Archive for the ‘Innovation of the Week’ Category

Sep04

Innovation of the Month: Aeroponic Technology

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By Carolyn Smalkowski

As the world’s urban population continues to grow, the demand for food in urban areas continues to expand. To meet this demand, urban agricultural innovations are sprouting up in countries and communities around the world. Aeroponic farming—the process of growing plants in an air or mist environment without the use of soil—is one such innovation.

Aeroponic farming—the process of growing plants in an air or mist environment without the use of soil—can help to meet rising demand for food in urban areas. (Photo Credit: The Young Agropreneur)

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Association (NASA), aeroponic systems allow for clean, efficient, and rapid food production. In aeroponic systems, crops, which are isolated from seasonal change, can be planted and harvested year round without interruption and without contamination from soil, pesticides, and residue. And because aeroponic growing environments are clean and sterile, the chances of spreading plant disease and infection are less common than in soil-based systems. As a result, aeroponic farming systems can yield high-value crops—such as leafy greens, herbs, and micro-greens—quickly and reliably.

According to AeroFarms, a producer of aeroponic systems in Ithaca, New York, aeroponic production is superior to conventional and greenhouse production for a variety of reasons: the produce does not require washing after harvest; can be delivered fresh to stores and restaurants on a daily basis; has a shelf life of 3 to 4 weeks; offers year round seasonality; has a faster growth cycle; and does not need to be treated with pesticides.

When asked about the benefits of aeroponics, AeroFarms’ Founder and CEO Ed Harwood said, “What I plant is what I harvest, so I can predict what I’m going to have two or three weeks from now, which is much more difficult when the circumstances aren’t controlled.” For farmers whose livelihoods depend on successful harvests, the control and predictability associated with aeroponic production can be a major boon.  (more…)

Jan03

Innovation of the Month: iDE Brings Water to Dry Soils Around the World

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By Molly Redfield

Approximately 1.2 billion people live in water-scarce areas of the world, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Farming, a water-intensive endeavor, is responsible for nearly 70 percent of human water use worldwide and can exacerbate situations of scarcity, the FAO says. Meanwhile, improved water management could double crop yields in many parts of the world, according to the International Water Management Institute. With this in mind, organizations such as International Development Enterprises (iDE) strive to improve water management practices around the world.

In Bangladesh, a woman irrigates her family’s rice field using a treadle pump. (Photo credit: iDE)

iDE, whose mission is to create income and livelihood opportunities for poor rural households, is dedicated to increasing the availability of affordable micro-irrigation technologies. The organization promotes technologies such as treadle pumps, rope pumps, drip irrigation, sprinkle irrigation, water storage systems, multiple water use systems, and ceramic water purifiers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In these regions, iDE also champions greater gender equality, nutrition, and sanitation, providing women and the rural poor with greater access to both education and technological resources.

The treadle pump is perhaps iDE’s most famous technological innovation. The pump, which ranges from US$20 to $100, attaches to a well and draws groundwater to the surface by way of a manually powered suction system. Not only do treadle pumps increase farmers’ access to water in areas where surface water is scarce, but they enable farmers to grow crops during both the wet and dry seasons. Increased access to water, particularly in water-scarce regions like rural Zambia, can enable subsistence farmers to produce enough food to create a surplus, helping poor farmers to generate income, according to iDE.

iDE’s success with the treadle pump has inspired similar projects led by the FAO, individual Kickstarter campaigns, and Enterprise Works to expand treadle pump use in poor parts of the world. To date, more than 2 million pumps have been sold and are in use worldwide. In recognition of its achievements, iDE has received the 2004 Tech Award: Accenture Economic Development Award, the 2010 Nestlé Prize in Creating Shared Value, and the 2010 International Design Excellence Award.

Molly Redfield is a research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project.

Sep20

Innovation of the Week: Gathering Waste and Making Good of It

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By Jeffrey Lamoureux

In most of the world’s slums, sanitation is a daily challenge. In the absence of sewage systems, people living in slums in Nairobi, Kolkata and São Paulo rely on rows of pit latrines shared by hundreds of other people, while others use “flying toilets” to dispose of waste. Disease and infection spreads easily in such environments.

