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Student-Led Solutions: VertiGrow

This post is part of a series on students taking action against poverty and hunger. Today, we meet the classmates of the sOccket team: VertiGrow. In hopes of fighting hunger around the world, VertiGrow is figuring out how to grow vertical gardens in cramped urban centres. They have been working on a prototype in Paris and Kenya.

If you know of any students who are changing the world with their imagination and innovation, email the WFP Youth Outreach Team.

From the VertiGrow team

We met in a non-traditional course at Harvard named ES-147—Idea Translation: Effecting Change through the Arts and Sciences—more widely known as the “Idea Translation Lab” or “ITL.” Even though the class is filed under Engineering Sciences, it is one of the most interdisciplinary and collaborative courses at Harvard and is designed to help students work together to translate ideas into impact. Our teaching staff ranged from business students to biochemistry doctoral candidates, reflecting the range of student backgrounds in the class. Our global health team was no exception to the rule: we were biology, economics, African Studies and History of Science majors, all drawn together because of our common passion for global health. All the teams grew under the tutelage of Professor David Edwards, the creator and head of ITL, who has fostered a countless number of successful student endeavors (everything from Lebone, winner of a World Bank Grant, to Le Whif, the new culinary phenomenon).   

The path to our project, VertiGrow, was a greatly inspired one. We wanted to think creatively about how to effect change—no matter how great or small—in addressing a major global health issue. We began with geography: all of the team members held a strong interest in Africa, especially urban centers plagued by the malicious cycle of malnutrition and disease. Our final inspiration came from the front page of the New York Times: an article about a farmer from Wisconsin—Will Allen—who has brought agriculture to urban centers with the creation of gardens housed in towering, inner-city buildings.
We pieced the two ideas together: what if people living in slums in Africa could grow their own food? We began to envision a simple technology that could allow individual families in African urban centers to grow their own food with minimal use of space. The ability to grow food would bring empowerment and improved nutritional intake. We envisioned the eventual building of communities of production and empowerment. We took the idea and ran with it.

We made contacts with NGOs working on the ground, within the Kibera slum of Kenya, and learned about the desire and ability of families to grow food despite a lack of resources and available land. This confirmed our inspiration, and we began an ongoing conversation with the population we hoped to serve throughout our design process. Throughout the semester of the ITL course, we alternated between research and design, and sought much academic and professional feedback from policy researchers, design professionals, and NGO workers.

By the end of the course, we had formed a formal partnership with Carolina for Kibera, an NGO serving the Kibera slum of Kenya, to conduct a pilot study this summer, and submitted our plan of action to the Harvard Initiative for Global Health, crossing our fingers for their support. We were extremely fortunate to be awarded the Global Health Innovation Award—a total of $22,000 for use towards prototyping, piloting and project expansion—becoming 2009 Undergraduate Global Health Fellows in the process.

For more information, visit the VertiGrow website at www.vertigrow.org or the blog at vertigrow.blogspot.com.