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Growing food in concrete – urban farming pioneers in Stockholm

Does this sound like it’s from a sci-fi movie? An empty, underground car park with huge metal cylinder tanks spread throughout. Inside these tanks you can find… lettuce, pak choy, kale, coriander, and even strawberries – in the middle of winter! 

All of these nutritious plants grown vertically in layers, fed with just the right amount of nutrients and water they need. This is hydroponics. Controlled with artificial intelligence which monitors the plants and ensuring optimum air flow, temperature and lighting conditions, maybe even better than outside!

At SIANI, we like to get to know food and farming start-ups. The new technologies and concepts used by young entrepreneurs are fascinating.

Urban Oasis, is one such start-up on the Stockholm scene, and has created something special. They have used modern hydroponics, a technology that has been around for over 2000 years, but the team behind it is combining this technology with the modern concept of indoor farming and ultimately bringing people closer to where food is produced.

We met with Albert Payaro, the co-founder and CEO of Urban Oasis and talked about their pilot project, the technology of hydroponics and the potential for indoor farming to grow commercially.  

Giving local healthy food to people of the city

Albert explained that “the end goal is to bring local, healthy and sustainable food to people here in Stockholm and then in the future to other cities.” When Albert moved to Scandinavia from his home country Spain, he was overwhelmed by how expensive food could be and many times he found the quality of the food poor. “Food is everything. We tend to forget how important food is! It really defines us and you start feeling healthier when you start eating good food”.

Albert is also certain that the nexus of food, water and energy will be of critical importance in the future and that is why he began to think of the idea of a start-up company that can contribute to sustainability within this area. “We need to start thinking outside the box when it comes to growing food. We are surrounded by so much technology, but agriculture hasn’t changed that much”, he said. “We have only exchanged cows with trucks” to power farm machinery, there is great potential for ‘disruption’ in the food sector.

Hydroponics – how does it work?

Urban Oasis will start with a small prototype farm to show that the technology of hydroponics can work. They have negotiated access to a big underground parking lot just outside the city centre, in an area called Liljeholmen.

Between the layers of plants, they will have LED lights to give the energy to the plants that they need to thrive. There is no waste of water or fertilisers, since the plants are given the exact quantity of nutrients they need for optimum growth.

The company believes this combined concept of hydroponics and indoor farming is something that can be applied to other cities in the world and potentially contribute to increased food security. It works like a closed box which you can place anywhere. Hydroponics is said to reduce many costs, both financially and environmentally. Soil erosion and runoff are two tangible problems that would disappear in hydroponic systems. Operational costs, such as for energy and fertilisers would drop, and the land area required would be only a fraction of what is needed in conventional farming. And it is stated that hydroponics can lead to much higher yields.

It can have great potential in areas where one or several resources for producing food is lacking (e.g. where there is little light, such as in Nordic countries, but also where there is little water or erratic supply of water, such as in many places in sub-Saharan Africa or the Arabian Peninsula) or where local food is becoming more desirable that buying imported food.

But highly advanced urban agriculture systems such as the much-debated vertical farming or hydroponics systems do require relatively high running costs and high-quality inputs to succeed on a large scale. We still need to generate much more knowledge around this type of systems, especially since it is not necessarily a sustainable option for urban areas in poorer countries.

Urban Oasis-prototype of mobile phone application Courtesy of Urban Oasis. All rights reserved.   

Membership community

The company has received initial financial support from two private investors from the real estate industry, as well as from the KTH Innovation pre-incubator. To make Urban Oasis a viable company and to stimulate collaboration, they plan to go beyond their own organisation. People that share the same vision around food and how to make food sustainable and healthy will be able to buy memberships. Initially the company will focus on the locality of the prototype farm.

Today, “the business model of Urban Oasis is to deliver hyperlocal greens and vegetables to local customers through partnerships with restaurants, catering companies and retail stores”, Albert explains. Urban Oasis already works with real estate developers to ensure that they will have access to central locations for building underground farms and potentially even rooftop greenhouses across the city. And as a consumer you will be able to take part by joining a crowdfunding campaign, where invited small and big investors can buy shares in the company and ‘pre-buy’ their products at a discounted price.

Additionally, Urban Oasis wants to create a space where you can share and learn about food production, invite chefs to cook meals based on supplies from the urbans farm. “We don’t want people to just buy a salad, we want them to buy into a set of values and ideas about the future of both food and urban life”, he says.

The idea is also to make it affordable for many. Once the company can scale the production they plan to reduce the prices. Urban Oasis will not be working with a range of middle-men which likely will result in better prices for the consumers.

 Liljeholmen in Stockholm and its surroundings. Courtesy of Urban Oasis. All right reserved. 

Working with farmers

Urban Oasis will be able to deliver to a large residential area, but they wouldn’t be able to grow everything a household need down in the car park. The crowdfunding campaign will help Urban Oasis build a network of farmers in the region. These partnerships will be key to develop the “Urban Oasis Market”. Farmers will gain a direct channel to consumers through Urban Oasis’s own distribution channels with better conditions and margins as products are directly delivered to their clients at home. “This is a really important piece in the puzzle since it allows us to combine indoor farmable greens and vegetables with other products cultivated in the surroundings of Stockholm.”

Urban communities have only just begun to tap into the potential of hydroponics as an urban farming system. However, with the increasing interest in vegetables and greens in Sweden, Albert and his team are fairly certain that their business model will work. “We have an experienced team as well as advisors, customers and consultants working with us that allows us to be confident on what we are delivering.”

However futuristic it might seem; these kinds of start-ups will grow in abundance and may provide the key to improving food security in our cities in the long-term.

Interested to know more or want to be part of Urban Oasis? Visit their website!

Like what you’re reading? Check out Albert’s guest blog “The future food system is open-source, high-tech and operates through networks”.