Sanergy units can be built quickly and easily with affordable materials (Photo Credit: Sanergy)

But some social entrepreneurs in Nairobi are picking up where the government has left off and attempting to provide sanitary options to the slums. Sanergy, for example, is a company launched by a group of students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Sloan School of Management. The group has designed low-profile sanitation centers that can be constructed anywhere to provide hot showers and clean toilets. These facilities can be built quickly and easily with affordable materials. Waste from the centers is deposited into airtight containers that are collected daily. Then it’s brought to processing facilities that can convert it into biogas. The biogas generates electricity, while the leftover material is made into fertilizer.

The company won a USD $100,000 grant from MIT and has been building its first units in Nairobi. It charges a low pay-per-use fee and hopes to grow by franchising the operation of its units, creating an income opportunity for enterprising residents. As the number of toilets proliferates, so too will the amount of energy the company is able to generate from its processing facilities. It hopes to eventually generate enough energy that it can sell its power to the national grid.

The company’s unique and innovative approach is notable for the way it combines the decentralization of waste collection with the centralization of waste processing. Retrofitting the slums with proper sewage drains is a near impossibility and can be an expensive and potentially politically volatile effort in areas where landownership is at best ambiguous. The self-contained units grant access to sanitary facilities to even those far off the grid. But by centralizing the processing of waste, Sanergy’s facilities will take advantage of the economies of scale present in the waste conversion process.

By creating products of value out of the waste, the company creates an incentive for others to set up their own facilities in partnership with Sanergy. The company hopes that there may eventually be facilities on every neighborhood block, significantly increasing the number of people with access to clean sanitation. The energy generated through the waste production will be a clean option to power a growing economy, and the fertilizer is a nutrient-rich alternative to expensive petroleum based fertilizers.

Do you have any other examples of innovations that are addressing the problems of sanitation within urban slums? Share them with us in the comments below!

Jeffrey Lamoureux is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

To purchase your own copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, please click HERE.

Sep06

Innovation of the Week: Tunnel Farming to Boost Food Security

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By Carly Chaapel

In places where severe weather and pests threaten crop yields, farmers are turning to tunnel-shaped greenhouses that improve the quality of their vegetables, decrease the need for pesticides, and promise higher yields by protecting the plants from severe wind, frost, and hail.

Tunnel farming can increase food security in regions with harsh environmental conditions (Photo Credit: Hartwood Farm)

CEDE Greenhouses manufactures greenhouses and tunnels to be implemented throughout southern Africa. Over the past 30 years, they have helped over 350 farmers start their own greenhouse businesses. Recently, CEDE partnered with Klein Karoo Seed Marketing Company to create the Africa Tunnel. Its simple design consists of plastic cloth and supporting beams, and makes it possible for new farmers to enter the business.

Greenhouses can be valuable tools for protecting plants from harsh environmental conditions while also extending the growing season. Where sunlight is lacking, the structure can optimize what light it receives by trapping the long-wave-length heat radiation that is reemitted by objects within the greenhouse walls. In arid or semi-arid regions such as Kenya, greenhouses can lower temperatures by blocking some light with shade cloths and encouraging swift ventilation. Greenhouses may also limit the amount of water that plants lose through transpiration, which can significantly improve yields where water is in short supply. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 0.2 percent of the total agricultural land is irrigated.

In addition to manufacturing the materials necessary for tunnel farming, CEDE also offers training sessions for sustainable crop production. The company teaches farmers how to sow seeds, manage plant growth, and finally market their own fruits and vegetables.

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Aug30

Innovation of the Week: Policy Analysis at Your Fingertips

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By Ronica Lu

The Farm Bill Budget Visualizer, recently released by the Center for a Livable Future (CLF) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is an innovative, web-based application that provides a visually pleasing, interactive breakdown of Farm Bill legislation spending.

