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By 2050, more than 6 out of every 10 people on the planet will be living in cities.
In 1950, the population living in UK cities was 79% – already a large figure – but one that is set to rise to 92.2% by 2030. By reducing the distance from farm to fridge we can reduce the amount of greenhouse gases associated with the processes of refrigerating, storing and transporting food. With a growing population, innovation in agriculture is needed if we are to develop a socially and environmentally sustainable means of feeding people in cities.
GrowUp Urban Farms is an urban farming start-up based in the heart of London. The company, co-founded by Kate Hofman and Tom Webster is committed to feeding people in cities in a way that is positive for communities and the environment. They hope to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture and employ local people so cities can be more self-sustaining – something that will become increasingly important as our climate changes and our cities expand.
In late February 2013, the company ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise £15,000 in order to build The GrowUp Box. The main purpose of the GrowUp Box was to be a demonstration farm to educate people about urban aquaponics and act as a prototype for future farms and systems. With the help of 300 backers they succeeded in raising the necessary funds. The GrowUp Box was custom-built from an upcycled-shipping container with a greenhouse on top. It is located in Stratford, East London, and is open to the public in Spring and Summer as part of the RoofEast project. The team hosts regular workshops and lectures at the Box, to share their knowledge and experience of being urban farmers, and to engage the local community in the issues around the importance of sustainable farming.
The company’s main project however is Unit 84 – the UK’s first aquaponic, vertical urban farm. Based inside an industrial warehouse in Beckton, the farm uses aquaculture (farming fish) and hydroponics (growing plants in a nutrient solution without soil) in a recirculating system. 6,000 square feet of growing space will produce more than 20,000 kg of sustainable salads and herbs (enough for 200,000 salad bags) and 4,000 kg of fish each year.
Unit 84 is a working commercial farm and not open to the public. But there are plans to build a visitor centre in the near future to help people understand more about sustainable food production in cities.
Crowdfooding had the chance to speak to Kate, who has always wanted to run a business that improved the world. She fell in love with the idea of aquaponics as a sustainable way of commercially growing food for London, the city she grew up in and has lived in all her life. She left her job as a management consultant at the beginning of 2013 to start GrowUp.
How did you and Tom meet and what led you create GrowUp Urban Farms?
We were introduced by a mutual friend who knew that we were both passionate about sustainable food and aquaponics. We wanted to show that you could commercially grow food for people in cities in a way that had a positive social and environmental impact.
When did you fall in love with aquaponics? Was there a certain incident that sparked this passion/curiosity?
I came across aquaponics when I was doing my MSc at Imperial College in Environmental Technology and Business and it was a definite light bulb moment! I loved the way that the system took the waste from one place and used it as an input for another – and that there was an exciting opportunity to commercialise the technology in an urban context.
How has the transition been from management consulting to urban farming? Can you talk a little bit about your career journey to date?
Well I guess I deal with a lot more fish shit now than in my old job, but probably quite a lot less bullshit. I really enjoyed my previous job, but ultimately I felt that all I was really accomplishing was helping big companies make more money. I wasn’t really having a positive impact on the world and it wasn’t very soul fulfilling! Setting up my own business with my co-founder Tom has been a very steep learning curve – and everyday I learn something new – I feel very privileged to be doing something I feel so passionate about.
How did you find the restaurants and retailers you are currently working with? Or did they find you?
A bit of both. We spread the word about our fantastic produce through social media and through our networks – and our customers are often our biggest cheerleaders. We also get lots of enquiries from chefs and retailers who are looking to source high quality, sustainably and locally grown produce.
Is there a special chef or restaurant you would like to work with in the future? Do you have any dream collaborations/projects in mind?
Angela Hartnett is bit of a hero of mine – so working with Murano would be amazing. I’m also a huge fan of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, especially with all the work he’s done on sustainable fish, and I’d love to see what delicious recipes he could come up with using our sustainably farmed Tilapia.
How long did it take to find the warehouse in Beckton to construct Unit 84? How long did the refurbishment take to make it into a working farm?
We moved into Unit 84 in May 2015, and spent 4 months fitting out an empty shell to make the UK’s first aquaponics vertical farm.
What has been the most challenging endeavour you have faced on the GrowUp Urban Farm journey?
I read a nice quote recently that said it isn’t the tornados that wipe our your business, its the termites. Like any start-up we’ve had plenty of termites to deal with in the past couple of years – its all about learning from your mistakes and getting all the right processes in place to run a successful business.
What has been the most exciting or rewarding moment?
It gives me a buzz everyday to walk onto the farm that we’ve built and see my farm team working hard and loving (almost) every minute of it. The more farms we build, the more jobs we can create and the more impact we can have, that’s why we set the business up in the first place, and that’s what is most exciting to me.
What are your thoughts on the future of AgTech?
We need to change the way we grow food to feed a growing population more sustainably. Tech is only going to be part of the solution. We need strong and successful businesses that are committed to creating social and environmental benefit, at all stages of the supply chain from food to fork.
What does 2016 hold for GrowUp Urban Farms?
Lots more salads, herbs and fish for happy customers!
What would you like the last meal of your life to be?
Roast chicken cooked by my mum.
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