Reel Gardening Warns That Innovation Is Never Easy

Reel Gardening Warns That Innovation Is Never Easy

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Vital stats

  • Player: Claire Reid
  • Company: Reel Gardening
  • Established: 2010
  • Contact: +27 (0)11 782 0661
  • Visit: reelgardening.co.za

Claire Reid was just 16 when she came up with an idea in 2002 that propelled her into the public eye and won her many awards and accolades, as well as a lot of heartache.

The founder and CEO of Reel Gardening – a biodegradable colour-coded paper strip that encloses correctly spaced organic fertiliser and seeds, prevents birds from eating the seeds, and keeps the seeds hydrated – had been struggling to grow a vegetable garden.

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A seed of an idea

It was her fascination with design and problem-solving that led to the idea of the seed strips, won her first prize at a school science competition, and formed the foundation of what has become a South African success story.

“Planting seed strips is far more successful than regular vegetable gardening as the seeds are protected and nourished,” says Reid. “My goal was to find a way to make it easy for people to grow their own food, especially in poor communities.”

But being a teenage science geek was no fun. She was sent around the country, collecting a series of awards for her innovation, but no-one was prepared to give her the funding needed to start production. She was also teased relentlessly at school. By the end of Grade 12, her dream of leaving academia and starting a business had come to nothing. Instead, she went to study at the University of Pretoria’s School of Architecture, where she excelled. After qualifying, she joined a small firm.


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Resurrecting the concept

Reel-Gardening

“I was sent into the field on a new housing project for miners. In chatting to the community, I discovered that many of them wanted to grow their own vegetables.”

She dusted off her original idea and took it to Anglo’s Zimele enterprise development programme, where she was offered a R1 million loan to get Reel Gardening off the ground. In 2010, her husband Sean resigned from his job and the two went to Reid’s aunt’s farm in Tzaneen to set up production. They lived on the farm, making seed tape every day, on one machine.

“We targeted retail stores to begin with, and it was a disaster,” Reid recalls. “Without a merchandiser, we had no-one to ensure that our product was visible or displayed correctly on the shelves. By the end of that first year neither of us could draw a salary, and we had just three weeks of cash flow left. I had employed another six people. I had to tell them to look for another job, and I promised to pay them until they found one. It was the worst day of my life.”

A killer proposal

But the very next day she received an email about the SAB Foundation’s Social Innovation Awards. The prize was R1 million and applications were closing in two days.

“I put everything I had into that application and we killed it,” she says. Reel Gardening won, and suddenly the start-up had some financial breathing room.

“We paid off all the debt and bought raw material. We moved out of retail completely and went into a social development programme with the Independent Development Trust (IDT), giving us the opportunity to do good – which is what I wanted all along – and to build a sustainable business at the same time.”

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Today, Reel Gardening is a thriving social enterprise with Unilever and USAID its biggest clients. They buy seed strips from Reel Gardening and help communities learn about gardening so that they can feed themselves. With several million rand in funding, Reid now aims to scale her social enterprise and turn it into an international business.

“We also have a team of 25 people who sell seed strips in communities around the country as part of what we call a purpose-driven profit initiative,” says Reid. “We are helping to create empowered communities that can grow their own food, and establishing micro enterprises through sustainable community garden projects.”

Monique Verduyn
Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

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