Hydroponics for food security in the North

This article was originally shared on the McConnell Foundation blog and has been re-posted with the Foundation’s and authors’ permission.

By Elvira Truglia

As the northern ice breaks this summer, two retrofitted shipping containers are arriving in Iqaluit, where they will be repurposed as vessels for growing plants in water. The hydroponics project, called The Growcer, aims to help address food insecurity, and will be the first project of its kind in the city. It’s part of what’s called the Northern Innovation Hub, which last year won first place in the Civic Innovation Awards, a competition to promote university-city collaboration, funded and organized by the McConnell initiatives Cities for People and Re-Code.

“It won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Corey Ellis, Vice President of Development of the University of Ottawa chapter of Enactus, that has led the work on The Growcer. “We’re hoping that these systems can help communities have improved access to fresh produce with a longer shelf life — bringing down the price of certain foods while also being a source of local food that isn’t dependent on the weather and food shipments.”

Nearly 70 percent of Inuit households in Nunavut are food insecure — more than eight times higher than the national average and “among the highest documented food insecurity rates for an Indigenous population in a developed country.”  Inuit Health Survey, cited by the Nunavut Food Security Action Plan, 2014.

The Plan notes that complex issues like food security need complex solutions. Factors such as food availability (enough wildlife on the land, groceries in the store), accessibility (enough money for hunting equipment or store-bought food), quality (healthy food that is culturally valued, and use (knowledge on how to obtain, store, prepare and consume food)

Technology as the enabler

Hydroponics is a tried and true technology. The particular innovation of The Growcer is using it in the North via shipping containers repurposed into modular farms. Plants get the same nutrients that they would find in soil, and it’s all natural. No herbicides or insecticides are used.

“We are growing food in an environment that is really dense,” explains Ellis. “As a result, we can grow about 9,300 pounds of produce a year in a shipping container and we’re using 91% less water than a traditional farm would with soil agriculture, and doing so in temperatures as cool as -52 degrees.”


Photos of systems deployed by The Growcer’s American affiliates, Vertical Harvest, in remote parts of Alaska

A head of lettuce can be grown for about $2 and the hydroponic units can produce about 750 heads of lettuce in a week. At any one time, Ellis says there will be about 2,100 live plants in the units. He believes the potential for introducing fresh, locally grown produce in Iqaluit is enormous.

Enactus aims to reduce food costs by 30%, while beating the cost of imported food, which is often subsidized by up to 50%. Yet, the social enterprise is not taking anything for granted and wants to measure the impact of access to food. It will be looking at to what extent local produce availability increases consumption of fresh foods, how produce merchandising in stores affects purchasing habits, and whether the integration of produce with traditional meals also help people prepare produce.

Local organizations on board with Northern Innovation Hub

Enactus is trying to create a sustained impact by working closely with local organizations. Partnering with ilinniapaa campus, a learning and employment company, has been key. Enactus brings its entrepreneurial know-how, while ilinniapaa keeps the project grounded in local realities.

“Probably the biggest awakening for anybody coming from the South to the North and wanting to deliver programs is that everything here pretty much requires double the time,” says Helen Roos, President, Lead Facilitator of ilinnipaa. “[Time] not only to build relationships and trust, but once you have program incumbents, working with them on their terms and on their level.”

Co-founders of The Growcer, Corey Ellis and Alida Burke

Partnering with ilinniapaa means Enactus will have a physical space, with computers, Internet access, and a meeting space, all which are very scarce in the North. llinniapaa’s knowledge of the community also gives the project its social legitimacy.

“In some cases for Enactus, we’ve been their local consultants and advisors to train them on some of the local social realities and socio-economic realities,” says Roos who also stresses that community development is challenging because “intergenerational trauma from federal policies and relocation has impacted Indigenous populations’ daily lives.”

Training Enactus’s members includes learning about safe talk, suicide alertness, mental health, first aid, supporting learners through addictions, family-related or other local issues that impact learning and progress in their programs.

“We look at entrepreneurial opportunities as a real opportunity for people to find a niche, fill a niche, be more self-determining, and contribute to the community,” says Roos.

The Growcer project seems to check off all these boxes. A major project partner is the Nunavummi Disabilities Makinnasuaqttit Society (NDMS), an organization serving people with disabilities. As part of the start-up-phase, Enactus will provide produce at-cost to help get the Society off the ground and will also offer on-the-job training for the society’s members.

Evolution of the Northern Innovation Hub

The Growcer is one of the first and most advanced ideas to come out of the Northern Innovation Hub, conceived as a “one-stop shop for innovative ideas to be incubated, created and then launched in the city,” says Ellis. Ideas generated in the Hub seek to tackle problems and opportunities related to housing, employment, business, and food security.

Roos is optimistic about the Innovation Hub. She says projects that provide an investment back into the community are what work in the North. “They are compatible with Inuit social values that are all about what is the individual`s role and purpose, how is it going to benefit the family; and the family supports the community.”

Whereas big business are seen as coming in to take local resources and funnel profits to the South, “social enterprise, and innovative approaches like the hydroponic greenhouse allows business to be smaller and seen as for the community,” says Roos.

“The technology was always a means to an end. That’s why even today, we’re not limiting ourselves to hydroponics or food production either— we’re defining ourselves by the problems we’re trying to solve, not how we solve them,” says Ellis.

Elvira Truglia is a Montreal-based journalist who writes about the intersections of culture, politics, and social issues. She has also worked in the community, media and cultural sector as well as national and international non-governmental organizations.




This article is free for republication with attribution by non-profits and foundations. Copyright has been retained by the author. Find out more or contact the McConnell Foundation: communications@mcconnellfoundation.ca

Lead image of the official flag of Nunavut, flying outside Iqaluit, courtesy of Enactus. 
We want a country in which:

  • public, private and social sectors are engaged in active efforts to close the gap between the socioeconomic wellbeing of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people
  • the public sector, private investors and philanthropists separately and collaboratively deploy financial capital to create positive social and environmental impact
  • social innovation is an integral part of Canada’s innovation ecosystem, enabling civic institutions to co-create policies, initiatives and programs that enable citizens to contribute a diversity of skills and perspectives to Canadian society
  • public, private and civil society sectors act collaboratively and courageously to advance human thriving and address shared challenges
  • humans’ social and economic footprint is in balance with the natural ecosystems that sustain life.