Agricool Is 'Growing Food In The Cities Where You Live'
Agricool is a Parisian startup on a mission to grow delicious strawberries in inner city areas, at scale and for profit, which can be transported ‘from field to fork’ in just 20 km. What’s more, it’s a sustainable business that be replicated worldwide.
Agricool grows fruit in shipping containers in urban areasAGRICOOL
Agricool grows its strawberries in shipping containers using vertical farming methods; this is where food is grown in vertical shelves or on walls, to maximise the surface area used for cultivation. Founders Guillaume Fourdinier and Gonzague Gru are the sons of farmers from the north of France. As CEO Fourdinier explains, he arrived in Paris at age 20 and it wasn’t long before he was seriously missing ‘quality fruit and vegetables’ from the countryside. Strawberries are notoriously challenging to grow well, he says; they are fragile with a growing cycle and post-harvesting process which can be difficult to manage. Also, with increased urbanisation, more and more food is transported into city areas pumped with pollutants to ensure they survive the journey which usually means they are less tasty. He is convinced that ‘strawberries have got lost in the last 30 years’.
And so the two partners began to see if it was possible to find a way to harvest the highest quality strawberries under urban conditions. Fourdinier is keen to point out that this business didn’t start as a shipping container business — the idea to use containers was much more practical and organic. They had previously used containers on their families’ farms and once they had used up all the room in their apartment, it was ‘the easiest room to find’ and highly functional because the size is standardised, you can transport it easily, and you can scale up profitably.
Growing strawberries in containers is an incredibly technical process with an extraordinary amount of factors to control. The fruit has a three-month cycle; two months from the day of planting to the first harvest, and then there is one month where the fruit can be harvested every day. Climate-wise, the temperature, air humidity and carbon dioxide must all be varied in quantity over the course of the three-month cycle. Agricool uses a closed-loop water system, meaning that they fill a tank for three months and use the same water over that period, which uses 99% less water. When strawberries are grown in a field, they are planted in soil where the roots soak up moisture. Agricool uses aeroponics instead of a soil-based system, where the plants’ roots are directly exposed to the air, taking in moisture from mist sprays. Agricool doesn’t aim for having a completely bacteria-free environment — believing this to be impossible, it grows its own ‘friendly’ bacteria, putting ‘friendly fungi in the water and friendly insects into the containers’, to protect against the risk of damaging insects finding a way inside. In this sense, the containers grow their own antibodies. Finally, the lighting is key. Agricool uses LED lights, not just to regulate the intensity of light but also the spectrum of light that the strawberries receive. Fourdinier says that one of the biggest challenges for vertical farming is to get this intensity just right. And never mind the calculations for the number of bees in bee boxes required for pollination... The one drawback always levelled at vertical farming is the amount of energy it consumes but Agricool counter this argument by using renewable energy. They believe it is better to grow food locally in large cities with artificial lighting rather than transporting produce from far away, where it loses its taste and chalks up the food miles.
The business model is to sell directly to the customer, without a middleman and this strategy appears to be working; French customers have been abandoning poorer quality fruit and vegetables sold in some French supermarkets, and so chains have been very receptive to Agricool’s new agricultural model. The company produced its first box of strawberries in October 2015 and now have over 60 staff.
Funding came in two funding rounds from European venture capitalists. Its CEO adds that it isn’t possible to be profitable if you are not vertically integrated; that is to say, you must own and produce the products you use in your supply chain. And this has been where the real challenge lies, as to develop the best possible LED light for its containers, in the most profitable way, Agricool has had to develop its own technology. They now design and manufacture their own LEDs, which are three times more efficient for their lighting needs at the energy spectrum they require than other LEDs they could find.
Urban vertical farming is incredibly on-trend. Just like like the mushroom farms in New York, people are turning to more sustainable farming in urban areas for the quality and ethos but also the urban aesthetic — under the luminous lights, this fruit looks more and more like art. The difference between Agricool and its competitors is that it believes it has the recipe to scale up. Fourdinier explains,
Indeed, Agricool already operates a container in Dubai from its French headquarters.
The downsides are really the same as the upsides in that the opportunities are immense but the technology makes each stage a huge challenge. It isn’t a straightforward business; a truth highlighted by the fact that 70% of its staff are in R&D.
And the statistics are impressive for this startup aiming to ‘feed the cities of tomorrow’. Its strawberries have 30% more vitamins than conventional strawberries and contain 20% more sugar. Its containers can yield 10 times as much as a greenhouse and 120 times as much as a field. And while Agricool is keen to point out that farming today is mostly woods and rice, which are difficult to grow vertically at the moment, it believes in 30 years time, about 30% of what we grow will be farmed in cities, for cities. Today Agricool sells about 200kg of strawberries each week but in one years' time, they expect this to be 2,000kg, ten times as much. As Agricool begins to branch out into tomatoes, which are similar in complexity to strawberries, its slogan ‘we grow food where you live’ has never been more true or more deliciously tempting.