Addressing Food Insecurity

The Growcer Gets Food Systems Up and Growing in Food Deserts

Why It Matters

The Growcer’s product to address food security is quickly gaining traction. The social purpose company manufactures modular plug-and-play hydroponic systems to enable food production in remote communities. As part of our series on addressing emerging issues through entrepreneurship, co-founder and CEO Corey Ellis tells us how to get a social mission business up and running to address urgent needs.

How did Growcer start?

We knew that agriculture is a way to lift people out of poverty, but also to prevent poverty. We knew if the numbers made sense and we could build a business around this, we could create farms where there were no farms, create jobs, and create value in communities. I see business as a tool for good. That is the lens me and co-founder Alida Burke had when we had the idea for Growcer. Food has a lot of socio-economic layers and so we wanted to work with that in mind.

How did you become obsessed with food pricing and availability?

I was part of a student organization at the University of Ottawa. We were in Iqaluit speaking with community members and the idea came to us. Our plan was to grow food in Iqaluit by working with volunteers. Back in Ottawa, we saw food deserts—those places where there were no grocery stores and the only food available was canned, processed, or unhealthy. We realized that these were two different contexts, but they had the same need.

What is the state of food insecurity in Canada?

It’s scary. When you look at Nunavut, 70 percent of households are food insecure. They can’t feed their children on a regular basis. That’s dire. In urban contexts, the same problem exists, but it’s more invisible. Your coworkers or classmates may not have eaten today, for example. Canada is a pretty food insecure country, because we import the majority of the food we eat: We supply ourselves from two states in the U.S. and a few regions in Mexico. If anything were to happen in those regions, we’d have two weeks of supply. In places like St. John’s, they would last three days. A weather event means a plane can’t fly or a ship can’t get in and you have bare shelves.

The Growcer. Q&A on food security in Future of Good.

This is becoming a serious global threat. What does the next decade look like in this space? What should we be thinking about?

There will be a period of rapid change that is scary, but will hopefully create a lot of opportunities. When you pay for food, you are not actually factoring in the true costs of what it takes to produce that food. When you factor in all the externalities of our food system, we’re actually running a deficit. It’s about the way we use our agricultural land, using water responsibly, fair and livable wages, and replenishing the soil. The Netherlands, as a case study, is good. They heavily invested in how they can reduce pesticide use quickly. That was done with intentional policy decisions and by bringing business people to the decision table. I hope people can align themselves to do things urgently so that we can prepare for that shift.

The Canadian government has committed $750 million towards a social finance fund. As an entrepreneur, what would that fund need to do in order for you to be excited about it?

It would need to bring more new people to the table. Right now, only the big players are at the table. New models need to have an impact while still playing within the mainstream sandbox. It’s a matter of changing mentality so that new organizations in social impact aren’t seen as risky.

You have a proven product that is gaining traction. What advice would you have for impact investors and grantmakers across the country?

What investors of all stripes need to remember is that their dollars dictate a lot of things. What investors and grantmakers say they value, social purpose companies tend to value as well. We need to focus on what we do well and scale that and communicate that value proposition. Impact investors and grantmakers need to see themselves as part of growing a new class of social impact ventures, without penalizing or shifting what is already working with that venture.