By Brandon Gillet
Enactus uOttawa has launched Growcer, an ambitious initiative that aims to help alleviate food insecurity in Iqaluit. The project relies on a farming system called aquaponics that produces both fish and vegetables at the same time – and adds a twist: these aquafarms will be housed in abandoned shipping containers, which litter the coastlines near many Northern communities.
The Growcer team members were part of the Enactus uOttawa team that finished in the final four at the recent Enactus National Exposition in Toronto. The Telfer School also received the University Administration of the Year Award for its support of youth entrepreneurship. Enactus groups on campuses across the country are committed to “using entrepreneurial action to create a better, more sustainable world.”
The idea for Growcer arose last year when Enactus uOttawa members Alida Burke, Corey Ellis, Kathleen Kemp (since graduated) and Ajmal Sataar (also since graduated) visited Iqaluit. While they were there running workshops on entrepreneurship for local people, they learned that food insecurity was a major issue in the community.
A 2015 food price survey (PDF) found that on average, residents of Nunavut pay twice as much for the same food items as people in the rest of Canada, with carrots costing three times as much. The federal government spends $60 million a year on food subsidies for northern communities and yet nearly 70% of Inuit homes experience food insecurity, which is eight times the national average.
“People rely on expensive shipments from the South,” said Ellis, a Telfer student and Enactus president. “We want to provide them with a tool that empowers them to grow their own food and reduces reliance on imports.”
After months of planning, the team came up with the idea of creating aquafarms by repurposing the shipping containers that are frequently left behind by resource extraction companies. The goal: nutritious food produced locally and sold at affordable prices.
Enactus uOttawa recently received a $30,000 grant from the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation to fund their larger Northern Innovation Hub program, which aims to convert the discarded shipping containers into badly needed homes and commercial spaces. They are in early talks with the City of Iqaluit, but hope to begin work on the Innovation Hub program in about two years.
“We plan to include a Growcer in that larger initiative, along with containers retrofitted for other commercial uses and subsidized housing,” Ellis said.
One ton of fish and produce
At the heart of the Growcer project is an aquafarm that combines aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (growing plants in water). By putting the two together, the fish by-products provide nutrients for the growing plants, with no need for chemicals.
Enactus estimates that Growcer, whose pilot project should be up and running in the fall, could produce more than one ton of fish and fresh produce annually. Aquafarms take time to reach maturity, with green vegetables growing first, followed by non-green vegetables like carrots and tomatoes.
The technology is relatively new, but if Growcer and similar initiatives succeed, the practice could take root and help solve one of the North’s major challenges, said Ellis.
However, aquaponic systems can fail when power blackouts or pipe blockages cause a loss of fish stocks, bringing the entire system down.
“To help with this, the system will use cloud monitoring technology that will constantly monitor things like pH levels, temperature and humidity,” Ellis said. “Everyone who needs to know will be notified quickly about any problems, so they can be fixed right away.”
The pilot project will be run by volunteers, but once operational, the program would provide employment for local people. The unemployment rate in Iqaluit is 17.9%, compared to the national average of 6.6%
“We plan to train people for the technical jobs and to hire people from the men’s shelter in Iqaluit for the planting and cultivation,” Ellis said. “The homeless rate is one-in-three there, so we’re hoping to provide people with jobs and help them transition back into the work world.”
The pilot project will use hydroelectric power supplemented by some solar panels, but the Enactus team is planning with sustainability in mind.
“It’s a lofty goal, but one day we hope future Growcers will be fully off-grid,” said Ellis.