Unearthing a niche market

DURBAN – A KwaZulu-Natal South Coast entrepreneur has grown a successful small business trading in air plants and other rare plants which she sells across the country.

Ruth Mathias, of Munster, who has a degree in history from the University of Edinburgh, did courses in horticulture through Unisa before launching her family-run business, Rare and Air, three years ago.

Mathias’s small home nursery is focused on importing and growing Tillandsia or air plants and other unusual and rare plants, such as ant plants, shingle plants and cacti. She is also constantly working on increasing her range of home-propagated Tillandsia, growing plants from seed and hybrids so that the business eventually won’t need imports. Tillandsia are indigenous to Central and South America and the south-eastern US, growing in rainforests, inland, in coastal deserts and swamps and up to 2 750m above sea level.

Mathias sells her plants to nurseries, to a florist in Durban, through her online shop, and she also creates plant features for cakes, wedding tables and for indoor and outdoor decor.

She has had to overcome several challenges to operate in this niche business space, although she says other small businesses have recently emerged in the field.

Mathias said the challenges of operating her business included having to “educate yourself about the rules of tax, the import rules and then educating people about the plants and encouraging them to give it a try”.

“I have also had to become knowledgeable enough to sell the plants to people who are already knowledgeable about plants,” she said.

109726459 - Unearthing a niche market
Ruth Mathias, founder of Rare and Air Plants in Munster, is focusing on a niche market packing and posting plants to customers around the country who buy them through her online shop. Supplied

But the niche opportunity is what drew Mathias to the field.

“We have always loved growing plants. We were growing them as a hobby and were looking for things I could do while being flexible to be around the children,” she said.

“There was no one focusing on Tillandsia on their own; most people grow orchids. I love that it is about growing and the plants don’t grow in soil so you can be creative with them and use them as gifts and if you have a small space, like a little windowsill or balcony in a flat, you can have a bit of nature in the city,” she said.

“I felt there was a broader market than standard potted plants because people can learn about them and use them as interior decor and then there are also people who collect them and are looking for new hybrids.”

The plants are the ideal product for her online store because they are easy to pack and send to customers anywhere in the country.

“The business is growing slowly – it takes time to grow them and to build up stock. We still import some plants but the plan is to become self-sustainable,” Mathias said.


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