“Beans from New Zealand, strawberries from Spain, Tomatoes from Morocco. Fruits and vegetables travel more than you. But unlike you, they don't enjoy it.” This simple and amusing observation is at the heart of the French startup Agricool’s mission: to bring affordable, healthy, and locally-grown produce to urban centers.
The young co-founders Guillaume Fourdinier and Gonzague Gru are the sons of French farmers. Like the birth of most startups, their idea sprang from frustration with the status quo. “When we moved to Paris for school, we couldn’t find food that tasted like the food from home,” says Guillaume. “Especially strawberries.”
Even the strawberries grown in the Brittany region of France, just three hours from Paris, didn’t taste right. “Everything grown in France goes through Rungis (the Paris wholesale market), so there is too much time spent in transportation, storage, and packaging…all of the compromises are made on taste.”
Using what they learned studying agriculture and business, they searched for a way to produce affordable, tasty, and healthy food right in the city. To maximize efficiency, profitability, and urban space constraints, they focused on plant density and absolute control of the environment. “If you want affordable strawberries in the city you have to grow dense—as many as possible in a small space,” says Guillaume.
They came up with the concept of the “Cooltainer,” which grows food inside recycled shipping containers. The strawberry plants are planted vertically and watered by a closed-circuit drip system, with LED lights mimicking the June sunshine. “We light the Cooltainer from 7 a.m–11 p.m., so they grow more quickly,” he explains. “That way, we harvest four times instead of once or twice, so altogether we should be able to produce seven tons of strawberries per year in just 30m² instead of 4000m² on a farm.” And they can achieve this using 90 percent less water.
In October, they parked their prototype Cooltainer at Bercy Park in Paris’s 12th arrondissement, receiving a lot of attention from the press and curious Parisians hoping to score fresh strawberries. But Guillaume is quick to note that they are still in the experimental phase. The Cooltainer is its own contained ecosystem, which presents particular challenges. There is a hive of bumble bees to pollinate the plants, but there are also pests like aphids that need to be controlled without using pesticides. “People say, ‘In agronomy when we do that normally we use this, but I don’t know if it will work in the Cooltainer,’ so we have to invent and test everything,” says Guillaume. “We are both sons of farmers, so we have a good sense of how to grow something, but we’re not experts on agronomy or engineering,” he explains. Fortunately, the press attention and support from the eco-minded Paris City Hall have helped Agricool raise enough funding to start hiring the experts they need.
“Once we have perfected the strawberry Cooltainer, we’re going to try tomatoes and then lettuce, which is really easy to grow.” When these prototypes are ready—mid-2016 is the target date—they hope to create a network of Cooltainers in and around the city, each independently run by a full-time urban farmer but organized by Agricool. “So maybe you could have 2000 of these around the Parisian suburbs, where the food is harvested and delivered locally on demand…like Uber for agriculture,” says Guillaume.
Optimistic about the viability of their startup, potential urban farmers from all over the world have already signed up at Agricool’s website to receive information about getting a Cooltainer in their city. “We want to get local, affordable fruits and vegetables to urban centers around the world, not just Paris."
This article first appeared in Food Tank.