Deep in the Jordanian desert you might be surprised to find a team of academics, computer scientists and humanitarians buzzing around washing-machine sized boxes, punching code into nearby laptops. In a country where a mere 10 percent of the land is suitable for cultivation, that’s exactly what you’ll find.

Early in 2017, WFP’s Innovation Accelerator teamed up with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab Open Agriculture Initiative (OpenAg) to send ten high-tech Food Computers to Jordan. It was an unconventional project with a very real ambition; to help design a healthy, next-generation food system that could provide nutritious food in the most extreme conditions.               

The futuristic innovation was the latest in a long line of new ideas supported by WFP’s Innovation Accelerator that aims to provide new solutions to a global food system that faces long-standing challenges. A changing climate, weather shocks and emergencies are affecting where and how food is produced, the yield of harvests, and the overall nutritional value. When one considers the growing global population, it becomes clear that we need to move our thinking beyond age-old land, water and air inputs to ensure nobody goes hungry. As the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) points out, “meeting the goals of eradicating hunger and poverty by 2030, while addressing the threat of climate change, will require a profound transformation of food and agriculture systems worldwide.”

Behind the perspex screen is a specialized hydroponic-based growing chamber. These closed-environment agricultural technology platforms use robotic systems to control and monitor climate, energy, and plant growth. Climate variables such as carbon dioxide, air temperature, humidity, dissolved oxygen, light spectrum, electrical conductivity, and root-zone temperature are among the many conditions that can be controlled and monitored within the growing chamber.   

The H2Grow team planned to scale the production of ‘winning’ crops through the integration of larger low-tech, locally manufactured and cost effective food computers in Azraq refugee camp. Refugees - and the host communities - would be able to grow their own food, sell high-revenue produce on the local market and by running the technology themselves, increase self-reliance.

Overall, the results of this pilot project showed that, while the idea of growing food in a controlled hydroponic environment is worth exploring, early generations of food computers weren't mature enough to function in the types of harsh environments that WFP operates in. This pilot project ended in September 2017, following a thorough review of the results with all parties involved, and the change of business model. 

Currently, in Jordan the best fit solution in our view are low-tech hydroponic units, built and set up with local materials and know-how, supporting Syrian refugees and local vulnerable communities. The wider H2Grow project continues beyond Jordan and uses these low-tech hydroponic units enable food-insecure communities in Algeria, Chad, Sudan, Peru, Kenya and Namibia to sustain themselves.