Located in the neighborhood of Santa Efigênia, in Belo Horizonte (MG), in the Southeast of Brazil, Boulevard Shopping houses more than 200 stores and the first urban farm in Latin America. BeGreen occupies 2,700 m² of the mall area with a 1,500 m² greenhouse and the capacity to produce up to 50,000 heads of mini lettuce, seasonings and herbs every month.
BeGreen started in 2014, when Giuliano Bittencourt returned from a trip to Massachusetts, in the United States, and shared what he had experienced with Pedro Grazielo. They both worked together on an acceleration program for startups and noticed an opportunity to innovate in the field. This is how BeGreen’s first farm was born, in Betim, a metropolitan area of Belo Horizonte.
For two years, the partners sold pesticide-free vegetables to local markets, but that was not exactly what they wanted for BeGreen. In 2016, the startup received investment from the accelerator company Liga Ventures, and in 2017 they signed the agreement with the mall.
More than producing aquaponic pesticide-free vegetables, and organic veggies, Bittencourt and Grazielo wanted to grow and harvest within the city, shortening the distance between food and consumers and, consequently, reducing waste.
According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 2011, one third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted, which is equivalent to about 1.3 billion tons per year. In developing countries, losses and waste are minor but not negligible: in Latin America, about 15% of all food is lost, while in Africa, the ratio reaches 22%. According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), Brazil alone loses about 15 million tons of food per year.
Waste occurs throughout the supply chain, from initial agricultural production to final consumption by households. Food losses represent a waste that goes beyond the product itself — they involve the resources used in production, such as land, water, energy and inputs, as well as increasing CO2 emissions.
By producing lettuce at the mall and only selling it to restaurants within a 10-kilometer radius — and consumers in the mall itself — BeGreen is helping to avoid wasting food and reduce CO2 emissions, as the final consumer purchases the products of the farm in person, without logistics and delivery services.
In addition, according to Bittencourt, BeGreen lettuce needs 90% less water in its cultivation than vegetables grown the traditional way. This news is quite positive, since the water footprint for a kilo of lettuce is 273 liters of water according to data from the Water Footprint Network.
BeGreen produces vegetables in a greenhouse that counts on a cultivation system in a consortium with fish farming. The excrement of the tilapias living in the tanks of the company guarantee the necessary nutrients to the water for irrigation of herbs and vegetables, especially ammonia. According to Bittencourt, to maintain business sustainability, the fish are raised according to an animal protection protocol and never killed. Although they have developed a system based on Arduino — electronic hardware prototyping platform that is free and works with a single board — which measures eight variables of growing vegetables and other plants, today, the company makes a majority of its money by selling its production and experience. This is BeGreen’s main innovation, especially if compared to other urban farms around the world. By combining education with entertainment, the company becomes more than just a local producer of organic vegetables.
At BeGreen, the consumer can go straight to the store and buy local vegetables, spices and other agro-ecological products that are sold there, or take a guided tour around, with permission to visit the greenhouse. Production and consumption are practically in the same place. During the visit to the greenhouse, which costs R$ 10, visitors will see how to grow vegetables and, at the end of the tour, the company gives a head of mini lettuce to the visitor.
“We have seen a lot in recent months; people come to BeGreen to meet, but also to connect to the food. A father shows his son how it works, that the lettuce is not made inside the refrigerator, and explains how it really grows,” says Bittencourt. Therefore, the company also carries out actions to raise the awareness of children and young people in public and private schools in Belo Horizonte, in addition to events and trainings regarding sustainable production.
Bittencourt says that BeGreen expects to have more urban farms to operate and that they intend to increase their productivity. The experience that the final consumer deals with in the greenhouse, with food, is a fundamental part of the business and for the partners. Based on the farm-to-table concept, BeGreen produces, but also raises awareness and distributes its products directly to the consumer. For Bittencourt, making a business that was sustainable from the start was a premise to undertake.
Three other successful examples of urban farms
Buying from local producers not only stimulates the economy, but also helps care for the environment. Based in Germany and founded by three Israeli filmmakers who became entrepreneurs, Infarm raised US$ 25 million in early 2018 to expand its in-house cultivation system. Like the Brazilian BeGreen, Infarm wants to help cities become self-sufficient in food production. The company estimates that by the middle of 2019, there will be 1,000 miniature urban farms operating throughout Europe. By the end of this year, Paris, London, Copenhagen and some German cities will probably have their own.
You can grow hundreds of different varieties of plants, herbs, spices, greens and vegetables with a single module of two square meters — a kind of glass greenhouse — that can be inside a store or even in your living room. Each one with its own microclimate, thanks to the hydroponics technique, which does not require soil and can work inside a glass box with controlled climate and LED lighting.
Another well-known enterprise of urban farms is Gotham Green’s. Built in the United States, Gotham Green’s has hydroponic greenhouses on the roofs of buildings in New York and Chicago. Much of the production is sent to nearby stores and restaurants as soon as it is harvested. This means that the products arrive fresher and less spoiled to the customer – and with a lower volume of CO2 in transportation.
Gotham Green’s eight-digit annual revenue suggests a healthy future for urban agriculture. While there is no scientific evidence that urban agriculture is better for the environment than traditional agriculture, the indirect benefits are undeniable. As well as reducing carbon and water footprints, these companies are creating new businesses while raising awareness.
The Canadian company, Lufa Farms is considered one of the largest urban agriculture projects in Canada. In 2011, Mohamed Hage and Lauren Rathmell, partners in business and in life, opened the world’s first commercial roof greenhouse, an area of 31,000 m2 over an old warehouse in Montreal. They now supervise three hydroponic greenhouses, each of them installed in a sturdy, low-rise building, which combined add up to 12,800 m2 in greenhouses.
While many urban farms sell to restaurants and markets, Lufa also has a different characteristic: direct sale to the consumer. Anyone can customize fresh food baskets on the company’s website. Moreover, you can have your basket delivered at over 300 distribution spots throughout the city or delivered to your home for an additional fee.
You can see it as a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiative, but also as a merge between farm and services like Uber Eats or Amazon Prime – the first delivers food at home via Uber drivers and the second delivers grocery shopping from Amazon, among other benefits. That is, besides being initiatives that favor local production, urban farms offer convenience and customization to the client, promoting sustainability as a business essential.
What can you do?
Appreciating local production is a way of helping the region’s social and economic development, as well as avoiding wastage of resources and, in certain cases, food. Discover concepts such as CSA, Community Supported Agriculture. This is a successful practice for sustainable agricultural development and for the direct availability of organic products to the consumer; it creates a close relationship between those who produce and those who consume the products. Discover CSA initiatives in your city.
Content published in March 15, 2018