Just grow for it:
Basil Williams is a testament to what it means to never give up on your dreams
“Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life”. It’s an age-old adage that we’ve all come to know. But for most of us, this isn’t always the case. With life constantly throwing new obstacles our way, the ability to choose between what we want over what we need is often rare. Basil Williams is not letting this stop him from chasing his dreams. As the founder and CEO of Herbal View Hydroponics, he has taken fate and circumstance into his own hands and made it his own.
Herbal View Hydroponics is his farming and agri-processing business that uses cutting-edge hydroponic technology to grow, process and deliver superior quality culinary herbs to market. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, hydroponics is a way for farmers to grow plants without soil. Instead, crops are planted directly into nutrient-rich water, which allows growers to produce food anywhere in the world, at any time of the year, using fewer resources.
But while it might sound very scientific, Basil explains that being an entrepreneur is where the real challenge is at.
An unexpected passion
Before starting Herbal View, Basil was just a young man with an overwhelming love for the outdoors. Yet, the fact that he ended up in agriculture was a complete fluke.
“It all began in 1996. I had just finished school when a friend of mine told me there was a job opening at the Agricultural Research Council in Elsenburg. Back then I spent a lot of time hiking and mountain biking in the area. I thought it suited my outdoor lifestyle well and applied,” he recalls. “As luck would have it, they accepted my application, and I was hired as a general nursery worker in the Fynbos Unit.”
This was Basil’s first exposure to gardening and agriculture, and he quickly began developing a new passion for propagating plants.
“I guess you could say I became a bit of a fanatic because after a few months I was building my own after-hours greenhouses at my parents’ house in Kylemore. I started with fynbos, but then thought about trying herbs. And, as it turns out, this was one of the best decisions I ever made,” he explains.
Basil Williams, owner of Herbal View Hydroponics, started his business out of his passion for propagating plants. (Photo by Lizelle Lötter)
With the hydroponic system giving him complete control over the growing process, Basil was able to grow herbs at such a rate that he began selling them to local wine farms and shops in and around Stellenbosch. In fact, his parents were so impressed that they let him use the rest of the property to construct additional hydroponic stations and capitalise on the opportunity.
His growing business didn’t go unnoticed, and soon the local Department of Agriculture sent a team to inspect his operation. “They arrived and were amazed by how much we were producing from such a small plot of land. But they said it was also just the beginning.”
From strength to strife
Over the next few years, the Department of Agriculture helped Basil scale his business, and with their funding, he was able to expand his supply chain to include major food processors like Ina Paarman and Pesto Princess.
“This was an interesting and testing time for the business as I had to learn new skills relating to things like product manufacturing, health and safety, as well as logistics,” shares Basil, but the real challenges were still to come.
“At this point, it was 2009, and we were in the process of expanding to a new site in Kylemore when severe weather hit. High winds and days of rain destroyed all of our growing stations and we lost a few hundred thousand Rands worth of equipment,” says Basil. “The damage was near enough to potentially shut the business down for good – but I wasn’t going to let that happen.”
With fresh help from the Department of Land Reform, he picked up the pieces and through the Department, began investigating the idea of applying for a farm; a permanent place in the heart of the Cape’s agricultural sector, with enough room for him to set down firm roots for the business’s future.
As Basil explains, “Things started off really well and we found a great hydroponic farm in Wellington. We negotiated with the owners for us to start building the hydroponic infrastructure and soon thereafter began growing the first batch of herbs. Then, everything went south when the Department came back with bad news: they weren’t going to help me buy the farm anymore.”
According to the Department, the farm wasn’t aligned with their support criteria, and, without the Department’s support, Basil was forced to vacate the land almost immediately. “The news was really disappointing, and it forced us to spend the next few years drifting from farms between Paarl and Stellenbosch.”
Taking things to the next level
Basil remembers this as one of the toughest periods in the business’s history, but that after a while – and with more help from the Department of Agriculture – things slowly began to return to normal.
Then one day, he had a brainwave: “I was thinking about how, despite the challenges, we were still successfully supplying all of these large companies. I realised that, to buy our own farm and grow the business more sustainably, we had to find new ways of boosting our profit margins. So, we launched our own product line.”
Herbal View Hydroponics’ new Herbs and Spice product range is now available at the Stellenbosch CoCreate Hub in Victoria street. (Photo by Lizelle Lötter)
To get the ball rolling, Basil enrolled in an intensive business development workshop run by the unit for enterprise development at the Western Cape Department of Economic Development and Tourism. With their help, he developed a new agri-processing function at Herbal View and was able to purchase equipment to make his own pestos and herbal-salt blends.
Since then, the business has gone from strength to strength, with new plans now underway to build a proper agri-processing plant with office space to oversee the company’s next expansion. But Basil accredits a lot of this progress to the help he’s received along the way. “In particular, I owe a lot to the Department of Agriculture. They have given me so much support over the years, and if it weren’t for them believing in me, I don’t think I would be where I am today.”
He continues: “And this is really the crux of it. Belief is probably one of the most important factors for any entrepreneur, and it starts with having faith in yourself even when others don’t. Before I started Herbal View, I tried asking for help from my employer at the time, to work half days. They told me to forget it. They didn’t see the entrepreneur in me and missed out on a good opportunity to invest.
After overcoming adversity, the resilient Basil Williams, has many exciting plants to grow his business, Herbal View Hydroponics, further. (Photo by Lizelle Lötter)
“But, at the end of the day, it only pushed me harder to pursue my dreams and today I’m proud to say that we’re on the cusp of taking the business to the next level still.”
Basil concludes by saying that, while the business’s recent growth has been exciting, he hasn’t forgotten about his dream to buy his own farm – in fact, it’s the next step in his plan to level up.
To learn more about Basil and Herbal View Hydroponics, go to www.herbalview.co.za
Photographs by: Lizelle Lötter.