#Unmasked: GuanoBoost

Published: 14 December 2022

Putting regenerative agriculture on the map

Sometimes the purpose behind a business is more important than the business itself.” 

Johan Swarts, Director, GuanoBoost 

For Johan Swarts, farming is in his blood. His childhood was spent running wild and free on the family farm in Pretoria and his dream was always to one day have a farm of his own and  like many of us, the real world can get in the way of our aspirations. After graduating from University, Johan moved to Australia, where he embarked on a successful career in the construction industry. Never losing sight of his childhood ambition, Johan moved quickly into the C-suite, and through his successes was able to plot his path back to South Africa. In 2013, Johan headed home and bought a farm in Limpopo province, excited to finally live his dream.

Save our Soil. Save our Source.

In 2016, after three years back home farming, Johan and his long-time friend, and now business partner, Theo Prinsloo – also a farmer in the Limpopo valley – were struck by the negative effects of chemical fertilisers on the soil in the area. On seeing this damage first-hand, the pair decided to do something about it. 

“We couldn’t just stand by and watch the soil being systematically destroyed. The consequences for humanity and the planet are just too far reaching,

And that’s where the idea of providing organic fertilisers, and developing a bio-stimulant to counteract the damage, was born. 

The more research they did, the more concerned they became about the current trend in the farming world of putting more and more chemical fertilisers on crops to increase yields. As farmers themselves, they saw the damage these practices were causing to the land, and very clearly saw the link to an overall decline in plant health and the quality of the vegetables and fruits being produced. 

“We knew we had to find a solution that would stop and reverse the degradation of the soil that was permeating not only farmland but also private land that was tended by homeowners. We knew that if this trend continued, we would be looking at the complete destruction of our food source within the next few decades.” 

After doing their research, Theo realised that the most workable solution – one that actually stood a good chance of turning the status quo around – would be to produce an organic fertiliser and bio-stimulant themselves and market it to farmers. They hit upon the idea of extracting the required nutrients from organic Namibian seabird Guano (a more marketable name for seabird and bat excrement) as their best bet, because this would create the most nutrient rich organic fertiliser possible. 

GuanoBoost is born

And so GuanoBoost was founded – a 100% organic liquid fertiliser. The two friends started trading in April 2019, working from the back of another friend’s tobacco store. The first mountain they had to climb was awareness and education. Time and again, the farmers they approached simply didn’t believe that they were damaging their own soil by using chemical fertilisers; others were just so stuck in their ways that they weren’t prepared to change. “Looking back, it was the younger guys who were willing to change their mind,” Johan asserts. 

Johan says there is a network of distributors, who are often vocal, established members of local communities, that sell the chemical fertilisers that are harming the soil so it was a difficult task to break century-old farming habits. “We are either loved or loathed in the market. If farmers use our 100% organic product, they will end up with healthier plants which results in less of a need for chemical fertilisers and pesticides,” he explains. 

The upside of the pandemic 

When the Covid pandemic arrived in March 2020, the construction industry was one of the hardest hit, and the company Johan worked for while developing GuanoBoost had to retrench staff to stay afloat. At that point, GuanoBoost was a side project and only made 5,000 litres per month. “We were definitely not making any kind of ‘real’ money yet,” says Johan.  

Finding himself, like so many others, unemployed, Johan took a leap of faith – joining the GuanoBoost team full time as Managing Director. “In retrospect, retrenchment was the best thing that could have happened to me. It brought me back to my purpose,” he declares.  

As luck – or fate – would have it, the Covid lockdown worked in their favour as their business was classified as an essential service and they were able to freely operate throughout. Farmers were facing shortages of chemical fertiliser across the country, and a gap opened in the market.  

Johan and Theo pulled out all the stops, visiting farmers across the country to market the product during the first months of lockdown, and it paid off handsomely. 

 “We grew the company by 1 000% in six months and laid the foundation for what it is now a growing business that supports 18 full-time office workers, 20 labourers, and 44 agents across the country,” he says.

Technology lift-off

In March 2021 Johan and Theo welcomed Stephen Duggan aboard as their new MD, and his business acumen took the company to new levels of prosperity and success. Until then they had marketed almost exclusively to the commercial farmer, but in September 2021 GuanoBoost launched an online store targeting consumers who grow their own produce at home – www.GuanoBoost.co.za.

This was the breakthrough they had been working towards, and it unlocked the business’s financial potential. In just one year, the company achieved a turnover of R12 million, consistently selling R75 000 worth of organic fertiliser, daily. “The demand has just been off the charts from the outset,” says Johan.

Research is a backbone of the company, and their digital platforms enabled them to conduct surveys to understand why the product was so popular with their consumers. Survey results showed that 47% of people use it because it’s organic, while 43% said they use it because it doesn’t contain any harmful chemicals. “This means that our customer is aware of the damage done to the soil by chemical fertilisers and is making a conscious choice to use the highest possible quality organic fertiliser in and around their farms and homes,” Johan says. 

Expansion is on the cards

With GuanoBoost showing a steady turnover, and the online store generating R1,5 million per month – 25% of the company’s total turnover – Johan and the team are setting their sights on expanding their business model. “From September 2022 we are rolling out to retail stores across the country.  We are already in 300 stores – mostly the co-ops and nurseries – and we want to have our product in 1 000 stores by 2023.”

The team intends to expand their offering by making their organic fertilisers available to more African and International markets. “We want to become the biggest name in the plant nutrition and gardening space. We want to grow into a billion-rand business within the next five years. We are already exporting to Sweden, Malawi, Botswana and Zimbabwe. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” 

For the greater good

Johan is adamant about one thing. Every business decision they make needs to be for the greater good of people and the planet.

“There are too many people struggling to feed their families. That’s why we are working on an idea called ‘Farm in a Box’. It will be the size of a big shoebox, and inside the box will be all the ingredients needed for a family to grow veggies to feed themselves for 30 weeks. You will get both granule and liquid fertilisers, all the seeds you need, a step-by-step guide on how to plant them, measuring cups, a syringe, and the exact instructions on how to go about farming your own vegetables. It will retail at R499, and each box will enable you to grow R8 000 worth of vegetables.”  

GuanoBoost is living proof of Mr. Branson’s quote “doing good, is good for business”, and the most inspiring thing is that South Africans are supporting the GuanoBoost team in huge numbers, not only because the product is great, but because it’s the right thing to do. 

Now that’s the way business should be done.