagrow Urban Farms dates back to 5 years ago. It all started when I had just come back to Zimbabwe from obtaining a Degree in Finance from a University in Wuhan, China. I had always been good with numbers and so it felt like a career in finance would be the obvious choice. But after I completed my degree I returned back home to Zimbabwe and i soon realized that opportunities in this field where few and far between.
With this in mind I started looking at different projects that I could do using the little savings I had. After multiple failed projects I came across greenhouse farming from a friend. I had always had an interest in sustainable agriculture, its impact on food security particularly the increased frequency of droughts in Zimbabwe as well as how the world was evolving in the techniques used in food production given the issues around global warming.
However I had assumed that because I had no prior farming experience I wouldn’t be able to do it. I finally found the conviction to start emboldened by the poor quality of produce in the supermarkets, the impacts of droughts on yields in outdoor farming and my desire to build something sustainable for my family.
At that time I was still living with my parents and we had a big back yard that was underutilised, so I spoke to my mum and she agreed to let me erect a greenhouse in our back yard. I used all my savings to put up a 120 square meter in our backyard.
Initially I started by growing crops in the soil and I came across Hydroponics while researching methods to optimise productivity and be more sustainable in my growing, I fell in love with it immediately.
Fast forward 6 months into my first crop I had a chance meeting with Kuda who would become my cofounder in Vitagrow while he was visiting from the UK. My cousin introduced us and we had a meeting of minds around the potential impact of hydroponic on food security, the climate, the potential in the Zimbabwean market for high quality produce and the hybridization of agriculture (Blending various modern growing methods, localised for the Zimbabwean environment) in optimising food production. We believed in the idea and impact, from here myself, my cousin Karen and Kuda committed to building this backyard project into a commercial venture that would become Vitagrow Urban Farms.
To get started given my lack of experience I only found one lady who was in the same city where I was based practicing Hydroponics who offered training courses and I enrolled for a training day. I went for training and the rest is history.
Can you tell us more about your facility, technology and crops?
Vitagrow Urban Farms is located in Harare, Zimbabwe at our site called “Farm One”. Our site consists of 600 square meters of greenhouses. We use various Hydroponic Growing Systems such as the Nutrient Film Technique System, Vertical Tower system, Bucket System, Deep Water Culture system among others. We use our own technology that was developed in-house to monitor the growing environment. This consists of sensors that monitor and record chosen external and internal environmental variables that are important to the growth of our crops. We are currently testing our automated nutrient dosing and climate control systems that will take our growing to the next level.
We grow a variety of crops using hydroponic methods, such as some specialized varieties of Lettuce, English Cucumbers, Microgreens, Sprouts & Herbs and have experimented with Cherry Tomatoes and Strawberries. Our crops are grown using organic and natural inputs whenever possible. We grow each crop from seed thus ensuring that we have the highest level of traceability not only for our customers but also in order to keep us accountable.
We take great pride in the quality of our crops, and we are constantly seeking out new and innovative growing methods to improve our yields and crop quality.
Our team of experienced growers are extensively trained in the Vitagrow way of growing and are committed to providing our customers with fresh, healthy, and sustainably grown produce.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing Vitagrow in the future?
Hydroponic Farming has many advantages but it does have some challenges as well. Because of the very nature of Hydroponics, it is a rapidly evolving industry and although Vitagrow Urban Farms has positioned itself as one of the leaders in this space in Zimbabwe there is a need to keep up with the competition as more and more players enter the market. This is why at Vitagrow Urban Farms we have dedicated time as well as funding towards Research & Development in order to ensure we are always innovating to stay ahead of the trend.
As part of this we have partnered with the largest fertilizer company in Zimbabwe and are in the process of doing tests to refine the hydroponic nutrients that are available in the market. We are also working on coming up with some testing protocols for these nutrients with a major University in the country.
Another ever present challenge with Hydroponics is to do with the cost of expansion. Right now at Vitagrow Urban Farms we have now mastered the art of growing hydroponically and the next stage in our future is expansion. One of the main challenges with hydroponics is the high setup costs. This is because, there is a lot of equipment required for setup especially if it is overlayed with technological systems to aid in the growing processes. Due to this, we have developed in-house designs for hydroponics systems using locally sourced material. An example of this is to use hybrid systems that make use of the natural environment like sunlight to reduce the need for 24hr grow light usage for example.
