Israeli ‘mini-farm’ could feed third world hungry

Livingbox, a system for landless urban dwellers to grow their own food, is the $20,000 winner in the Pears Challenge competition

Nitzan Solan (L) and  Mendi Pollak (R) flank Dr. Aliza Belman Inbal, who presents them with the $20,000 Pears Challenge award for Livingbox (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Nitzan Solan (L) and Mendi Pollak (R) flank Dr. Aliza Belman Inbal, who presents them with the $20,000 Pears Challenge award for Livingbox (Photo credit: Courtesy)

An Israeli-developed “mini-farm” that can grow vegetables anywhere with a self-sustaining “closed loop” of energy and nutrition and help feed a billion needy people has won a prize as the most promising project to help developing countries improve their economies.

Project co-creator Nitzan Solan says the Livingbox “is the perfect system, because it lets anyone anywhere grow vegetables without the need for fertile soil, or running water and electricity, and with minimal farming skills. It could help feed people in the developing world, providing them with access to fresh, nutritious food, while helping them maintain a clean environment.”

Once it’s set up, the system is self-sustaining. Still to be determined, is the initial price, though the team pledges to keep it reasonable.

For developing Livingbox, Solan and her partners Moti Cohen and Mendi Pollak won the $20,000 top prize in the Pears Challenge, a competition held by the international Pears Foundation and Tel Aviv University aimed at encouraging Israeli start-ups to connect with the needs of Africans, developing solutions in areas like agriculture, health, water, ICT, education, and renewable energy.

Livingbox is based on hydroponics — the science of growing vegetables in water. Vegetables can take root in water when the right nutrients are added. Livingbox’s system delivers those nutrients into a five square meter hydroponic growing bed, using organic waste from fish, leftover food, or even animal feces.

The technology used by Livingbox isn’t new, said Solan. What’s new is its deployment as a method of supplying food for families in developing countries, bringing together the diverse technologies and growing methods to develop a system that requires nothing more than household waste.

The system is called “Livingbox” because it comes to users as a modular set of boxes that, when unpacked, are attached in an array. Users fill up the growing bed with fresh water and place their seeds or seedlings inside. Then they attach one (or all) of the three growing mechanisms the system uses, said Solan.

“We can grow vegetables using three types of organic waste — from fish waste, with leftover organic waste like rotten vegetables or peels, and even using (animal) waste.” All three systems generate the nitrogen plants need to thrive, said Solan.

The “fish method,” in which water where fish swim is filtered and recycled, is well known among fish farmers. The recycling process removes the nitrogen from the water, transferring it the growing bed. The fish get back clean, fresh water, while the plants get the nutrition they need. The fish are fed from leftover food added to their box.

Livingbox also has a module that integrates with existing systems that convert leftovers and inedible food into bio-gas. When released into the growing bed, it supplies the nutrition that plants need. The same technique is applied to organic waste from animals and humans. “We apply well-known scientific principles to convert these materials into gas and ‘feed’ it to the plants, which thrive on the nutrients supplied,” he explained. “Once the vegetables are grown, users can pick them and start the cycle again, just adding water, trash, and maybe some more fish, if they’ve decided to eat the ones that are getting too big for their box.”

The system is suitable not just for householders, but for farmers, too. “Livingboxes can be attached to each other in large arrays, with the growing beds as large as needed,” said Solan. “The five square meter size is perfect for a family of four or five, but farmers who are more ambitious can make their installations as large as they want.”

According to UN figures, nearly a billion people in the developing world in 2012 suffered from malnutrition or could not afford to pay for healthy food — a number liable to rise dramatically as the world’s population grows, especially in the developing world.

“We foresee this solution as one that can help alleviate that need,” Solan said. “We believe much of the financing and incentive to distribute and install our food production units will come from local and international institutions in the developing world, including municipalities and NGOs, as well as from the United Nations or EU, all of which are working to help enhance food production.”

Livingbox has several pilots with NGOs set for later this year, Solan said, and commercialization could come soon after. The developers haven’t decided on a price yet, but they promise that it will be in reach of their target customer base — urban dwellers in large cities in developing countries who aren’t getting the nutrition they need because they can’t afford to buy high quality food.

That is what impressed the Pears Challenge people. Dr. Aliza Belman Inbal, director of the Pears Program for Innovation and International Development at Tel Aviv University, said that the purpose of the Challenge was to help entrepreneurs learn how to do business with the developing world — in Africa, Latin America, and Asia — by targeting needs and supplying solutions using sophisticated made-in-Israel technology.

“Six of the 10 fastest-growing markets in the last decade were in Africa, and there is a great need there for the kind of things Israeli entrepreneurs do best, like mobile apps, environmental technology, agricultural technology, and more,” said Inbal. Products like Livingbox, she said, “will form the nucleus of the start-up nation, which will create innovations not only for the West, but for the developing world as well.”

The Pears Foundation, which sponsors the Challenge and the Tel Aviv University program, is a promoter of “the Jewish values of social justice, individual responsibility and the imperative to make a positive difference,” according to the organization, encouraging, among other things, the concept of “Israel as a global citizen.”

Also collaborating on the Challenge is the Global Social Benefit Institute of UC Santa Clara, social enterprise group Minga, and IsraDev, which brings entrepreneurs together to harness technology for the developing world. “We believe this project can bring some important changes to Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and to the Israeli start-up world,” said Inbal. “The Challenge will hopefully be the beginning of a growing relationship between Israeli start-ups and the developing world.”

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