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ASU student shares gardening, financial expertise at urban farms

Immigrant from Zimbabwe helps gardeners grow into entrepreneurs

May 18, 2021

A PhD student at Arizona State University who studies how nonprofits can collaborate to improve people’s health is literally taking his expertise to the field.

Rodney Machokoto, a doctoral student in the School of Community Resources and Development, is working in two community gardens to help people learn how to grow and distribute nutritious food.

“My PhD focuses on how nonprofits can work together to transform health, and part of what I’m studying is trying to do something practical,” he said.

Machokoto came to the PhD program at ASU after working as a corporate accountant in Atlanta for several years. He and his family lived in central Phoenix, where they started a large garden in their yard.

“As time went on, I started to see the issues of food deserts in this city, and I wanted to do something, and the food element was easy, considering my background,” he said.

Machokoto is from Zimbabwe, where he learned how to grow vegetables from his parents.

“Farming and gardening played a significant role in supplementing the little wealth we had,” said Machokoto, who is a research associate with the Partnership for Community Development, an initiative in the School of Community Resources and Development.

“In our city, we would find an open area, which you can do, and you start to garden and use that food to supplement you throughout the year. We were gardening on an acre by hand.”

After coming to ASU, Machokoto began working in two gardening spaces — Agave Farms in central Phoenix, a commercial nursery that offers gardening plots to local nonprofits, and Spaces of Opportunity, a 19-acre urban farm in South Phoenix funded by a collaboration of nonprofits that operates a farmers market and teaches gardening to the students in the elementary school next door.

The nonprofits in those two spaces are trying to help local people — including low-income families, people with intellectual disabilities, families affected by incarceration and refugees — connect with gardening as a way to develop healthy eating habits. One group helps Native American gardeners grow heritage varieties of traditional crops, such as blue corn, melons and squash. The gardens are in areas of the Valley that are considered "food deserts," with fewer grocery stores and access to nutritious foods.

family planting in community garden

Rodney Machokoto plants tomato seedlings with his wife, Daphine Machokoto, and his son, Michael Machokoto, at the family’s plot at the Spaces of Opportunity community garden in South Phoenix. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News

Some of the harvest goes to the farmers market and some is donated to food pantries.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is change the supply chain of food systems. Most of the people engaged in projects like this are very interested in that – how do we bring in more environmentally friendly methods?” Machokoto said.

“But food is a very complex system, and a lot of times people don’t have the experience to interact with the major players.”

Machokoto said that his experience in corporate accounting helped him to understand the big picture, including supply chains, customers, regulations and competitors.

“So even to be engaged in something this local, you can see how it fits into the bigger picture,” he said.

A few months ago, Spaces of Opportunity received a $100,000 grant from Sprouts, which was announced on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” That was in addition to $315,000 the grocery chain had already invested in the farm.

“One of the things I’ve been trying to push is that we are doing the kind of stuff that places like Sprouts love. But we’re not growing the varieties that people want,” he said.

“Nobody here grows broccoli. I joke that we are the eggplant capital of Arizona. Everybody here loves eggplant. But the majority of the people in the city have no idea what to do with eggplant.

“If we’re here to feed the community, then we need to grow what they know.”

Machokoto’s knowledge of gardening helps his fellow gardeners. But it’s his expertise in accounting that’s helping some of them move from hobbyists to entrepreneurs.

“My role is as a supporter. Because of my farming background and accounting background, I’m one of the go-to consultants for agricultural practices and business practices,” he said.

Some items sell for a good price per item at farmers markets, he said.

“But at the end of the day, how many people buy that one item? If you grow a different item, it might have a smaller price tag but maybe 200 people will buy it.

“I used to teach financial management for nonprofits at ASU, and I’m learning how to communicate that financial knowledge to individuals in a way they’ll understand.”

ASU Research Associate Rodney Machokoto opens up a container holding tools for the gardeners at the Spaces of Opportunity community garden in South Phoenix. The 19-acre urban farm is a collaboration of five groups: the Desert Botanical Garden, Tiger Mountain Foundation, the Roosevelt School District, Unlimited Potential and the Orchard Community Learning Center. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News

Every Sunday morning, Machokoto is at the garden early, watering, weeding and harvesting his own plot before helping his neighbors with advice on everything from soil to finance. He grows collard greens, kale, tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, eggplant, squash, carrots, radishes, peas, lettuce and melons.

“One farmer is trying to start a nonprofit and I’m advising him how to start and put the paperwork together. But people also come to me to help them set up an irrigation system and figure out what to plant and when,” he said.

One of the gardeners is a refugee from Africa and wanted to let her plots go empty over the winter, which is actually prime growing season in Arizona.

“I told her, ‘Grow broccoli like you grow eggplant.'"

Another woman grows beautiful flowers and wants to get into the wedding business.

“I had to nudge her to say, ‘You’re not utilizing the whole plot. Make your space 100% capacity,’" Machokoto said.

“I said, ‘Come to me and we’ll do your paperwork.’ If we take care of the financials, I know she will be able to do her mission.

“Sometimes they need gentle encouragement when they’re nervous about taking that next step.”

Top image: Rodney Machokoto, a doctoral student in the School of Community Resources and Development at ASU, at Spaces of Opportunity urban farm in South Phoenix. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News