fig1

Kate Hofman and Tom Webster in the GrowUp box. © Pietro Chelli.

fig2

© Mandy Zammit.

fig3

© GrowUp Farms.

GrowUp: Who knew there was London Urban Farming?

Chloe Lianos

GrowUp Urban Farms is a London-based food production social enterprise that intends to revolutionise farming. Kate Hofman and Tom Webster founded GrowUp in 2013. Their model of commercial urban farming is proving to be a feasible means for sustainable year-round nutrition, and through utilising derelict unused urban spaces. Sustainable fresh fish, salads and herbs are produced locally by using a combination of aquaponics and vertical growing. Aquaponics is an almost closed-loop system that incorporates hydroponics (growing plants in water without soil) and aquaculture (fish farming). The nutrient-rich wastewater from the fish is circulated to the plants' roots where microbacteria handily converts said waste into digestible nutrients. The nutrients fertilise the plants and in return the plants filter the water, which is circulated back to the fish. This is a truly organic production system with its only input being energy for the water circulation, water heaters and the necessary fish food. The system is incredibly low energy and low water intensive, producing an environmentally conscious way to grow vegetables and to farm fish. GrowUp are currently planning an upscale in order to become a commercially viable urban farm. They recently developed a prototype, the GrowUp Box, to prove their system's efficacy. The GrowUp Box is a greenhouse built on an upcycled shipping container that provides a great venue for community engagement and nutritional education. You can visit GrowUp farms on one of their open days at Roof East, a collaborative Urban Park in Stratford. I sat down with Kate Hofman to discuss all things GrowUp and how they managed to get things off the ground.

What attracted you to the sustainable business world? Was there a definitive moment when you realised sustainable farming was your calling?

I've always been really interested in environmental issues and sustainability, particularly with respect to food, so what I'm doing now is marrying the two. I took part in a summer programme called Climate KIC where I met some Swiss guys who had an urban farming start up and that really sparked it for me. It was also the first time I found out about aquaponics. I grew up in London and don't have a faming background. I really loved the idea that it was closing the loop in food production and that it was also something sustainable in terms of resources.

How did your partnership with Tom begin? Were you both in Climate KIC?

We were introduced through a mutual friend who knew that we were both interested in aquaponics and urban farming. When we started talking about our interests, we decided to work together initially on a project, which was building the GrowUp Box. We quickly realised that we've got the same larger ambitions, so decided to go into business together. He's a biologist and I used to be a management consultant so it was a great opportunity.

With respect to starting your business, would you say alternative avenues of funding are essential for new start ups?

Most definitely, especially in this day and age, banks have no incentive to support early stage start ups - particularly not people like us who have a capital intensive business. Luckily in London there is a fantastic selection of accelerators and incubators. Even if you think you don't need any help, you probably do. If you think you need help but aren't sure what kind of help you need, which is quite common, alternative programmes can provide a support network. For us, these resources have been completely invaluable. With Barclays we were one of 6 start ups who won a competition for social enterprises offering a package of support. They gave us some training and paid for an office space for a year. Additionally, they gave us a mentor who in the end decided to leave their job at Barclays and come and work with us instead!

These avenues tie in with your massively successful Kickstarter campaign for the GrowUp Box.

Yes. I think people really respond to the idea of urban farming. With the Kickstarter campaign we were surprised at how many people supported us who weren't in London. They weren't going to directly benefit but they liked the idea and they wanted to see the movement develop, which was surprising.

With respect to your demonstration farm, the GrowUp Box, is there only one?

Yes, at the moment. However, we are looking at how we can make the box into an asset that we help schools and universities. The boxes are for education, research and exploration, not just for production. We want restaurants to buy produce from us at the end of the day! This is all while we work on scaling the business and building commercial scale urban farms.

From an environmental perspective, the GrowUp Box isn't exactly 'closed-loop'. Have you contemplated utilising renewable energy sources when upscaling to the commercial farm?

Yes, but the type depends on the design of the urban farm and the space used. Actually, the most positive environmental impact we could have is to do with heat recapture. I think one of the exciting opportunities as we upscale and as urban farming develops is the possibility to integrate not just renewables but also heat re-capture from other systems and really bring down the overall impact.

Environmental concern is married with community engagement and education within the GrowUp ethos. Was community engagement and education about food and sustainability essential from the start?

For me, sustainability in business means having a triple bottom line. It's about caring about your environmental, social and financial success. For us, the environmental part is quite self evident - it's a more sustainable way of growing food - as is the financial side of it as we need to make money by selling the food. The social impact side of it is tackled through the box - that's our community engagement. At a commercial scale, what we're really interested in is job creation and how urban farming can act as a potential point for training and upscaling young people in urban areas.

On another tack concerning engagement within the community, you've been elected as a London Leader - what does that entail?

The London Leaders programme was set up by the London Sustainable Commission to showcase the best sustainability businesses and projects working in London. It was very nice to be chosen. The really great thing about it is that, as well as being part of that community and network we also get more access to what's going on with the Greater London Authority policy making. This is really interesting as it helps us understand more about what our challenges are with making our business work at a policy level.

Do you view this as an opportunity to affect policy?

Well, at least try. What have discovered is that people aren't against what we're doing; it is just tends to bear on their own lack of knowledge. So this is an opportunity for awareness building - getting people and get policy makers clued up about what we're doing.

Have you experienced much gender prejudice while working in this industry?

This is a question I get asked frequently. My feeling on it is that I was fortunate enough to have an upbringing where I was encouraged to think of myself as capable in any field. It would never have occurred to me not speak or do things in a certain way because I am a woman. However, I'm only half of the business and the other half of the business isn't a woman. We've been asked to speak at events before and when I ask, "do you want both of us?" I'm often told "No, we just want you / We need to even out the numbers / We need more woman presenters". I tend to think about gender in the same way as I think about other differences - the more diverse the team, the better. One of the reasons why GrowUp has been so successful is that we have such a diverse team of people.

Finally, is urban farming realistically economically feasible when compared with mass farming or does it require a responsible consumer?

Firstly, in order to make urban farming economically viable you've got to grow on a commercial scale to a point which is comparable to low-end organic produce. We are deliberately not putting a massive premium on the product so that it's not only for responsible consumers. I suppose in a way we're deliberately avoiding that market. Secondly, food is going to continue to get more and more expensive if it's grown traditionally as the input costs and the volatility of the growing systems are going to increase. However our way of growing won't, therefore it'll become increasingly comparable as far as with traditional farming.

http://growup.org.uk/