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“In an industry with little investment, we have chosen to focus on modular farming systems"

"Our mission is to democratize vertical farming and develop low-capex agricultural solutions. We aim to be a one-stop contact for CEA in South Africa," says Hein Duvenhage, co-founder and CEO at Arable, an agtech company located near Cape Town, South Africa that grows leafy greens and offers turnkey growing systems.

Providing turnkey systems for the African market
The core product is the turnkey vertical farm, with 6-metre and 12-metre options. The systems are completely modular and fully equipped, but growers can also buy the different elements individually.

"Being in South Africa and knowing the challenges with capital expenditures, we made the technology modular enough that growers can get their foot in the door with simply a grow rack, germination cabinet, sensors, farm management system, etc.," says Hein.

As Hein explains, the in-house farm management system can be used for any agricultural operation and not simply Arable's turnkey vertical farms. The proprietary ERP system could just as easily be used for a low-tech tunnel operation as a high-tech indoor farm.

Hein Duvenage pictured in the Arable R&D lab

"It is very easy for us to adapt our technology to greenhouses as well, while it would be more difficult for a greenhouse-centric company to adapt its systems to vertical farming," Hein explains. "In an industry with little investment, we have chosen to focus on modular indoor farming to make sure that we do this well and not split our focus."

Further, Arable works closely with growers to develop a solution that meets their needs rather than forcing a turnkey product that is somewhat incompatible. For example, Hein explains that a grower looking to grow microgreens will not have the same needs as a strawberry grower. Since Arable's technology is completely designed in-house, the company can work with growers to develop a solution that cost-effectively meets their growing needs.

Retail market is very monopoly-driven in South Africa
Arable also produces leafy greens which are sold mostly to restaurants and corporate clients, although the company is looking to enter the retail space. The challenge, however, is that the South African retail space is monopolized by large-scale farmers and retailers apply restrictive standards on smallholder farms, such as a minimum purchase quantity of 0.5 tonnes, in some cases. Also, retailers do not sign offtake agreements without proof of the production capacity and as vertical farming is quite new to the region, retailers do not feel that this capacity has been proven.

To tackle this challenge, Arable is looking into multiple business models including a cooperative one whereby Arable farmers would each produce on their own then bundle their production and sell together to the retailers. This allows farms to tap into the retail market without needing to scale up too soon.

"We have built a brand based on quality, taste, and sustainability. We are selling at market prices which restaurants and retailers are willing to pay, but we want to bring our prices lower to tackle food security for those with less income," says Hein.

Arable's first farm was a 6-metre container farm used as a proof-of-concept and to secure investments, which were then used to build the 12-metre farm. Both farms run completely on solar energy.

"We built the 12-metre farm the way our clients would. The space can accommodate six racks but we only put in two to start, and now we are at three racks. As the client base expands, we can add more units to the farm," explains Hein.

Arable currently produces microgreens including pea shoots, beetroot, radish, spring onion, cress, rocket, sunflower, Chinese cabbage, herbs, carrot, and kohlrabi.

New products, and new markets on the horizon
Moving forward, Arable hopes to collaborate with more conventional farmers to show them the benefits of indoor agriculture and how the higher initial costs are offset by the stability of the growing environment and resulting stable production. The company has also developed a smaller, fridge-like version of its technology which is being marketed to catering companies, wine estates, and other corporate entities with on-site food services like cafeterias and cafes. The current crop focus is microgreens and herbs but Arable has also started growing strawberries in their farms.

Overall, Arable aims to be the one-stop shop for vertical farming in South Africa, but also more largely in Africa as many countries are food-insecure and have limited access to local agricultural technology. As Hein explains, the ideal scenario would be to have these farms installed in all major cities, with multiple modules to grow different crops and truly make a dent in food insecurity.

"We also have an educational program with Beaumont Primary school, the oldest Eco registered school in South Africa, where we teach kids about urban farming. By using our facility the next generation of farmers is equipped with the know-how of vertical farming practices which evidently will be the future of produce," Hein adds.

Arable has recently opened a seed round to build revenue, brand, and trust.

For more information:
Hein Duvenhage, CEO