What is unique about Vitagrow compared to competitors?
Vitagrow Urban Farms stands out from other competitors in several key ways. Firstly, we place a strong emphasis on sustainability and environmental responsibility. We recycle all of the waste and by-products produced on our site to minimize wastage and reduce our environmental impact. All plants and matter are turned into compost to be sold and used by soil-based farmers. We are also passionate about ensuring we deliver ‘The Freshest, Most Nutritious & Most Affordable’ produce to our customers.
In order to attain this, we use organic and natural inputs whenever possible. We also believe that high uses of pesticides can have a negative impact on consumers health. Because of this we do not use any pesticides on our farm and instead use biological predators in order to control any pest infestations we might encounter.
At Vitagrow Urban Farms we have a deep passion for innovation. We are always looking for new ways to optimize our growing procedures to give us the best yields and healthiest produce. We conduct multiple tests daily to try and understand how we can improve on our operating procedures. We use various sensors in our greenhouses that monitor key variables like Temperature, Humidity, Electric Conductivity & PH of our Nutrient solutions.
As we develop on this technology, we will be able to aggregate this data to come up with the ideal conditions for each of the crops we grow and then use further automations in order to stimulate these desired conditions constantly for all year-round production.
Finally, we believe strongly in giving back to the community through empowerment of the youth, women & people from lower income communities. We have been a part of various programs with organizations such as UNICEF & HIVOS in order to come up with solutions that will help the youth in Urban Communities to learn and start using Hydroponics not only as a means of food production but also as a business that can help them sustain their lives. We have trained 26 people to date and are partnered with two schools that bring their students over to our site every school term for scheduled tours.
How do you measure the impact of your company so far? (Revenue, Employees, Customer Quantity, Production Volume) etc?
We measure the impact of our hydroponic company using a variety of metrics:
Commercial – revenue, GP and np margin, Efficiency – Revenue/Opex per square meter & % Yield & % crop wastage, Impact – number of people trained, Customer – crop quality feedback surveys and regular 1-2-1s with the buyers. These are just some of the important metrics that allow us to track our progress as a company and identify potential areas for improvement.
Beyond the standard business metrics our employee engagement is critical to us at Vitagrow Urban Farms. You cannot grow high quality produce without happy growers! Our people are our most important asset as a business and so their engagement is key, that’s why we look forward to our pizza Fridays every month!. It is a time to bond as a team and talk about other stuff other than work.
Finally, our customers are our reason for existing and as such we consistently engage with the buyers and managers to find out how we can better serve their needs be it growing specific varieties for them or partnering in marketing efforts.
Overall, we believe that tracking these metrics allows us to measure the impact of our company and make informed decisions to improve our performance and better serve our customers.
What have you learned that you wish you knew when you joined or started the company?
Since starting Vitagrow Urban Farms, we have learned a great deal about the challenges and opportunities of hydroponic farming. One of the key lessons we have learned is the importance of being process driven, implement deep planning, sharp attention to detail and just how difficult it is to grow well consistently without the aforementioned. When we started we were all about growing and getting as many customers as we could in the least amount of time. This is not the best way to approach hydroponics farming (Let alone business) as it requires precise control over growing conditions, and even small mistakes or oversights can have a significant impact on crop quality and yield.
We have learnt that instead of always trying to have as many customers as possible it’s better to start with a few that you can manage and then optimize your logistical systems around them and then only expand when you are comfortable with those places that you supply but most importantly have a grow process that ensures consistent quality for your customers. This will ensure you give your customers the best service without compromising your standards.
We believe that these lessons have helped us to become a more effective and successful hydroponic company.
How can people connect with you or learn more about Vitagrow?
We welcome inquiries from anyone who is interested in learning more about our hydroponic farm. The best way to connect with us is through our website, where you can find information about our products and services, as well as contact information for our team.
In addition to our website, we are active on social media and regularly post updates about our farm and our products.
Finally, we participate in local farmers' markets and other events, where you can meet our team and sample our products in person. Information about upcoming training events and tours can be found on our social media channels.
Below are our contact details
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