– Lia Snijman. Above: Rooted delivers fresh produce to people’s houses. Photo: Lianri Malan.

“The vision of Rooted involves the creation of a free-market open platform where the balance between power and risk is more fairly distributed. A platform where consumers know the person that is responsible for the quality of their produce. A platform where farmers have the power to set their own prices, but are held in check, both by quality ratings from consumers, as well as by the price and quality of competing farmers. The direct link truly goes to the core of what we are trying to achieve.”

This is what Christian Malan has to say about the business he co-founded with another Stellenbosch University (SU) student and an SU alumnus. Rooted is a fresh produce delivery service that focuses on connecting farmers and consumers to ensure freshness and sustainability.

Some of Rooted's vegetables. Photo: Facebook.

Some of Rooted’s vegetables. Photo: Neil de Kock.

Rooted's logo. Photo: Facebook.

Rooted’s logo. Photo: Facebook.

Malan (23) is obtaining his master’s degree in Industrial Engineering at SU and is in charge of the “core logistics, operations and farmer-interfacing side of Rooted”. Neil de Kock (22) is pursuing his final year of BAcc LLB at SU. “On top of financials and contracts, I’m primarily running the customer-facing side of Rooted,” he said about his responsibilities. Chrisjan Wust (24) calls himself a supposed young professional and is an alumnus of SU. He works in the machine learning field and is responsible for Rooted’s web platform.

Malan, who hails from Bethal in Mpumalanga, said: “Growing up on a farm in a small town has been the main source of inspiration for this business from the first day. Understanding fully the plight of the small-scale farmer in a large-scale industrialised world, I was encouraged to find some solution that would be more beneficial to all parties involved. A way in which farmers had an open access to their local market and consumers had access to the best produce around.”

He explained that when a country’s buying power decreases, as is currently the case in SA, supermarkets aren’t hit as hard by lowered prices as the farmers are.

“Starting a small business gives you the unique opportunity to build what you believe in. Sustainable packaging is a manifestation of a deeply rooted love for nature and the desire to minimize the environmental impact that we as humans have,” says De Kock.
Wust added that most start-ups are focused on scaling, but that their own core value is sustainability. “Whenever I would propose something aimed at large scale growth, Christian [Malan] would, after a pause, come back with a ‘Maar is dit sustainable?’ [But is this sustainable?],” he said.

He said that it has implications for different aspects of their business, such as their delivery process. “Freshness is the core of what we do, sustainability is the core of how we do it,” Wust said.

“Arriving at dawn on Monday mornings, waiting while farmer Brandon finishes harvesting Rooted customers’ spinach and then delivering those by sunset – that’s where our name comes from. Our produce doesn’t spend much time ‘unrooted’,” he said.

Malan explained that his studies influenced his approach to the business, namely the concept of systems thinking leading to him looking at the bigger picture. “Yes, single-use plastic packaging would be significantly less expensive than wooden crates. Yes, we could get better prices on produce when buying from large-scale farmers from other parts of the country. But that’s not sustainable. We are fighting hard to reintroduce and redefine local trade in a manner that is beneficial to all stakeholders involved, as well as the environment. That is what sustainability means to me,” he said.

De Kock said about their division of the workload: “The three founders work as employees, although I’m not sure whether we can call ourselves that without getting paid. In addition, depending on our study load, we often hire a (girl)friend to help with deliveries, packing, etc. (Jup, this business does test boundaries between studies, work and relationships.)”

“Chrisjan [Wust] doesn’t work full time – his only hours are […] right before the platform opens up for its weekly orders. His main responsibility is to discover 10 missed calls in the most crucial moments of the Rooted online platform,” said Malan. Wust responded: “Yeah, I’m allowed a weekly stipend of 250g coffee beans for these sessions.”

Malan said that their business works with about 7 to 10 farms, as well as 3 to 5 local artisans. He spoke about how everybody they work with are specialists in their fields that focus on giving high quality products.

De Kock stated that unfortunately Covid-19 has negatively affected their sales, as half of their customer base were students who left at the start of lockdown. However, he said that their orders from households have been increasing steadily. He added that they’ve recently had students start ordering again. Malan said that local families are now more likely to support them as they are more reluctant to go to the supermarket.

The founders have had quite a few challenges with adjusting to their business. Malan said that he struggled with the shift from academics where “everything can be analysed, calculated and tweaked to perfection”, as opposed to the business world where it is more important to have a “get-it-done mindset” and find practical, rather than perfect, solutions.

Wust added that having their three diverging perspectives could also be challenging. “My background is very technical, Neil [de Kock] is a visionary who is outstanding with customers and Christian [Malan] is a highly practical problem-solver. Note, however, that all these positive attributes are pulling in different directions, and, from another’s point of view, you could easily add a ‘too’ in front of these characteristics,” he said.

De Kock said that for him the biggest struggle has been burnout. “There is always something more that can be done and setting boundaries between Rooted, my degree and personal time has been challenging. Separating my own feeling of self-worth from the success of Rooted has also been a challenge, as without this separation an emotional rollercoaster ensues – many times due to events taking place that we have absolutely no control over (the pandemic being the obvious example),” he said.

However, they also have a great deal of fun and enjoy their work with Rooted. Malan said that he has many memories of what he enjoys about Rooted. “The various late nights spent talking about what we wanted Rooted to be, designing the systems that would enable us to get there, and talking a bunch of nonsense. The long hours spent driving, having some of the most significant conversations of my life. The crazy ideas that we come up with. The amazing manner in which people have always been willing to help us out to build something that we believe in,” he reminisced.

He spoke about being able to experience both the sunrise as they go to fetch the “harvest at dawn”, as per their slogan, and then seeing the sunset as they finish deliveries by dusk, basking in the “beauty of the Winelands”. He added that as they are an essential service during lockdown, it has been a privilege for him to be able to move around and still interact with people.

For De Kock, there’s a specific memory that he holds onto from the start of the year. “We sneakily used Chrisjan [Wust]’s office space after hours to meet up and brainstorm, talking big picture things. A few hours later, with takeout containers and empty beers strewn over the previously pristine desk, I sat listening to my two fellow co-founders geeking out about the supposedly ‘soft’ sound quality of the room. Apparently, it has sound mufflers? It was at that moment that I realized what we were actually doing, what we were committing to and the crazy people I was locked in with for the foreseeable future. Grinning, I remember thinking, ‘We’re such idiots… Let’s go do something so stupidly simple that it actually just might work!’”

Wust, too, has a specific memory in mind, associated with a photo taken of them on a “business weekend”. “We had a long day of considering, debating and contemplating the future of Rooted. We each eventually ended up falling fast asleep in front of the fireplace, at which point we were captured on camera. For me, our peaceful faces in the photo captures the idea that, even though we differ a lot, we also complement each other to form a unified whole,” he said.