Youth In the Green Space: Interview Conversation

Let’s explore a conversation with Gugulethu Mahlangu, the CEO of House Harvest, a smart farm startup in Witbank, Mpumalanga.

Gugulethu initiated an aquaponics farm startup combining the best of two worlds, lush leafy greens and hearty tilapia fish. She stands currently at a fundraising stage and holds the goal to cater to the community through the just transition, showcasing agriculture as a smart climate solution.

Q: Where did you start? This could be both in terms of the inception of your idea and the tangible steps you took to bring it to life.

A: I started farming back in 2017 and have been a conscious soil advocate as a spinach farmer selling to the fresh produce market until 2021. I learnt that agriculture holds the answer to many challenges such as unemployment and climate change. I learnt about aquaponics in 2021 and gathered as much experience on a commercial level as possible and realised I could do this on my own. My aspirations is building a successful aquaponics model in my hometown. I see the model replicate into other smaller towns in Mpumalanga.

Q: Where are you now? How has your journey unfolded so far? What have been the most rewarding aspects and the challenges?

A: I found aquaponics by working for finleaf farms, I was scouted by the German investment company that saw my spinach farm profiled on CGTN and needed a farmer for their company. I saw the opportunity to learn and I took it. As a young female farmer, climate smart farming appealed to me because it’s data driven which allows me flexibility, it’s scientific and fun too. I’m now starting my own farm and cannot wait for my efforts and dreams to be realised where it matters the most – my hometown.

Q: Does the term “Built Different” resonate with you? What do you think you do differently to other businesses in your space?
For an aquaponics farmer, the term “Built Different” can resonate with the unique and innovative approach that aquaponics represents in comparison to traditional farming methods. Aquaponics combines aquaculture (the raising of fish) with hydroponics (the cultivation of plants in water), creating a closed-loop, symbiotic system where fish waste provides essential nutrients for plants, and the plants help purify the water for the fish.

Q: Every venture has its trials. What’s made it hard for you whilst in the start up period? And how are you conquering these challenges?

A: As a startup aquaponics farmer in Witbank, the initial challenges have included securing funding, fine-tuning our system, and navigating calculating climate impact and acquiring the regulations needed to do so. To conquer these hurdles, we’ve sought grants, collaborated with experienced mentors, and actively engaged with local authorities to ensure compliance.

Q: You must have had some high-stake moments. What’s been your biggest rush as a young business owner?

A: The most exhilarating moment was getting the local mall to support allowing us to build the aquaponics facility and winning the National Climate Launchpad Competition. It affirmed my vision and mission on what I intend to do with my career.

Q: You talked about the unique challenges of aquaponics. What are some other main barriers or challenges you’ve faced along the way?

A: Beyond the uniqueness of aquaponics, we’ve also grappled with market acceptance and educating consumers about our produce. A breakthrough was partnering with local restaurants and markets to showcase our high-quality, pesticide-free produce and build a loyal customer base. I also am the founder of #farmspaces #farmspacesafrica on Twitter, now called X spaces. This bridges the information gap by allowing farmers to tube into a show every Thursday at 6pm to listen to expert advice and get information.

Q: For those unfamiliar with the term, could you explain what “smart farming” means to you and how it’s transforming traditional agriculture?

A: Smart farming, to us, means leveraging technology like IoT sensors and data analytics to optimise crop growth and resource use. It’s transforming agriculture by increasing efficiency, reducing waste, and enabling sustainable farming practices. Think of it like the ease of predictive text on your phone. You make decisions on what to text and be given suggestions to make your communications easier. We farm smart, not hard.

Q: Would you be open to sharing specific examples of how sustainability is embedded in your day-to-day operations?

A: Sustainability is at our core. We monitor water and energy usage closely, recycle nutrients in our system, and minimise waste by using multi parameters to track our system constantly which gets stored on a cloud or usb. We’re also exploring renewable energy sources by looking at solar pumps and constantly striving to reduce our environmental footprint.

Q: What kind of support or resources do you think would really help young entrepreneurs like yourself to contribute even more to the green economy space?

A: Access to affordable loans, mentorship programs, and government incentives tailored to green startups would be immensely beneficial. Collaboration between experienced entrepreneurs and newcomers can also foster innovation. Its sometimes ironic for me how low risk and high investment smart farming is but yet it struggles to garner funding the easiest.

Q: For all those young guns out there dreaming of starting their own green businesses, what would be your advice?

A: Start small, focus on solving a specific problem, and learn from failures. Please do not go big or go home when the fundamental requirement for a good farmer is one that understands their costs and unit at square meter level – you will certainly fail. Build a network of mentors and fellow entrepreneurs. Embrace sustainability not just as a trend but as a core value. Remember, every setback is a lesson in disguise, so keep learning and adapting.

As we conclude our conversation with Gugulethu Mahlangu, a pioneering smart farm startup in Witbank, Mpumalanga, we are left inspired by her unwavering commitment to sustainability and innovation. Gugulethu’s journey from a spinach farmer to a trailblazing aquaponics entrepreneur exemplifies the resilience and vision of young leaders in the green space.

To keep up with Gugulethu’s remarkable journey and be part of her mission to revolutionise agriculture as a smart climate solution, you can follow her on her social media platforms and website:

Twitter: #farmspacesafrica #farmspaces
Instagram: @Gugulethu_cm
Website: House Harvest

Gugulethu’s story serves as a testament to the potential of youth-led initiatives in building a greener, more sustainable future. We hope her insights and experiences have inspired you as much as they have inspired us. Stay tuned for more captivating interviews with young entrepreneurs. Together, we can make a difference.