Indoor vertical farming and the future

  • Honest Greens on how global agriculture can become future-ready

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that all aspects of our lives need a serious re-looking at, not just for now, but for the future as well. Much of how we live and work is not sustainable in the long term, including how we grow and eat our food. 

Even aside from the controversial move by the Government to switch entirely to organic fertiliser overnight, and the implications this has had on our local agricultural industry, our agricultural and food future is hardly secure. Climate change, rising populations, and the increased difficulty of traditional farming means that we as a nation do need to innovate if we hope to stay food-secure in the long run.

Honest Greens Co-Founders Ashish Advani, Aneeshan Tyagarajah, and Sanuja Cooray

Looking at the issue of food-security and the future, three young entrepreneurs have banded together to create Honest Greens, an indoor vertical farm that uses a myriad of technologies including precision hydroponics, climate control, and horticultural lighting to build a farm (and pioneer a farming method) that is climate-resilient, resource-efficient, and provides fresh produce that can comply with the highest standards in food safety and traceability.

Brunch caught up with the three minds behind Honest Greens, Co-Founders Ashish Advani, Sanuja Cooray, and Aneeshan Tyagarajah, to learn more about how indoor vertical farming can help make Sri Lanka more food-secure in the future.

The Honest Greens concept

Diving into the concept behind Honest Greens, Advani explained that he, Cooray, and Tyagarajah (who have been friends nearly their whole lives) would often discuss things they felt were needed to bring change to Sri Lanka. They understood that the industries they were each in were losing more and more control over their supply chains, and also noticed a lack of investment and innovation in the agricultural industry, a field which is transforming around the world in order to deliver produce that is clean, safe, and reliable.

Honest Greens indoor vertical farm uses a myriad of technologies to build a farm that is climate-resilient, resource-efficient, and able to provide fresh produce 

The Honest Greens journey began after the trio saw a documentary that outlined just what kind of problems the agricultural industry was likely to face – from increased difficulty meeting demand with traditional farming to dwindling resources to climate change. Slowly, the concept of Honest Greens, a means of alternative farming took shape, with its very first plant, a spinach plant, being grown by the trio in a cupboard at Tyagarajah’s home. The exceptional quality of this first plant convinced the friends that they were on the right track, setting them on a path of trial and error that has ultimately led them to their first commercially successful indoor-vertical farm, scaling up along the way with support from a grant from the World Bank. Currently, Honest Greens grows different types of lettuce, kale, and specialty greens such as green rocket, basil, and pak choi to name a few.

Explaining the technology behind the Honest Greens farm, Tyagarajah explained that the indoor vertical farm controls all aspects of each plant’s environment, and uses hydroponics, a method for growing plants without using soil. The nutrients that plants need to grow are put into water and then delivered to the roots of the plants. “Hydroponics is basically growing plants in water, substituting the soil for water,” he said, adding: “The indoor vertical farm controls all aspects of the environment using artificial lighting and climate control, unlike the traditional greenhouse, which only looks at controlling nutrients and the climate in a very limited manner. While vertical farming is more resource-intensive in terms of electricity for lights and climate control mechanisms, the yield is more productive than traditional farming which negates the extra resources used.”

The nature of vertical farming, however, uses much less of some resources than traditional farming would. For example, Honest Green’s hydroponics indoor vertical farm uses between 95% and 99% less water for their crops than traditional farming would because no water is lost to the soil, and is recycled to keep feeding the plants to the highest extent possible. It is also much less land-intensive. “Vertical farming uses stacked layers on a flat surface. Combined with the productivity boost, you get more yield per square foot which leads to reduced deforestation and land use. Farmers can also move closer to cities, or even in cities,” Tyagarajah further explained.

The proof in the produce

Honest Greens indoor vertical farm uses a myriad of technologies to build a farm that is climate-resilient, resource-efficient, and able to provide fresh produce 

The controlled environment of indoor vertical farms means that Honest Green’s crops grow in an optimal, sterile environment, and the very nature of their farming means that there are absolutely no pesticides, insecticides, or weedicides of any kind used in their cultivation. “It’s like farming inside your fridge,” Cooray explained: “There are no cockroaches or insects etc. It’s the same concept with our indoor vertical farm, and because of our controlled environment, we have never had to deal with crop failure.”

