Claire Reid
Ashoka Fellow since 2018   |   South Africa

Claire Reid

Reel Gardening
Claire reimagines the value chain behind food production as being led by individuals and communities, enabling South Africans of all ages and backgrounds to take pride in being able to grow their own…
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This description of Claire Reid's work was prepared when Claire Reid was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2018.


Claire reimagines the value chain behind food production as being led by individuals and communities, enabling South Africans of all ages and backgrounds to take pride in being able to grow their own fruit and vegetables. She does this by positioning home and school-based gardens as an educational tool, through which she conveys and creates joy in growing food, creating the bedrock for a food-secure and healthy citizenry.

The New Idea

Tracing the disconnect that communities have towards the food they eat to a deep disengagement with their land, Claire is instilling the love of growing food from a young age, by encouraging, and demystifying gardening across income and age groups. This emerges from her own experience as a 16-year old, when confronted with the challenges of gardening for a first-time gardener, Claire created her (now patented) seed-tape, which allows for anyone, of any skill level, to be able to successfully grow vegetables.

Claire knows that if this habit is triggered at an early age, it will create a lifelong habit of health-seeking behaviour. Thus, she links nutrition education to both the practical act of taking care of a food garden as well as to the national curriculum. She reimagines the food garden as compact, mobile and easy to maintain, with each classroom equipped with its own garden, and each teacher equipped with how to use it as a teaching tool.. She has linked the gardening experiences to critical 21st century skills; skills like patience, dealing with disappointment and delayed gratification. In this way, she moves the garden away from being seen as a feeding tool for the school, to little labs for children to experience, and engage with and enjoy the process of growing food

Beyond schools, Claire is working with strategic corporate partners, as well as retailers, towards making her product and methodology available to the wider public. She has made her range of gardening products available both online and instore, and at very affordable prices and clever designs, she makes it easy for any first-timer to begin gardening. This is also how she ensures the school program remain sustainable - her income from retail products help sustain the school programs on a continuous basis. Claire has identified individuals and communities who she is taking through a digital volunteering program, through which she plans to deepen the connect between individual gardening experts, schools, their gardens and the communities at large.

By combining innovative design, thoughtful and practical curriculum, attractive technology, and building a locally led value chain, Claire enables communities and people disconnected from land, to re-engage with it on their own terms. In due course, Claire envisions this leading to an aware and informed citizen base driving short-food supply chains by making discerning food choices.

The Problem

South Africa has achieved food security at a national level, however, there is still little household food security. In South Africa, the cause of malnutrition is not the unavailability of food, but the lack of access to nutritious food. It has been shown that most people do not have sufficient knowledge or understanding of what constitutes a healthy diet. This maybe due to trends such as urbanisation and a preference for convenience foods (such as rice over maize), which threaten the beneficial characteristics of a traditional rural diet. For instance, the 1999 National Food Consumption Survey found an incidence of overweight and obesity of 17.1% among children aged 1-9 years. This is directly related to poor nutrition choices and a lack of understanding of healthy diets.

Since South Africa identified food security as a priority in 2000, the Department of Agriculture has aimed to introduce food gardens to ‘augment food shortages in rural households and to sustain long-term food security through the Special Programme for Food Security.’ However, because of the absence of a clear policy, and the inability of the government to pass the Food Security bill, this has remained a goal on paper. Various civil society initiatives have tried to plug this gap, but have only had varying degrees of success. This is because since 1948, poor black South Africans have not had access to land, and whatever engagement they did have was at a low-skill level. Further, apartheid-era legislation like the Group Areas Act, caused severe ruptures in the family and community systems and created further skill divides. Till date, food and kitchen gardens are seen as the bastion of the grandmothers, alienated from young people, preventing inter-generational skill transfer.

Further, from an infrastructure perspective, high set-up costs as well as the need for regular water makes food gardens untenable for most common people. It is for this reason that schools are often the site of choice for food gardens, as schools have access to land and is the central point for the community and can further offer employment opportunities to the community. However, the success of school gardens is mostly determined by the existence of a single motivated teacher or care-taker. With teachers overburdened with curricular requirements, and caretakers being contractual and changing year-on-year, the success rate of these school gardens have been mixed. For instance, Cape Town which had significant investment in school gardens at all levels (community, school and government), saw them thriving for the first few years, but failing to sustain beyond that, once the technical partners withdrew. A major reason for this was the ambiguity of the purpose of the garden, which ranged from food for the students, beautification, and teaching children about sustainable food production.

