Pretty Little Things

Located just outside Johannesburg in South Africa, Pico-Gro is a sustainable, microgreen farming enterprise that supplies Spinneys with edible flowers. We recently visited its CEO and founder Erika Oberholzer to find out more about her exquisite products
Pico-Gro produces a variety of edible flowers such as yellow pansies and purple violas
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Pico-Gro produces a variety of edible flowers such as yellow pansies and purple violas
March 03, 2020

W here did the name Pico-Gro come from?
Pico, nano, micro – these are all prefixes in scientific notation. Pico is essentially “tiny” and since I’m in the business of growing tiny plants and vegetables – the name just works. I didn’t set out to farm the range that I do today – yet the name becomes more and more relevant as I expand our product lines. Nothing was ever really planned, it all just flowed.

Tell us about your current range.
We have an extensive range of fresh micro and mini salad leaves, elfin veggies, edible buds and blossoms – all of which are harvested daily and supplied to not only South African retailers and restaurants, but also a huge international client base. We’re very much world leaders in what we do.

You’ve partnered with Yukon – another South African company and supplier to Spinneys – to export your products. Why?
Our products are exceptionally light and not viable to be flown across the world on their own. By working with the wonderful team at Yukon, which exports a variety of baby vegetables to the same international markets that I supply, I’m able to share their pallets, which are transported on passenger flights. My initial meeting with the team at Yukon was random and serendipitous – much like everything else in my business.

Besides the UAE, which international markets do you supply?
We export to Mauritius, the UK, Germany, France, The Netherlands, Hungary, Russia and Hong Kong, Macau and more.

And how did this all begin? When and how was Pico-Gro established?
Pico-Gro grew from nothing. I started the company at 32 and this June it will be 25 years old. It actually all started with my propagating a plant in a friend’s garden, which led to me specialising in cut flowers and essential oils, before I started to explore new ideas. When I started the company, I knew that I enjoyed working with plants, that I possessed the skills to grow them and that I had learnt a lot about them at university as I studied botany and biochemistry. It was just about finding a way to make money with this knowledge that was the challenge. I set out with no financial aid – which I think was a blessing in disguise. There was very little at stake and I could make mistakes. The company has grown slowly, and as time has gone by my ideas and confidence have grown. I’ve also furthered my studies in project management and I have a Master’s degree in Philosophy in applied ethics with a focus on emerging farmer development – I use everything I’ve learnt on a daily basis. The courage that it took to start Pico-Gro was huge – there have been many sleepless nights and many hours of agony – but it’s all been worth it. This is my entire life.

Talk us through your production process.
Our production never stops; the process is extremely labour intensive and complex. My team is busy seven days a week, 18 hours a day, sowing seeds, washing and refilling trays, harvesting the leaves, herbs and flowers and moving them over to be packaged. Everything is carefully cut and inspected by hand to ensure only the finest quality product is sent to the packing area.

What challenges do you face?
Our biggest challenge is managing the African heat. We’re constantly monitoring irrigation, and ensuring our seedlings are free from any fungal diseases. Everything also comes down to time – as managing a cold chain is a sophisticated and intense reality. We have two industrial engineers who make sure everything runs smoothly. And overall I just have the most unbelievable team – I don’t think they can be replicated and having a strong force is really at the base of doing something this magical.

How do you know if a flower/bud is edible? What advice do you have for consumers?
You’ll be amazed at the number of edible flowers that are out there – and this is what keeps me busy: researching the potential of plants, some of which may have not been used as edible products for the past 100-200 years. But, be careful! You can’t just go into the garden and pick any old flower to eat. For example, nasturtiums or tulips are edible – but don’t touch agapanthus, fox gloves or arum lilies! And don’t ever eat from a bunch of cut flowers you may have bought. It takes investigation, scientific testing and a lot, lot more before a flower or bud is deemed safe to consume. The safest approach is to eat buds/flowers that are being marketed as edible.

Tell us about your food safety methods.
We handle all our flowers like food products – and treat them as you would carrots, spinach, etc. Where ordinary nurseries and cut flower establishments could use agricultural chemicals, we don’t – as all our plants/buds are being grown for consumption. We are audited to the nth degree and adhere to
strict standards of our own and to those of
our clients.

You’ve played an active role in job creation, tell us more.
Being able to provide employment opportunities in South Africa is important to me. There are a significant number of uneducated people in our country and farming is one of those industries that has the potential to utilise these people and upskill them as workers. Many of our team members come from a nearby township and we spend a lot of time doing on-site training. We are able to provide jobs for nearly 200 people – and while it’s hard work, I can’t think of a more beautiful way to make a living than picking flowers. We’re a family at Pico-Gro – this is a huge part of what we stand for and the type of culture we’ve established.

Is it true your greenhouses are named after musicians?
Yes, all eight of them are named after classical composers, because music is another of my great joys. I inherited this passion from my father. He played the violin – this and orchestral music was all I listened to growing up. The greenhouses needed names, and Beethoven or Vivaldi are names that are so inherently beautiful, that it just made sense.

What keeps you in this business and why do you love what you do?
I need intense challenges to stay stimulated. Routine drives me crazy because having to do the same things twice is debilitating. Pico-Gro is a big enough challenge and I can say with certainty that no two days are similar. I handle all product development, and it’s only once I’ve done everything with my own hands and fully understood the whole process for each new project, that I start to teach others about it. Then I can move on to the next challenge.
I’m happy as long as I’m moving forward every day.

As an award-winning businesswoman, who have you turned to for inspiration or guidance?
In terms of people whom I’ve actually met, my former business partner and now good friend Christo Rademan is someone who has taught me a great many invaluable lessons. It was in his garden that my first plant mutation happened – the catalyst for what Pico-Gro is today.
Charles Darwin is a significant person in my life. I’m deeply aware of the huge role he played in shaping what our perception of living sciences is today. I’ve read every word he has written and anything written about him, too. I respect his endurance and his ability to speak his mind.
Lastly, Karen Blixen in Out of Africa was, and I suppose still is, motivating and inspiring. As a woman, she got out there, took her future into own hands and accomplished the unexpected.

What’s does the future hold for Pico-Gro?
We’ve recently invested in 28 hectares of land on a new farm, which is undergoing extensive development. This will keep us busy. Mentoring the youngsters around me in my team is important – they’ll be the ones to take over Pico-Gro one day. I can’t think of a better way to leave a legacy than by building people. But I do hope to be around for a good number of years!

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