The Reel Gardening story: A conversation with founder Claire Reid

A budding entrepreneur won a gold medal for her invention of a seeded paper tape that took the guess work out of gardening. This idea, born out of frustration when planting a vegetable garden, was put on the back burner while she completed her qualification in architecture. Once qualified, the temptation to follow a paid job was there, but Claire Reid, founder and CEO of Reel Gardening, believed in her concept. Armed with a loan from the Anglo-Zimele Small Business Fund, and a steely determination, she choose to nurture her idea. Her decision paid off and sixteen years later she owns a unique brand and a thriving business. – Vanessa Marks

I’m talking to Claire Reid, founder and CEO of Reel Gardening. Claire, would you think it’s fair to say that Reel Gardening has in some way disrupted the gardening business.

I suppose it’s a compliment to us to look at it as a disruption and we really are looking at how do we include more people that would previously not have experienced growing; or had negatively experienced growing and referred to themselves as not having a green thumb and therefore not trying it again. How do we bring them into the fold.

So how do you bring them into the fold. Tell us about your product.

So Reel Gardening in-cases seed and nutrients at the correct depth and distance apart with a compostable seed. So to plant you really just have to make a furrow in the ground put the seed tape in the soil so that you can see the coloured area above the soil. So for example tomatoes are red, beetroot is purple and then that piece of paper will indicate exactly how you need to water and where the seeds are going to emerge. So you can save up to 80% water in water scarce areas but it also prevents birds from eating the seeds out the soil. It prevents cutworm. You don’t have to second guess what you’ve planted and if it’s a weed, you know it’s a weed because it’s not growing up the papers so you can pull it out immediately. So it really just gives everyone that confidence that they’ve planted their salad or vegetable garden, whichever garden in a box you purchased. You have the confidence that you’ve planted 100% perfectly so all you need to do is make sure that it gets sunlight every day and it gets water every day.

And you invented this concept out of your own frustration.

Yes. And as a young girl of 16 I wanted to plant vegetables and sell them to my parents. And when I was actually confronted with the actual planting I was overwhelmed. I didn’t want to have to buy a whole packet of 100 tomato seeds when I only actually based the garden on five. I felt it was quite a wasteful process and I didn’t remember which seeds I’d put in the soil. When I asked for additional help from my domestic worker Mickey, she started to relay her own personal journey to me and it became evident that she had failed in the past and I was on my way to failing. And so if neither of us had actually successfully been able to grow our own food, how many other people weren’t growing their own food because of the same reasons that we had just been confronted with. And surely there was an easier way. And that was really the birth of Reel Gardening.

Right. So you took that idea and the project and won a prize. Tell us about that.

I submitted the school project to the Eskom expo for young scientists. I won a gold medal at the national finals which was quite a big thing. And through that process I got the attention of Ronnie Kasrils the Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry. He then asked me to come with my project to the Stockholm junior Water Prize and I ended up being the first South African to ever win that.

Great from there you then you had a bit of a break. How did you take your project and turn it into a commercial business.

While I was doing my internship as an architect I was fortunate enough to be familiarised with the Anglo small business startup fund. So I put through an application for a loan and I was granted it in 2009 and through that loan I was able to set up the business.

I noticed that you had a lot of product to your current range. How do you keep up the innovativeness.

That’s what I love here. I am a very creative person. I’m an architect by profession. I love designing, I love problem solving. I think I probably drive my Reel Gardening team a bit mad because I’m the one that’s always waiting on what’s the next thing we can design. What’s the next step. And yeah that’s what I find fun.

Your company also has a philosophy of the triple bottom line; profit, people and planet. Tell us about your social responsibility program.

So we’re very focused on implementing school guidance, purely because we feel that the next generation has lost the connection with where food comes from. And as a result we’re seeing huge problems from a health point of view and from an environmental impact point of view. So we created our learn and grow kit which enables teachers to link the garden to the school curriculum and it’s been approved by the CAPS (Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement) curriculum. We then take a percentage of all of our sales at Reel Gardening and utilise that to make seed tape available to those schools for free for as long as they want to utilise it. And we then work with corporate social responsibility partners and governmental organisations like US aid to do the initial implementation of the learning grow kits in schools around the country. And to date we have about three and a half thousand schools around South Africa.

How do you protect your product.

We have patents in place on various aspects of the design and we’re very fortunate that we haven’t had to litigate with regard to these patents and we do have a very loyal customer following, who have been quite vocal sometimes on social media when other brands have have tried to do something similar or import something similar. And so we’re just very fortunate to have a great support network in South Africa.

Any intention of exporting.

We have in the past exported to the UK successfully and the sales were great. And we’ve also exported to the US. And while the export process was difficult we got through it, the actual logistics and the cost of logistics on the ground in the US became quite prohibitive for the product sales; and in the UK the growing season is so much shorter that it didn’t warrant the cost to get the volume that we needed over there to to launch, so we would be interested in looking at distribution partners. But it just hasn’t been something that we’ve focused on and because our big market is in branded seed tapes. So we do things for large corporates and that’s really where we see our growth as a company,  we are very uniquely placed in that market and we’re able to do a lot of good because of the volumes that come through. So we’re really just focused on building those strong corporate relationships and export does come as a result of those marketing relationships. But it’s not having to do it as a retailer, which does make a big difference.

Where do you see Reel Gardening in say the next five years.

Reel Gardening is about to expand quite significantly with two huge projects we’ve got in the pipeline and so within the next 12 months we will have significantly increased our staff and our turnover which is very exciting. Within the next five years I hope to have more ongoing projects and relationships in place, so not these once off marketing campaigns that we’ve been working on but really ongoing partnerships with brands that talk to our same values. There are exciting possibilities in the pipeline with regards to that. So it really is ‘watch this space’.

Thank you very much. Claire we wish you all the best.