Reel Gardening addresses these issues by clearly focusing on the garden as an educational tool, that not only teaches children nutrition, but makes the planting process itself an aspirational and joyful one. The garden is itself remodelled to be completely foolproof, allowing anyone of any skill level to successfully grow their own food. Further, by allowing children to taste and experience fresh food from soil to plate, Claire sees them better able to make the right food choices on a daily basis.

The Strategy

When Claire began planting her own vegetables at the age of 16 for her monthly allowance, she was confronted with the frustration of having one failed crop after another. Coming from a family of limited means, Claire was determined to not let her investment (in seeds, water and time) go to waste. She desired an easy way to plant vegetables that would yield exactly what she had planted, removing the guesswork out of gardening. It was then that she, after a period of multiple iterations, developed the first prototype of her seed tape. Still in highschool, she saw how this seed tape started to significantly improve her garden’s produce. Her house help at the time, Meggie, took it with her to her home community in Rustenberg, and was able to help Claire further refine it so that individuals with little to no skill, and literacy, could easily plant and grow their own food, while saving water.

However, it was during her university years when Claire was actually able to see how this design could solve a bigger need. As a student of architecture, Claire was designing affordable housing solutions for mineworkers in the North-West Province of South Africa. In the course of consultations with the workers, Claire witnessed the desire in the community to engage with the land, even as the houses were being developed. The company had already tried out food gardens, which had failed. Claire was reminded of her highschool innovation, the seed-tape that had played such a prominent role in her own journey as a gardener. She approached the mining company, who agreed to give her a business loan, to begin manufacturing the seed-tape at bulk, to take it from being an innovation into an enterprise.

Claire was now irrevocably on a journey to create a planting revolution in South Africa. For that, she first started stocking her seed tape, packaged as a Garden-in-a-box at retail stores nationwide. This was a decision that almost caused her to fold her company. She was new to the space, did not know market tactics, and was facing pressure from her investors to use imported machinery and produce more seedtape. This however did not sit well for her, as she wanted it to be completely locally produced, suited for the local communities who needed it the most. She decided to walk away from the investor, and went back to the drawing board and built her own seed-tape machine with the help of a mechanical engineer. She approached two unemployed mothers to join her, to operate the machinery, who are still with her to-date. It was at this time when she was approached by an independent nonprofit who had been purchasing her gardens for schools and wanted to do bulk orders. This marked her entry point into schools in 2013.

Claire’s work with schools began in a fairly straight-forward manner. She saw the schools as the gateway to the communities, where the success of the school garden would inspire households to begin their own gardening journeys. Towards facilitating this process, she built a network of trainers, who would train the school, and community members engaging in the school garden, thus enabling spread. In one year, with 27 trainers, she piloted her gardens with 200 no-fee schools. However, she soon saw that things were not going exactly to plan. Through intensive data collection and stakeholder interaction, she realised that the trainers, nervous about losing their jobs, continued to train the school in gardening, but were not keen to empower them. Meanwhile, the community still struggled with seeing the garden as something to value as it came with the stigma of parents not being able to buy food for their children. Kitchen gardens were often at the back of the house, and not in the front.

In the school, while management liked the garden, there was little learner interaction with the garden, making it disconnected from school life. Claire came to the conclusion that the gardens would never sustain if they were only seen as a feeding tool for the school. She also realised the negative perception of gardens went beyond technical difficulty. Gardens were symbolic of poverty, an entrenched mindset that Claire had to correct, if she were to have impact.

Claire saw that giving teachers ownership over the garden as an educational tool, would allow for increased learner engagement with the growing process, and will potentially allow them to move away from the negative perception their parents had of growing food at home. She also saw that children loved planting with the seed tape, which was attractive and easy to plant. She thus redesigned her school garden to be compact and mobile. Called GrowPods, each class from entry level (age 3) to grade 8 (age 14) would have their own small garden, that they could use to grow seasonal vegetables. The Grow Pod is part of a larger Learn and Grow Kit that contains grade-appropriate activity sheets, and detailed teacher notes to enhance the activity. All activities are aligned to the national curriculum, with a specific emphasis on Life Skills/Orientation, Natural Sciences and English (First Additional Language). In addition, the Learn and Grow kit demonstrates how the gardening process can enable learners to gain critical life skills: complex problem solving, coordinating with others , critical thinking , judgment and decision-making, active listening and creativity. The teachers guide also contains extension activities, as well as opportunities for assessment, and was developed after Claire piloted it in over 2300 schools in South Africa in 2016.

