SA team showcases African innovation on international stage

Africa’s capacity for innovation has been put on the map by a team of South Africans competing successfully in two international social venture competitions.

Messages of congratulations from around the world have gone to the Reel Gardening team for their win over the weekend in the Hult Prize London regional competition. Beating 50 teams from universities in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, they now go on to New York for a six-week full-time incubation programme and to compete against five other teams for a million dollars from the Clinton Global Initiative.

The team also won the Europe, Middle-East, Africa regional round of the Global Social Venture Competition and will compete at the University of Berkley for 50 000 dollars in April.

The Reel GardeningUniversity of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (GSB)team was formed in November last year during the Student Social Venture programme (SSVP) hosted by the GSB’s Net Impact Chapter and the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The programme was created to improve the quality and performance of African universities at global student social business plan competitions.

Director of the Bertha Centre, Dr François Bonnici says that in the past, African teams have not featured much in these global competitions, because they do not get the support or sponsorship they need from institutions and aren’t encouraged to enter such competitions.

Through the SSVP, where people with ideas are paired up with MBA students to flesh out social business plans and come up with robust ways of ensuring scalability and impact, the team leveraged their diversity of skills to enhance the core of Reel Gardening’s concept into one that is turning heads in the international social investment community. The Reel Gardening team was joined by Dianna Moore from the GSB’s Social Innovation Lab (a learning by doing social venture course on the GSB MBA programme) and Greg Macfarlane, a 2013 Bertha Centre Scholar from the GSB Modular MBA programme.

Macfarlane says the potential for Reel Gardening was immediately apparent.

“They manufacture a product that makes gardening easy despite education and language barriers, and when you pair that with the thinking around global food security issues, the potential for massive impact becomes obvious,” he says. “These seed packages do not even need soil to grow, an innovation that completely changes the game”

Claire Reid, founder of Reel Gardening, created a very convenient way to package seeds that ensures germination and reduces the amount of water used in the germination phase by 80%. The seeds are packaged in biodegradable material filled with fertilizer.

According to Reel Gardening project manager Emily Jones, the drive behind the business strategy was to make gardening convenient initially, but a more developmental aspect to it began to emerge.

“We started doing community development programmes, and corporate social responsibility projects where we helped communities start vegetable gardens,” she says. And although the impact they made was considerable, the scalability as well as the affordability posed a difficult problem.

Out of four teams entered into the competition under the UCT banner, the Reel Gardening team was the only team accepted to compete in the GSVC Regional Finals whilst they and one other team from UCT’s SSVP (The Food Security App) were selected to compete in the Hult Prize London round.

“It was a privilege for us to offer our support as a business school and as the Bertha Centre in helping the team prepare for the competition where they would face polished and competitive international teams from the best universities in the world,” says Bonnici.

“And when the news came through of their victory in the regional rounds, I was not surprised that they won,” he says. “I never expected things to go so well, so early on though.”

As part of the Student Social Venture Programme, the Reel Gardening team will be given the opportunity to further the scalability and impact of their start-up through the Find Make Grow Realise executive education programme at the UCT GSB later this year. This programme will help them develop the scalable aspects of their business while exposing them to venture capitalists and angel investors.

Founder of non-profit social venture company Purple Cow Ventures, Riad Masoet, sponsored the team for the trip toLondon.

Jones, who returned from London after the weekend, says the experience has been amazing so far and that the international exposure and UCT GSB mentorship has helped tremendously in furthering Reel Gardening’s efforts to make a real difference.