A screenshot of the Farm Bill Budget Visualizer’s homepage (Photo Credit: Food and Tech Connect)

The Farm Bill is a comprehensive omnibus bill, first passed in 1973 and updated every four or five years, that deals with food and agricultural affairs under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Farm Bill is the primary food and agricultural policy tool of the U.S. federal government and addresses issues from numerous perspectives—including everything from food assistance and nutrition education, to efforts to improve access to fruits and vegetables.

With the upcoming release of the updated 2012 Farm Bill from Congress later this year, the Budget Visualizer helps the general public, advocacy groups, and policymakers make connections between the provisions of the bill and the amount of federal spending allotted to each program.

The visualizer displays Farm Bill programs in collapsible and expandable boxes. The sizes of the boxes are proportional to the amount of funding the programs receive. The use of the app does not require a software download, but does use the latest versions of Java and Adobe Flash.

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Aug23

Innovation of the Week: Scaling up Nutrition

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By Isaac Hopkins

Scale Up Nutrition (SUN), a program of the United Nations Standing Committee on Nutrition, is part of a broader effort to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of reducing poverty by 50 percent by 2015. SUN helps various organizations coordinate efforts to combat malnutrition in women and children—particularly malnutrition in children under two years old—by helping to maximize efficiency.

SUN helps various organizations combat malnutrition in women and children (Photo Credit: Martine Perret)

SUN emphasizes two approaches to solving hunger. The first involves immediate, direct intervention for malnourished pregnant women and children via food aid and nutritional supplements—intervention that could be provided by agencies from a local to a national scale. The second approach is broader, and emphasizes food security, access to health care, and other “support structures” such as information distribution and microfinance. The second approach is intended to promote long-term solutions, which are essential to the success of the MDGs.

More than 100 organizations, including Bread for the World and Save the Children, have endorsed SUN since 2010, when the Road Map for Scaling Up Nutrition was released. In the last two years, these organizations have actively worked with governments and organizations, and achieved measurable, long-term reductions in malnutrition. 1,000 Days, a SUN partner organization that launched in 2010, has focused on targeting malnutrition during a critical period of childhood: conception to two years of age. The organization works to inform women and policy makers at every level about the vital importance of appropriate nutrition early in life, and to encourage them to take immediate and appropriate action.

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Aug09

Innovation of the Week: Living Trees as Fence Posts

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By: Molly Redfield

Drive around Costa Rica’s windy mountainous roads and you will see numerous trees, from those bearing colorful fruits to others sporting thick spines, planted about 1 to 3 meters apart. Connected by long lines of barbed wire, these rudimentary-looking arrangements, known as living fences, have both economic and environmental benefits over their dead wood counterparts.

Living fences have economic and environmental benefits (Photo Credit: Arborsmith Studios)

Farmers across Central America plant living fences because these green barriers are a more economically feasible and readily accessible method for containing livestock and protecting crops. For one, the main materials of living fences are the branches of tree species that root from sticks and grow into larger trees. Shared among neighbors or sold at local markets, these sticks are much cheaper and more common than manufactured posts. Without the need for paint or preservatives, which can add toxins into the environment, maintenance costs also remain low. Additionally, animals graze on living fences, saving farmers costs in livestock feed.

By providing some shade and serving as windbreaks, living fences can significantly decrease the amount of energy farm animals need to regulate their body temperatures. As livestock allot this extra energy to growth and, in dairy cows, producing milk, farmers experience higher yields, whether in meat or milk, for planting living fences.

These tree posts also offer farmers the additional benefits of firewood, timber, fruits, tanning astringents, and dyes. In Costa Rica, the federal government even provides payment for ecosystem services (PES) to farmers with living fences. A study on a region where a 2002 to 2007 World Bank project funded and monitored the building of living fences throughout Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Colombia, reports that small landholding producers rank the conversion of conventional fences into their living alternatives as a high priority.

