Harvest London's Journey in Changing Urban Agriculture
Harvest London's Eco-Innovative Approach and Sustainable Impact
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In the bustling heart of London, a revolutionary approach to urban agriculture is taking root. Spearheaded by CEO Chris Davies and co-founder Matt Chlebek, Harvest London emerged 2017 as a hub for sustainability and innovation in the food industry. Their pioneering vision? To create a sustainable food system offering many choices, all while nurturing the environment.
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Harvest London stands as a testament to the power of hydroponic vertical farming, having successfully cultivated over 100 varieties of edible plants. This growth and exploration journey has attracted some of London’s finest culinary talents and led to the expansion of their operations with a second farm in Leyton, East London, inaugurated in 2020.
We had the opportunity to sit down with Chris Davies, Founder & CEO of Harvest London to talk about the importance of Controlled Environment Agriculture and its role in changing our food supply. Driving Localized Food Production with Harvest London
Davies, with a background in management consulting at firms like PWC and Accenture, was driven by his entrepreneurial family heritage and a desire to pivot from a 12-year career in consulting. His interest in vertical farming was sparked around 2017, influenced by the sector's momentum and significant funding rounds for companies like Plenty.
Davies' partnership with a plant biologist, whom he met through mutual friends, was a key turning point. They started Harvest London on a small scale, self-funding and learning about the technology while building a customer base. The company's growth was fueled by successive funding rounds.
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The core mission of Harvest London is to create a more sustainable food system, particularly in response to challenges like Brexit. He questioned the UK's decision to leave the EU, noting that a significant portion of the UK's fresh fruits and vegetables were imported, primarily from countries like Spain and Italy. Davies saw an opportunity to localize food production to offset imports rather than compete with local British farmers. He believes some industries, like food, might benefit from being less globalized, and this philosophy continues to guide Harvest London.
Harvest London's Diverse and Strategic Crop Selection
Chris detailed the company's unique approach to agriculture. Initially, Harvest London focused on the specialty crop market, growing edible flowers, Southeast Asian herbs, Mexican herbs, and other unique ingredients. This early phase targeted chefs, offering them access to exotic and unusual ingredients.
Harvest London, under the expertise of Chief Scientific Officer Matt Chlebek, has experimented with over 200 varieties, including herbs, leafy greens, fruiting vines like tomatoes, and even root crops like carrots and radishes. However, Chris recognized the challenges of scaling with specialty crops and shifted towards more market-driven selections like salads, mixed-leaf salads, and herbs.
Looking to the future, Davies sees potential in expanding into the fruit and vine market, including tomatoes, aubergines, cucumbers, and chilies. He also anticipates growth in pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, and cosmetics. Harvest London supplies to the food service industry, with clients like the London Pizza chain Pizza Pilgrims and corporate canteens of major companies like Google, HSBC, KPMG, and J.P. Morgan.
B Corp's Influence on Harvest London's Sustainable Practices
Chris discussed the significant impact of B Corp certification on the company's operations and ethos. He described the certification process as an aspirational and structuring journey for the then-small company. B Corp requirements, like anti-slavery and strong social policies, pushed Harvest London to adopt and institutionalize these standards, guiding their business model towards greater responsibility and sustainability.
A key example Davies cited is their approach to packaging. From the outset, Harvest London committed to being a no single-use plastic organization despite the challenges. This policy led them to innovate with reusable containers, especially in food service and restaurant supply chains. This initiative aligned with sustainability goals and provided operational efficiencies for their customers, streamlining kitchen processes.
Davies also emphasized their commitment to fair labor practices, being a London Living Wage employer, and fostering a democratically-run organization, including plans to have an employee representative on the board. They operate on 100% renewable energy, adhering to their sustainability principles. He highlighted their partnership with Octopus Energy. Octopus provides 100% renewable energy, offering innovative services with detailed 30-minute pricing data, enabling Harvest London to optimize operations based on energy costs. Unique to their needs, Octopus developed a 'vertical tariff' specifically for vertical farms, offering cost-effective energy use during off-peak times. This collaboration also explores using vertical farms as a load-balancing tool for the power grid, demonstrating Harvest London's commitment to sustainability and efficient energy use while contributing to the broader grid's stability.
