Meet RoomHarvest and their aeroponic plant growing system
The lack of representation of women in rural areas not only affects the development of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, but prevents many women from fully developing their potential. In order to tackle this problem and improve the position of women in the agrifood industry, the Empowering Women in Agrifood programme was launched.
The EWA program in Croatia is organized by Lean Startup Croatia in cooperation with EIT Food. It is a mentoring programme intended for female entrepreneurs in the early stages of their careers for the purpose of developing a sustainable business. The program was launched with the aim of achieving gender equality and encouraging women to occupy leading positions in the agricultural and food industry. 10 entrepreneurs are participating in the 6-month entrepreneurial incubation programme in Croatia, and one of them is Monika Gvozdić, who is behind the startup RoomHarvest. This is her story.
The mission of RoomHarvest
RoomHarvest startup is developing an aeroponic system for growing certain vegetable crops under controlled conditions. The goal of this project is to show that certain crops can be grown faster, more efficiently and indefinitely under controlled conditions. Compared to traditional cultivation, aeroponic cultivation requires up to 95% less irrigation water and 85% less fertilizer, and productivity increases by 300% (AlShrouf, 2017). Also, one of the main advantages is growing indoors, which completely excludes the use of pesticides, fungicides and other harmful substances that have a bad effect on our health and pollute the environment. The problem is that these substances are used in traditional agriculture in order for cultivation to survive and be suitable for consumption and sale. Indoor space also offers an advantage from external factors such as the weather that all traditional growers face in agriculture.
The RoomHarvest team currently has two members, Monika Gvozdić and Ivan Jajić. Monika is an economics student at the Faculty of Economics in Zagreb. Although her future profession is not related to agronomy, she has been engaged in urban gardening for the past 5 years since she moved to Zagreb. Before moving, all the fruits and vegetables she consumed came to the table from her grandmother's garden and she was sure that they were completely organically grown. Ivan is a graduate in economics who has experience in business development, which is his role in the team.
The aim of RoomHarvest is to help the urban community that is dependent on the currently unstable market prices of food, land and fuel. In addition, we all know that a large amount of vegetables in grocery stores are treated with pesticides and other harmful substances for our health.
Idea behind RoomHarvest project
The RoomHarvest story begins when they found out about the Empowering Women in Agrifood (EWA) programme - the idea of growing vegetables hydroponically in their own home was the initial project idea of this team, since they realized how the residents in urban areas depend on the offers and the market situation.
In the EWA program, they saw their opportunity to offer the community something innovative and useful, and to develop themselves in the mentioned area. They started researching hydroponic cultivation and realized that there is also an aeroponic system that is not so widely represented on the market. Aeroponic cultivation takes place in controlled conditions, where soil is not used as a medium as in classical cultivation, while the plant's roots are fed by means of a water mist that contains all the nutrients it needs and is sprayed on the roots.
Development of a business idea through the EWA project
After the initial research, they decided to sign up for the EWA programme, which is being held in Croatia for the first time in history in cooperation with Lean Startup Croatia and the European Institute for Innovation and Technology (EIT) Food.Monika and Ivan were a bit skeptical since their idea was not based on traditional agriculture, but despite this, their efforts were recognized and they became part of the pre-incubation phase of the EWA project.
After entering the programme, they received a mentor, Sandra Vlašić, and started working on the idea. In consultation with their mentor RoomHarvestfirst researched the market. The questionnaire that was carried out for the purpose of market research further encouraged them to develop the sales aspect. The questionnaire included questions about the wishes and preferences of end customers. When asked if they would rather have an aeroponic system in their home or buy certain vegetable crops at a physical location, as many as 80% of respondents answered that they are more inclined to shop at one location.
In addition to private users, RoomHarvest also develops a B2B business model for certain cultures. In the past couple of months during EWA programme, the RoomHarvest team has been learning about the various possibilities of developing an aeroponic system, the necessary elements and components that are important in the development of the plant. After examining the market, they started to create a prototype, which represented a big challenge, considering their economic profession. The first step was the purchase of an aeroponic system, LED lighting, organic fertilizer, several types of substrate and organic seeds for cultivation.
The first crop was lettuce, followed by Swiss chard, spinach and basil, which they grew using natural, untreated seeds. They currently have a developed early plant stage between 5-10cm tall. The height of the stem itself depends on the date of planting and on the vegetable culture itself. It is important for them to understand the chemical composition at this early stage in order to know how to proceed with the further development of the project. After that, one planted culture will be taken for basic microbiological analysis. Furthermore, it is important to mention that RoomHarvest uses organic fertilizers in the creation of the water mixture because they believe that by adding them, they further promote their growth and development.
The RoomHarvest team noted that vertical aeroponic systems are more suitable than horizontal aeroponic systems (which they currently use) in terms of less space, the amount of water needed to make the system work properly, and a higher potential yield (more room for plants to grow). The problem is, however, that the purchase price of vertical systems varies, as does the offer itself, and can be higher than the price of horizontal systems. An excellent solution to this problem is 3D modeling of vertical systems and subsequent printing on a 3D printer using filaments approved by the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA). By doing so, they potentially minimized the construction costs of each vertical system by 85%. RoomHarvest sees a possible solution in powering the system with solar panels, which would minimize costs in the long term.
The RoomHarvest team points out that they are extremely happy that they managed to grow their first plants and connect with experts from the Agrifood and Agritech fields in these four months. Through the workshops, they had the opportunity to learn about various business segments, as well as ways of financing startups, which is one of the key steps for the further development of their project. They are especially pleased with the fact that they can offer the community a product that is in demand.
AlShrouf, A. (2017). Hydroponics, Aeroponic and Aquaponic as Compared with Conventional Farming. American Academic Scientific Research Journal for Engineering, Technology, and Sciences, 27(1), 247–255. Retrieved from here.