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Aug01

Innovation of the Week: Aqua Shops

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By Eleanor Fausold

Aquaculture has potential to stimulate economic growth and increase food production in Kenya. (Photo credit: Lilian Kamola Kaivilu)

In Western Kenya, where nearly 60 percent of households depend on fish as a source of income, dwindling fish supplies are hurting the economy and those who rely on fish as a source of food. Lake Victoria currently provides over 90 percent of Kenya’s fish supply, but a combination of overfishing and pollution have led to a decline in fish stocks, causing prices to rise because supply is not keeping up with demand.

As a solution, Kenya’s government is supporting the development of aquaculture in an effort to promote economic growth and stimulate food production. In addition to providing basic infrastructure and supporting research and development, the government is also providing funding for the construction of 46,000 fish ponds in 160 of the country’s 210 constituencies and has given farmers catfish and tilapia fingerlings, or very young fish, and fish feed to help get them started. Despite these governmental efforts, however, many farmers still lack access to the support and inputs required for long-term success.

In an effort to supplement and further the Kenyan government’s initiatives, FARM-Africa, in partnership with Natural Resources International, the University of Stirling, Imani Development, the U.K. Department for International Development Research Into Use Programme, and the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, has established a series of six Aqua Shops in western Kenya. These shops provide farmers with technical advice about aquaculture practices and give them the materials, including fish feed and manure (for fertilization), needed to set up and maintain healthy fish ponds and lakes.

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Jul26

Innovation of the Week: Helping Individuals Make Sustainable Choices with Global Effects

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By Jenna Banning

“The best way to keep forests standing,” according to the Rainforest Alliance, “is by ensuring that it is profitable for businesses and communities to do so.”

This ad encourages farmers to implement environmentally friendly and socially just practices. (Photo credit: Rainforest Alliance)

Rainforest Alliance is a non-profit organization established in 1986 that works with businesses and communities across the world, helping to promote environmental, social, and economic sustainability. The group focuses on rainforests, which support more than two-thirds of the world’s plants and animals as well as many farmers, but which are under threat from unsustainable forestry, deforestation, agriculture, and tourism practices. Approximately 50,000 square miles of the earth – roughly the size of Mississippi – is deforested annually in order to produce paper, lumber and foods for the global market. To combat this, Rainforest Alliance is working with farmers, forest managers, and tourism operators to encourage production practices for their goods and services which also protect the resources on which they depend.

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Jul12

Innovation of the Week: Small Plot Intensive Farming

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By Laura Reynolds

Earlier this year Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, submitted a report arguing that agroecological farming methods “outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production,” particularly in developing countries where access to resources is limited. Practicing this low-input, diversified farming style on a small scale has been gaining popularity in the U.S. in recent decades due, in part, to rising fuel and land prices.  Farming intensively on tiny acreages, particularly in urban areas, may offer a sustainable solution to many of the U.S. food system’s ills.

Densely planted farms are springing up around the country. (Photo credit: SPIN Farming LLC)

Farmers Wally Satzewich, Gail Vandersteen, and Roxanne Christensen have created SPIN Farming, a business that trains would-be farmers how to farm profitably on as little as 5,000 square feet, or roughly the size of two 4-bedroom homes. SPIN farming, or Small Plot INtensive Farming focuses on the business side of farming, from keeping overhead costs low to finding easy-to-access markets. Using SPIN’s model, farms are cropping up in unlikely spaces. Somerton Tanks Farm, for example, operates in the shadow of two five-million-gallon water tanks on land owned by the Philadelphia Water Department. And in Wilkes-Barre, PA, students at Wilkes University founded the first-ever campus-based SPIN farm by reclaiming an abandoned lot on the edge of the campus.

In addition to giving tips on how to maximize space efficiency on land, SPIN leaves much of the actual growing decisions in the hands of the farmer. According to SPIN, its system “is not predicated on any one set of life principals or philosophy, or any one method of soil prep or maintenance. It can be combined with biointensive, biodynamic, permaculture, vermaculture, aquaculture, double dig, [or] no till.”

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