Urban farmer Zandile Khumalo
Urban farmer Zandile Khumalo

Roof-top Learning for Redhill School

If the statistics are to be believed, 65 per cent of today’s students will have jobs that don’t yet exist. How then do we, as educators, prepare our students with the skills they need to not just survive but also to thrive in a world that is constantly evolving and transforming? Our view is that high school students can benefit enormously from real world experience as an integral part of their academic programme,’ says Joseph Gerassi, executive head of Redhill School.

‘Not only do they have the opportunity to grow and flex their critical thinking and problem-solving skills, but their learning also becomes far more relevant when they can see how it will benefit them going forwards.’

One of Redhill School’s most successful ‘real world initiatives’ has been a collaboration with the Morningside Shopping Centre to conceptualise and plan a sustainable and environmentally conscious urban farm on the shopping centre’s rooftop in Sandton, Johannesburg. The idea of a rooftop garden that could supply fresh produce to the shopping centre’s restaurants and clientele was innovative in itself, not to mention the decision to collaborate with Grade 9 high school students in the process.

‘I had many people question the age of our pupils when they first heard about the project,’ laughs Gerassi, adding:

Fourteen-year-old students are not usually the first people you would consider for a project of this magnitude!

Our thinking was that students at this age thrive when faced with a challenge, as long as they have the backing and resources they need to keep them moving in the right direction. We also felt that Grade 9 was the ideal time for students to immerse themselves in project-based learning, before the additional workload and commitments of Grades 10, 11 and 12 kick in.

Redhill School in Morningside, Sandton

The first step involved dividing the Grade 9 students into groups or ‘companies’, each of which was tasked with preparing a business plan to ‘pitch’ to Flanagan & Gerard (co-owners of Morningside Shopping Centre), posing as investors to establish the urban farm on the roof of Morningside Shopping Centre. Each urban farm plan needed to be guided by the principles of sustainability, environmental consciousness, and social upliftment.

The students also needed to ensure that their business plan addressed the following touchpoints:

  • return on the capital investment sufficient for it to be attractive to an investor,
  • the embrace of new technology by investigating various methods of innovative new urban farming techniques, and
  • job creation and significant community involvement.

Students had to complete a number of project deliverables throughout the year, with some valuable expert consultants being made available as and when they needed them. These included landscapers, hydroponics experts, and quantity surveyors – all of whom were tasked with helping students find the answers they needed or highlighting potential obstacles while not providing solutions to those challenges or obstacles.

‘Adults are notorious for wanting to help, fix, answer and solve children’s problems,’ explains Gerassi. He believes that: One of the most valuable lessons we can teach our children is how to think differently, find the information they need, learn by failing, and develop the grit and tenacity to keep going when they are tempted to give up. As such, our panel of experts were pivotal in being available to students and helping them learn from the experience instead of providing an easy way out for them.

The final deliverable for each group or ‘company’ was to pitch their idea and business plan to the group of investors – the idea being that the winning group would later work with Morningside Shopping Centre’s architects and development teams to bring their business plans to fruition on the shopping centre’s rooftop.

‘The students’ final pitch was key to the success of the project,’ explains Gerassi, recounting that:

Students had to overcome any fears of public speaking, learn how to present their ideas in a practical yet exciting way, and be able to answer any questions off the cuff. This was a big ask for Grade 9 students, yet undoubtedly where the greatest growth and learning occurred.

Their presentations brought together months of research, collaboration and planning, while pulling from a number of their academic subjects including maths, accounting, life sciences, technology and public speaking. For many, they began to see the real-world value of what they were studying at school, which resulted in renewed focus and motivation.

Morningside shopping centre

Phase 2 of the project involved Redhill students, Flanagan & Gerard, and Brendan Martens from Impact Consulting conducting a rigorous interview process to establish the best farmer candidate for this rooftop garden vision. The successful entrepreneur to drive the vision forwards was Zandile Khumalo, who has since established the urban farm using hydroponics. She says:

Hydroponic farming refers to the growing of crops using a water-based, nutrient-rich solution as an alternative to the soil used in conventional farming. Contradictory to what one may think about using water to grow crops, hydroponic farming is an excellent solution for the environment, saving on space and reducing water consumption by up to 80 per cent.

According to Khumalo, it was important for students to come to grips with hydroponics because of the way in which it integrates technology. Hydroponics can assist families who do not have land to farm in their backyards or are limited to land that is laid with pavement or concrete. Through conventional farming, a 2-square-metre space can produce 16 lettuce crops, but through hydroponics a farmer can produce 81 lettuce crops within the same time period.

The resulting urban farm, aptly named ‘Neighbour Roots’, is still in its early stages, but already it supplies all Morningside Shopping Centre restaurants and retailers, which include The Refillery Grocers, Wellness Warehouse and Pick n Pay. With this overwhelming support, Neighbour Roots has been able to grow in strides and
provide many benefits, which include:

  • produce that is free from chemicals,
  • a 40 per cent reduction in harvesting lead times,
  • soil-free farming that ensures the produce is always clean,
  • energy and water efficiency – 90 per cent less water is used than in conventional farming, and
  • a reduced carbon footprint.

According to Paul Gerard of Flanagan & Gerard, The creation of urban produce gardens has already brought about many positives for the community, including the reduction of time from the goods produced to the consumer, primarily the restaurants and certain retailers at Morningside Shopping Centre. This helps reduce the carbon footprint, as no vehicles are required to deliver produce to these stores and the customers of Morningside Shopping Centre.

The educational side of the project has made it unique for interested scholars, as they embarked on a curriculum set aside for real world project-based learning.

The school will continue to innovate and drive projectbased learning and real-world initiatives says Gerassi, who describes the project as ‘one of the most successful methodologies the school has found’. He says ‘It helps students see the value in what they are learning, develop both a critical thinking and problem-solving mindset, and learn the art of true collaboration and playing to your strengths in a team.’