For Davies, B Corp certification provided a "North Star" guiding how Harvest London should grow and operate. He believes it's easier for small companies to adapt and grow with these standards than larger corporations, where the weight of change can be overwhelming. The certification process allowed Harvest London to set and pursue aspirational goals, shaping their business into a sustainable and ethically responsible entity.
Harvest London's Scalability Strategy and Investment Approach
Regarding Harvest London’s scalability and growth plans for the next one to five years. Chris emphasized that starting a vertical farm is relatively simple, as plants will grow with necessities like water and light. The challenge lies in optimizing this growth.
Davies highlighted that Harvest London positions itself primarily as a farming company, not a technology firm. They collaborate with a conglomerate experienced in building glass houses and vertical farms, streamlining the process and reducing risk. Recognizing that scale is crucial in vertical farming, Davies explained the importance of finding the right investors with patient capital and understanding the vertical farming space.
Davies said that vertical farming did not always fit with the venture capital model, noting its focus on rapid growth and high returns, which may not align with the realities of building sustainable farming operations. Instead, Harvest London has engaged with private equity, particularly infrastructure-focused investors like the Foresight Group. They are known for their work in energy transition projects like solar, anaerobic digesters, and battery storage.
These infrastructure investors view vertical farms as part of the next wave of sustainable infrastructure projects. Unlike venture capital's expectation of a 10x return quickly, with most investments failing, vertical farms can offer investors steady returns over a longer timeframe. This approach reflects a different financial model for building farms, where investors are more comfortable with significant long-term investments, viewing them as assets contributing to sustainable development. Davies' strategy indicates a shift in how vertical farms are financed and scaled, focusing on long-term sustainability and profitability rather than rapid, unchecked growth.
Harvest London's Future Goals and Risk Mitigation Strategies
Chris delved into the challenging questions and strategic decisions shaping the company's future. Davies acknowledged the ongoing challenge of power costs and the need to create a flexible model to accommodate fluctuating energy prices. Learning from infrastructure investors, Harvest London focuses on risk mitigation, like building multiple grow rooms for different crops to ensure resilience and reduce risks like pest infestations.
Davies discussed shifting the food production paradigm from supply-driven to demand-driven, growing only what is required and thus reducing waste. This approach has led to their customers wasting 30% less product, benefiting from the freshness and longevity of locally grown produce.
Looking ahead, Harvest London, in partnership with the Foresight Group, is building one of the UK's largest vertical farms in Beddington, South London. This facility, designed to be profitable from day one, represents a shift towards highly automated and economically viable vertical farming. The farm will benefit from a private power line from a neighboring power plant, reducing energy cost risks.
Davies also highlighted the importance of high food safety standards in extending shelf life and enhancing the appeal of salads, aiming to change consumer perceptions and encourage healthier eating habits. He remains optimistic about vertical farming's future, stressing the need for efficient capital deployment and focusing on solving customer problems to make controlled environment agriculture commercially viable and sustainable in the long term.
Harvest London, led by Chris Davies and Matt Chlebek, epitomizes the evolution of urban agriculture through sustainable and innovative practices. Emphasizing hydroponic vertical farming, B Corp principles, and efficient renewable energy usage, the company has established itself in the local market while setting standards for future urban farming models. Their commitment to environmental sustainability is matched by a pragmatic approach to business, focusing on risk mitigation, demand-driven production, and strategic partnerships with infrastructure investors. With plans to build one of the UK's largest vertical farms, Harvest London is redefining urban food production and demonstrating the commercial viability and environmental responsibility of vertical farming in urban settings.