The quality of the produce Honest Greens grows is also superior to traditional farming. “Our crops have no bug bites or blemishes,” Cooray shared. “They’re stunning plants and they taste phenomenal, far better than anything in the market and far better than anything abroad too.”

Because Honest Greens is a direct-to-consumer business where they supply individual and corporate customers like supermarkets, hotels, restaurants, and cafes directly, Honest Greens’ crops are also completely traceable, unlike the vast majority of traditionally farmed crops, where our food changes hands several times before it ever reaches us. 

“Our produce is harvested, packed, and delivered specifically for you,” Advani said, speaking of Honest Greens’ home delivery platform, adding that products are farmed and delivered to customers within two days. “We know exactly which space in our farm your plant came from. When you eat it, you get that crunch you can’t find anywhere else. It’s like picking fresh leaves from your own garden.”

Vertical farming and Sri Lanka’s agricultural future

Honest Greens indoor vertical farm uses a myriad of technologies to build a farm that is climate-resilient, resource-efficient, and able to provide fresh produce 

Looking to the future, Advani explained that the pandemic showed just how delicate our agricultural supply chain was, especially during our very first lockdown. With people inside their homes and movement severely restricted, all steps of the agricultural supply chain were affected, from farmers getting the equipment and resources they needed to continue farming, to transporting produce, to being able to get your hands on fresh vegetables.

“Because we have our entire supply-chain in-house, we were able to get our product out to market really fast. We went directly to our consumers online, and people were so grateful to their products really fast,” Advani said.

In addition to control over the supply chain, indoor vertical farming gives farmers much more control over producing crops. “With traditional agriculture, especially in Sri Lanka, you wait for the rains to come to start the season,” Advani explained, adding: “With indoor vertical farming, you control it all year round. It’s important to understand that we’re on the equator, an area likely to feel the most impact of climate change – things we traditionally thought would be easier to grow outside will no longer be easy to grow because of climate change. What we’re doing with vertical farming is very important for the entire supply chain and how things need to move forward.” Advani also explained that with factors like weather out of the way, crops would also be able to grow all year round and stay the same price, as opposed to fluctuating because of externalities.

As a method of farming, though, vertical farming is quite young and still evolving, so there are limitations on what kind of crops can be grown just yet. Cooray shared that Honest Greens, and vertical farming in general, are still only in phase one of their potential, with only the ability to grow cash crops like leafy greens at present. Phase two would involve crops that grow on little bushes like berries, and phase three would be starch crops like wheat and rice. However, getting to this stage is still prohibitively expensive, though this is slowly changing. “In the next 10 years, we can get to this stage for sure, because traditional farming will become more expensive and difficult while indoor vertical farming will become cheaper and easier,” Cooray said.

Honest Greens indoor vertical farm uses a myriad of technologies to build a farm that is climate-resilient, resource-efficient, and able to provide fresh produce 

We are still a long way from Sri Lanka becoming a chiefly indoor vertically farmed country though, with the Honest Greens team sharing that indoor vertical farming is a very expensive undertaking, both in terms of capital expenditure and operational costs, which will greatly limit how many farmers can adapt to such a farming method. At this point, indoor vertical farms would be a hard shift for local farmers to make, not just because of investment, but also because of expertise, with the team adding that they developed the Honest Greens indoor vertical farm, and so, are not dependent on anyone else for fixing problems with their farming system. However, if an indoor farming solution were to be purchased because these systems are so heavily automated, farmers would then be heavily reliant on their suppliers to fix any issues.

“At Honest Greens, we are honestly looking at Sri Lanka as a model project with our long-term agenda focusing more on the global market,” Cooray explained. “We see indoor vertical farming playing a very large role in global agriculture down the line, both with our existing challenges of food security, climate change, rising populations, and with the whole host of surprises we’re not yet aware of.”

With agriculture very much in need of a revamp, not just locally, but globally, indoor vertical farming, while still a fledgling technology, has the potential to bear great fruit. With the Honest Greens team pioneering a solution that could ultimately become sustainable in the long-term future, here’s hoping that our own agricultural industry stops and takes stock of how it can become future-ready.

Honest Greens produce is available at leading supermarkets such as Keells, Cargills, SPAR, Glomark and Arpico and through their website