A GROWING BUSINESS
STORY: MEI LENG WONG • PHOTOS: CHRISTEL YARDLEY/STUFF
There is more to growing food than just growing food. Sure, delicious and nutritious fruits and vegetables are the prize we have our eyes on, but as every gardener knows, the very endeavour of growing food brings many other benefits not just to the gardener but also to the wider community, in myriad ways. It is also an endeavour that offers many lessons, and so it was for an enterprising quintet of year 12 students – Charla Stretch, Ayush Menon, Brooklyn Tukaki, Bree Williams-Healey and Damian Temana – from Tokoroa High School in south Waikato. Inspired by the obvious need for food access and food security during New Zealand’s first level 4 lockdown last Above: The portable garden from Vitanic, the Young Enterprise Scheme company from Tokoroa High School. “It provides a convenient and cost effective way to access fresh produce in your home,” says CEO Charla Stretch. year, they came up with the idea of portable organic gardens to make vege growing accessible for everyone – including those with limited mobility or limited space. “Our portable bed provides a convenient and costeffective way to access your own fresh produce within your own home,” says Charla, the CEO of Vitanic, the Young Enterprise Scheme (YES) company they set up, mentored by business studies teacher Sanjeena Chandra. (The scheme is an experiential programme designed for year 12 and 13 students, and provides them the opportunity to set up and run their own business. Vitanic have already made the cut for the Rotorua/Taupō/Tokoroa regional final this month.) Their challenge, Charla explains, was to create a business that would express their shared values of healthy living, kaitiakitanga and sustainability – values, they believe, that would help them “help our planet”. Their brainstorming, tapping into their individual interests and talents which include building skills and backyard gardening, eventually led them to develop these easy-to-move garden beds made out of recycled school desks. “With our product, we have come up with many ways that we could benefit the community,” Charla says. “Every year, New Zealanders send around 2.5 million tonnes of waste to landfill so we decided that we would try to recycle as many things as we could. There are so many desks in schools that will never be used again so we chose to put them to good use and make a whole new product out of them. “Also, since New Zealand students now get free lunches in school, there are a lot of food scraps getting thrown away as waste. This is also a problem we could solve by collecting the scraps and composting it to put into our gardens.” Each box bed measures 490cm by 290cm – perfect for six to eight plants. A single costs $90; a tiered double bed is priced at $135. In line with their aim to democratise access to fresh veges, each box bed comes complete with soil and seedlings already in (grown by the team in the school’s tunnelhouse, mostly easycare fast-growing salad and leafy greens as well as seasonal herbs, thoughtfully selected for mostly two qualities: relatively easy for novice gardeners to maintain and common, familiar kai for most Kiwis). Unexpectedly, a few keen gardeners in the community, who had seen their prototypes at the school gala Business Studies teacher Sanjeena Chandra with Bree Williams-Healey, Brooklyn Tukaki, Charla Stretch and Ayush Menon. “Because of their great idea, we are thinking of offering agri-business, perhaps as part of business studies, to create more opportunities for learning,” Sanjeena says. fundraiser, placed orders for the product. This provided further motivation for the team to refine their offering. “This team has great passion and are proud of their achievements so far,” says their Business Studies teacher Sanjeena Chandra. “They also have had lots of struggles along the way, but they keep going.” There was that time, for instance, when the tunnelhouse containing their seedlings and plants was nearly blown over on a windy, stormy day. The students rushed down to the field and did their best to pull the cover back on the frame. “It was like we were fighting the greenhouse and the greenhouse was winning as we were continuously getting whacked in the face by the covers,” Charla recalls. “We ended up getting drenched in the rain and covered in mud, we struggled for a long time before we finally got it down but we were very proud of our achievements – until the next day; the cover had blown off again.” They felt like giving up, she confesses, but decided instead to rescue their portable gardens and the parts of the ripped up tunnelhouse, placing them in Sanjeena’s classroom. “After a couple of weeks we set up our greenhouse again and built a proper frame along with pinning it down so we wouldn’t be in that situation again.” Sanjeena has mentored several teams through the YES scheme in the decade that she has been teaching at Tokoroa High School. When it comes to asking students to get into teams, they usually follow their friends, she explains. “For team Vitanic, it was different because each team member was looking for something different. They had a vision from the start that they wanted to achieve greater success. The unique thing about this team is that it consists of members who have different personalities, skills, and backgrounds, but they have the same passion, their passion to achieve. When we see enterprising youths with ideas to promote healthier lifestyles and environmental sustainability, it is very encouraging.” To inspire Vitanic, the school leadership team had arranged a visit to Rhode St School in Dinsdale, Hamilton. This full primary school (teaching years 1-8) is also an enviroschool, which means it is part of a nationwide network of early childhood centres and schools committed to a long-term sustainability journey, championing environmental action-based projects where young people are empowered to design and lead sustainability projects in their schools, neighbourhoods and country. “It was an eye-opening experience. They demonstrated different ways to garden. For example, they did hydroponic gardening, they had their own worm farms and even had sensory gardens,” says Brooklyn Tukaki, Vitanic’s sales and marketing director. “It was a thrilling experience to see this school’s ideas and we were very grateful for the opportunity. Once we got back to our school, we immediately started working on things we could do to improve our gardens and make them more efficient.” For the team’s finance director Bree Williams-Healey, the journey has helped her build resilience too. “On our first market day I was a bit nervous, thinking about talking to people and how they might respond,” she says. “But my anxiety washed away after answering questions and talking to new people. At the end of market day and all the positive feedback we received, I realised not only was I happy and more motivated by the feedback but our whole team had a new found motivation. Not only am I proud of myself for putting myself out there, I’m also proud of my team and I wouldn’t be able to do it without them.” They’ve also picked up complementary skills, working together to build the box beds by hand. “I am really proud of how our team came together to get the work done in the holidays. We built 20 of the portable gardens over the course of two days,” says Ayush Menon, one of two product directors in the team (the other is Damian Temana). “We have all been working together to create the idea of our portable gardens, then building them and finally selling them. I am looking forward to achieving greater success with each other and making this business the best it can be. We have learnt a lot together and gained very important skills for our future.” The students are not the only ones to be inspired. Sanjeena reports that some teachers are keen to explore similar, gardening-based projects that provide opportunities for contextualised learning, including hydroponics within the science units. Meanwhile, gardeners keen to buy or order a portable vege garden can visit Vitanicgardens on Instagram or email email@example.com.