Claire understands that it is important to bring these lessons alive by including children in the planting and growing process. After having listened to the students, who shared that they get discouraged when the garden belonged to everyone, and not them alone, she included a one-seed pot for each child in the class. Children are able to take care of that single seed, building both ownership and aspiration towards gardening.

Understanding the importance of making gardening accessible to young people, Claire also links each kit to a free html-based App, called the Planting Revolution, which tells the teacher and student exactly what to do in the garden each day, accompanied by pictures and weekly videos. Claire has developed it so that she is able to partner with local mobile networks and the more someone uses the app, the more free data they can receive. She also uses this to track the progress of the gardens in the schools.

Claire is currently transforming her school trainers network from being service providers for the schools, to truly driving sustainability of gardens in the schools, and the communities. She is doing this through a Digital Volunteering program through which volunteers will be carefully selected to adopt and work with a particular school or community of their choice. Claire will equip them with tools and opportunities to enhance the connect between school and community.

Claire is determined that she reach only the most marginalised school communities, and she prioritises working with no-fee schools who receive children from the poorest families in South Africa. Many of these families are child-headed, and the children often struggle for food during school and term holidays, when they are away from the school feeding scheme. Towards ensuring that she can consistently support these schools with seeds, she follows the strategy of matching funds for the schools. She does this by selling her household products - yard and balcony gardens for the yard both locally and internationally. Locally, she has again ventured into retail, where she stocks in some of the biggest home and garden shops, while internationally she is selling through the GirlScouts USA and in 2018, will begin to stock with Amazon. In 2018 alone, she has already bought in 273 schools into this movement. Towards growing her impact, she is in close collaboration with the Maharishi Institute and the National Education Collaboration Trust to create and deliver an Entrepreneurship in Education Program with the Department of Basic Education. With it now being approved, Claire will be able to take her Learn and Grow Kit endorsed by the government, to public schools across the country. This will start initially with 300 schools, and then between 2018-2023 it will be rolled out to all public schools in the country.

The Person

Claire comes from an unusual family in South Africa. Her mother had witnessed the Irish resistance, before she moved to South Africa and joined a popular radio channel offering political commentary on South African issues, during the apartheid years. From an early age, Claire was acutely aware of segregation, and its effect on everyday life. Growing up in the early 90s, when the country was in complete flux, Claire often had to find her own ways to earn her allowance. At age 8, she worked with recycled paper to make greeting cards, that she sold through a catalogue that she left in people’s post boxes. Around the same time, she discovered how to make a popular children’s toy, that she exhibited at an event showcasing products made for children by children. It was a runaway hit, earning her over 600 USD in a single day. In her early teens, the neighbourhood community introduced identical garbage bins for each home. One day, she witnessed two of her neighbours fighting over ownership of the bins. She went home, and came back with a stencil with the number of her house, and spray painted it on their garbage bin. When the neighbours saw it, they asked her to come and do theirs as well, which she did for a fee. From an early age, Claire realised that problems could be solved by very simple fixes, and has always stuck to that insight.

When Claire was 16, she had an agreement with her family that if she could grow vegetables, they would buy them from her for allowance. She asked her house help Meggie for support, but was dismayed at the discouraging reaction she got from her. Meggie shared her story of having tried gardening in Rustenberg, walking miles for water, and investing hope into her patch of land for months, before realising that she had been taking care of weeds, and not the vegetables she had expected. It was this waste of hope that motivated Claire to develop her seed-tape. She wanted to make sure that any first-time gardener would taste success, warranting the hope they had invested into the garden, a theme running throughout all of Reel Gardening’s initiatives.

Claire is a passionate social entrepreneur and leader, having invested deeply in her team. She has built a team of equally passionate employees, who bring in new ideas into the enterprise. For instance, the Digital Volunteering program, is being incubated at Reel Gardening, but will be run by a member of her team and eventually spun-off. Similarly, she groomed another team member to not only advocate for Reel Gardening, but for young people entering agriculture. Claire has already started declining speaking opportunities, to allow this team member to be the advocate, role-modeling the vision she has for young people and society at large.

For Claire, success comes when children begin to lead the movement. She proudly recounts a story of a child she met at one school, who came running up to her with a beetroot in his hands. “This is my beetroot,” he exclaimed, “I grew it by myself. And I cannot wait to taste it!” For Claire, knowing that just a month ago that might well have been a McDonalds burger in his hand, this is just the beginning.

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