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Midlands duo go big – Micro-greens farmers use social media and Internet to grow business

The Witness

27 Nov 2019

MIDLANDS micro-greens farmers Andrew Stiebel and Byron Piccione are a living example of how using Google, YouTube videos and social media can turn a simple idea onto a successful business.

The pair, who identified a gap — both in the agricultural industry and in the retail sector — have hit upon a unique agri-business opportunity that has positioned them as a leading supplier of micro-greens and edible flowers in the province.

The life-long friends Stiebel (26) and Piccione (26) started First Light Farms, in Eston, after identifying the growing consumer demand for micro-greens and edible flowers thanks to the powerful health properties found in these plants.

“We’ve had an interesting and exciting approach into the micro-green industry; KZN had not taken this type of produce seriously, which means we were able to open up the use of these greens in homes and restaurant kitchens across the province,” said Stiebel.

Started in early 2017, with just the two of them working out of Stiebel’s parents’ garage in Eston, First Light Farms now consists of 375 m2 of micro-greens and 300 m2 of edible flowers being produced in three large tunnels, a pack shed and a germination room, employing eight staff members. They are the preferred suppliers for well-known brands such as Mugg & Bean and some Spar supermarkets.

“Identifying which produce to grow has been through trial and error and market research, and by identifying potential customers and introducing them to our produce with sampling. We started with a large variety of micro-greens

First Light Farms, in Eston, is the brainchild of life-long friends Andrew Stiebel and Byron Piccione, who call themselves “Google farmers”. including rocket, red amaranth, yellow mustard … Today our colourful mix of our most common greens is our biggest seller, followed by edible flowers and pea shoots,” said Stiebel.

Without fellow industry leaders to learn from, trial and error and Internet research have been their classroom for research into sustainable growing techniques for maximising production and minimising costs. The pair happily refer to themselves as “Google farmers”.

In keeping with their generation, the two have turned to social media to drive their brand, connecting with potential customers and understanding the needs of potential future clients.

“Social media is powerful source of information, there is an abundance of information people are sharing from which as a brand that is growing you can tap into. In fact, we learnt how to start our business from YouTube, which has gradually developed into more in-depth research as we have grown,” said Stiebel.

First Light Farms have grown exponentially year on year and have gone from producing approximately 10 kg a week in 2017, to 50 kg a week in 2018 and are now producing and supplying consumers with around 70-90 kg a week, excluding edible flowers and live trays.

“To strive towards our vision of being the biggest micro-greens and edible flowers producer in SA, we focus on providing the best quality produce at all times. To achieve this we are hands-on in every stage of our growing processes and are constantly looking for innovative ways to grow our greens by focusing on ideal growing conditions, with ideal growing mediums and are constantly altering our techniques to ensure every variety is happy within the elements its growing in,” explained Piccione.

The reason behind the incredible success of First Light Farms, Piccione said, is that they scrutinised every step of the production including the mediums they used, seed quality, germination processes and even the packaging.

Commented CEO of Kwanalu, Sandy la Marque: “It is truly inspiring to see the entrepreneurial spirit of these two young men. Through trial and error, they have found a way to succeed. What also makes this venture inspirational for all of us is that with the many challenges in the agricultural sector they have not been distracted but have continued to find innovative ways to take their agricultural business forward.”

— Witness Reporter.