The underrepresentation of women in rural areas not only hampers the development of the entrepreneurial ecosystem but also impedes many women from realizing their full potential. To address this issue and advance the position of women in the agri-food industry, the Empowering Women in Agrifood (EWA) program was initiated.
The EWA program in Croatia is organized by Lean Startup Croatia in collaboration with EIT Food. It is a support program designed for early-career female entrepreneurs to develop sustainable businesses. Launched with the goal of achieving gender equality and encouraging women to take on leadership roles in the agri-food industry, the 6-month entrepreneurial incubation program in Croatia involves the participation of 10 entrepreneurs. One of them is Monika Gvozdić, the founder of the startup RoomHarvest. This is her story.
Mission of RoomHarvest
RoomHarvest is a startup focused on developing an aeroponic cultivation system for individual vegetable crops in controlled environments. The aim of this project is to demonstrate that certain crops can be grown faster, more efficiently, and independent of seasonal variations in controlled conditions. Compared to traditional cultivation, aeroponic cultivation requires up to 95% less irrigation water and 85% less fertilizer, while productivity increases by 300% (AlShrouf, 2017). Additionally, one of the main advantages is indoor cultivation, completely eliminating the need for pesticides, fungicides, and other harmful substances. These substances are commonly used in traditional agriculture to ensure cultivation viability for consumption and sale, while negatively impacting our health and polluting the environment. Indoor cultivation also provides an advantage over external factors such as adverse weather conditions faced by traditional agricultural growers.
The RoomHarvest team currently consists of two members, Monika Gvozdić and Ivan Jajić. Monika is an economics student at the undergraduate professional study at the Faculty of Economics in Zagreb. Although her future profession is not related to agronomy, she has been involved in urban gardening for the last 5 years since moving to Zagreb. Before moving, all the fruits and vegetables she consumed came from her grandmother’s garden, and she was confident that they were entirely organic. Ivan is a graduate economist with experience in business development, which is his role in the team.
The goal of RoomHarvest is to assist urban communities dependent on currently unstable prices of food, land, and fuel in the market. Furthermore, considering the significant amount of vegetables in grocery stores treated with pesticides and other harmful substances, RoomHarvest aims to provide a solution for healthier alternatives.
Development of the RoomHarvest project idea
The RoomHarvest story begins when they learned about the Empowering Women in Agrifood (EWA) program. The idea of hydroponic cultivation of vegetables in their own homes was the initial project concept for this team, realizing that urban residents are dependent on market offerings and conditions.
In the EWA program, they saw an opportunity to offer something innovative and useful to the community while developing themselves in the aforementioned field. They started exploring hydroponic cultivation and realized that there is also an aeroponic system that is not as prevalent in the market. Aeroponic cultivation occurs in controlled conditions where soil is not used as a medium, as in traditional cultivation. Additionally, the plant’s roots are nourished using a water mist containing all the necessary nutrients, which is sprayed onto the roots.
Business idea development through the EWA project
After initial research, the team decided to apply for the EWA program, which was held for the first time in Croatia. They were skeptical because their idea was not based on traditional agriculture, but despite this, their efforts were recognized, and they became part of the pre-incubation phase of the EWA project.
Upon entering the program, they were assigned mentor Sandra Vlašić, and they began developing the idea. In consultations with their mentor, the RoomHarvest team first researched the market. The market research questionnaire further spurred them to develop the sales aspect. The questionnaire covered questions about the desires and preferences of end customers. When asked whether they would prefer to have an aeroponic system in their homes or buy specific vegetable crops at a physical location, a remarkable 80% of respondents expressed a preference for purchasing at a single location.
RoomHarvest is developing not only for private users but also a B2B business model for specific crops. In the past few months, the RoomHarvest team has educated themselves about various possibilities for developing the aeroponic system, the necessary elements, and components essential for plant development. After market research, they started prototyping, which posed a significant challenge, given their economic background. The first step was purchasing the aeroponic system, LED lighting, organic fertilizer, various substrates, and eco seeds for cultivation.
The first crop was lettuce, followed by Swiss chard, spinach and basil, which they grew using natural, untreated seeds. They currently have a developed early plant stage between 5-10cm tall. The height of the stem itself depends on the date of planting and on the vegetable culture itself. It is important for them to understand the chemical composition at this early stage in order to know how to proceed with the further development of the project. After that, one planted culture will be taken for basic microbiological analysis. Furthermore, it is important to mention that RoomHarvest uses organic fertilizers in the creation of the water mixture because they believe that by adding them, they further promote their growth and development.
Innovating the Process
The RoomHarvest team noticed that vertical aeroponic systems are more suitable than horizontal ones, which they currently use. Vertical systems occupy less space, require less water, and have a higher yield. However, the challenge is that the purchase price of vertical systems varies, and the supply can be above that of horizontal systems. A great solution to this problem is 3D modeling of vertical systems and later printing them using a 3D printer. In this process, they use filaments approved by the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA). Consequently, the production costs of the vertical system are potentially minimized by 85% in terms of construction. They see a possible solution to powering the system with solar panels, which could minimize costs in the long term.
The RoomHarvest team emphasizes their happiness in successfully growing their first plants and connecting with experts in the Agrifood and Agritech fields over these four months. Through workshops, they had the opportunity to learn about various business segments and financing methods, crucial steps for the project’s further development. They are particularly excited that they can offer a product in demand to the community.
The team is in search of experts in the agronomic and/or chemical engineering sectors. For more information about products and the RoomHarvest team, visit their social media profiles on LinkedIn and Facebook or contact them directly via email.
Read Monika’s interview with Tportal HERE.
About the EIT Food Initiative
EIT Food is the largest and most active global community for food innovation. It strongly encourages innovation with the aim of building a food system that produces healthy and sustainable food.
Supported by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), an EU body, the EIT Food initiative invests in projects, organizations, and individuals who share their goals for a healthy and sustainable food system. Simultaneously, by enabling innovation potential in companies and universities, they encourage startups in the agri-food sector to develop new technologies and products. They equip entrepreneurs and experts with the skills needed to transform the food system, putting consumers at the center of their work, helping to build trust in the origin of their food.
EIT Food is one of the nine innovation communities established by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), an independent EU body established in 2008 to promote innovation and entrepreneurship across Europe.
Learn more at www.eitfood.eu or follow them on social media: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Instagram.
AlShrouf, A. (2017). Hydroponics, Aeroponic and Aquaponic as Compared with Conventional Farming. American Academic Scientific Research Journal for Engineering, Technology, and Sciences, 27(1), 247–255. Retrieved from here.