What if the concepts of Farmville could help spur innovation with urban agriculture?
It’s been more than a decade since Zynga’s hit social network game prompted millions to plow, plant and produce their own digital farms. However, a group of entrepreneurs thinks some of the same concept might help solve issues of food insecurity: Instead of pixelated crops, they’re focused on real-life hydroponics.
As a part of the Forbes Under 30 Agtech+ Hackathon this past weekend, a group of Forbes Under 30 alumni from around the world split into teams to develop new ways to improve the future of food and agriculture in Indiana. One team came up with a concept that would both raise awareness about the opportunities and challenges of urban agriculture while also creating a way for people to make money and feed their neighbors.
The concept, Jungl, would use social media and gamification to get young people involved in hydroponics. For anyone new to urban gardening, Jungl’s recommendation engine would suggest seeds for them based on their region, space and level of experience. They could also then sign up to be matched with more experienced growers and join leagues of growers that would help incentivize participation. Growers would then upload their garden’s progress and ultimately list and sell real produce on Jungl’s marketplace. Meanwhile, veteran gardeners could sign up to not just grow and also produce but also train others along the way. Jungl would also sell equipment at a variety of price points and also take 1.5% commission.
“The bigger picture of the problem is getting to see there is a lot of food shortage especially because of Covid-19,” says Bright Jaja, the founder and CEO of Nigeria-based iCreate Africa. “A lot of people don’t even understand where their food comes from. You know? There’s this whole journey, or this whole ecosystem that produces our food. But we don’t even know where it comes from. And at this time, we need lots of people to not just be consumers but also part of the process.”
While hydroponics and urban gardening might be a foreign field to many, it’s well tilled territory for Ullas Samrat, the cofounder of Triton Foodworks, a hydroponic agriculture startup based in Mumbai. Samrat—one of four hackathon participants who worked on Jungl—was initially interested in urban rooftop farming before pivoting to full-scale commercial farms in major Indian cities. (Foodworks has now produced more than 700 tons of fruits and vegetables every year.)
Pandemic-era farming innovation could also learn some lessons from World War II. Back in the 1940s, the National War Garden Commission called on people to plant “victory gardens,” which helped prevent starvation by growing whatever they could wherever they could ranging from rooftops and backyards to fire escapes. Back then, then pamphlets included taglines like “grow vitamins at your kitchen door” and “our food is fighting.” (The dawn of victory gardens even date even further back to World War I and even the 1918 influenza outbreak.) According to the University of California, around 20 million Victory Gardens were planted, producing around 40% of all vegetables consumed in the U.S.
According to Samrat, hydroponics allow people to grow anywhere between 30 and 300 times more food in the same area of land compared to conventional farming methods. That gives him reason to think that hydroponic gardens in urban areas alone could decrease food insecurity by 40%.
“Hydroponics is in and of itself just a concept,” he says. “And we look at it as a concept also. We don’t look at it as a technology or as a type of farming, we look at it as a concept, which essentially says that soil—which is a normal person thinks as the most critical part of farming—literally just does two positive things for farming: It gives your plants support and is a mechanism for feeding your plants food.”
Michael Kanaan, the author of the book “T-Minus AI: Humanity’s Countdown to Artificial Intelligence and the New Pursuit of Global Power,” says the timing is right for something like Jungl. That’s because barriers for education are lower for a variety of topics as people look to both expose themselves to new ideas, new hobbies, and new revenue during the pandemic. However, he says it’s also a time to rethink public-private partnerships during a time of disruption. It could also be something that could be replicable through open-source projects.
“We did this after the Great Depression once,” he says. “It wasn’t focused on food, it was railways, airports, etc. in rebuilding buildings. But why don’t we look at what is a critical food shortage and re-imagine what public works projects look like right now?”
The team also looked at Jungl from an investor’s point of view, according to Katherine Relle, a portfolio manager with J.P. Morgan Private Equity Group. She says that’s especially important as more companies look to have a societal impact beyond profit through incorporating environmental, social and corporate governance.
“Finding a good balance between developing something that’s revenue-generating, but also a public good and how we would think through operationalizing that and working with sponsors,” she says. “So it was really helpful meeting with the team of experts, because they taught us a lot about how these land grant colleges could help and great to partner with, but it wouldn’t necessarily have to be a fully pro bono type solution.”
Team Members: Bright Jaja, Founder, iCreate Africa; Ullas Samrat, Cofounder, Triton Foodworks; Katherine Relle, Portfolio Manager, J.P. Morgan Private Equity Group; Michael Kanaan, Author, T-Minus AI.