Penn State students' affordable greenhouse effort helping African farmers

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- An ongoing project by students in the College of Engineering's Humanitarian and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program is helping Africans move beyond subsistence farming by developing affordable, inexpensive greenhouses. (Learn more about the HESE program here.)

"The project aims to bring subsistence farmers to small-scale farming," explained Arianna De Reus, project team member and a junior in Community, Environment and Development in the College of Agricultural Sciences. "It's an affordable greenhouse designed by students."

The Hollidaysburg, Pa., native said most people in east Africa grow what they need for day-to-day living. Small plots and a short growing season conspire to make cultivating extra crops for revenue a major challenge.

Khanjan Mehta, the HESE program's director, said that although greenhouses are commercially available, they are too large and too expensive for rural farmers.

So about four years ago, students in the HESE program began developing a greenhouse that would be smaller, less expensive and accessible to farmers.

Mehta said the team went through approximately 12 to 15 designs before finding one that worked. The current design is 5.5 meters by 6 meters and is one-fourth the cost of other greenhouses in Kenya.

De Reus said the Penn State greenhouse uses a standard hoop-house configuration that consists of polypropylene random copolymer pipes, plastic glazing and lumber.

"We buy all the materials locally," she said.

The team licensed their technology to Mavuuno Greenhouses, a Kenya-based firm owned by Penn State alumni, to design and sell the greenhouse kits.

The Penn State greenhouse costs approximately $600, compared to a standard greenhouse, which goes for about $2,300 and is twice the size of the students' version, according to Mehta.

"It's all about true sustainability," said Curtis Eckard, a supply chain and information systems junior from Jersey Shore, Pa. "It's about having them own it and generate revenue."

Six hundred dollars is still a large sum of money for most people, so a partnership was established with two banks to allow farmers to finance a greenhouse's cost.

"They can purchase it and pay it off within three growing seasons," Eckard said. "It's about empowering others. That's why I'm involved."

De Reus added that a small portion of the profits go to HESE to advance the greenhouse venture in other world regions.

With a greenhouse, a farmer can extend a growing season to three crop cycles. Mehta said that's remarkable considering the climate in countries such as Kenya. "A lot of the country is cold and then there's the rainy season working against farmers."

De Reus said farmers can cultivate a number of crops in the greenhouse, including herbs, carrots, beans and tomatoes -- which are especially profitable.

She added the greenhouse is also a boon for quality as the enclosed environment helps keep out pests.

The project's initial success in Kenya has led to expansion into Rwanda, as well as the exploration of partnerships in Cameroon, Haiti, Madagascar and Bolivia.

Mehta said the greenhouses can be used in a number of geographic areas. "The secret sauce is how to manage the microclimate inside the greenhouse. We teach the farmers how to do it."

The effort has garnered a number of awards and recognition since its inception. In 2012 the project received a $40,000 grant from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA) and a $15,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In February, the team won a $2,000 second-place prize at the Alleviating Poverty through Entrepreneurship Summit's business plan competition in Columbus, Ohio. The affordable greenhouse project was also a runner-up in the National Academy of Engineering's 2013 U.S. Global Grand Challenges Summit Video Contest.

The team was invited to showcase their project at the 2013 NCIIA Open Minds exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., in March and the EPA's National Sustainable Design Expo in April on the National Mall.

Despite the accolades, the students continue improving the greenhouse design. A particular focal point is the plastic glazing that forms the bulk of the structure and protects the crops.

"The greenhouse glazing is the most expensive part," De Reus said.

Shayne Bement, a fifth-year engineering science student, said the team's gone through a few different types of glazing.

He said an ultraviolet-resistant specialized plastic was imported from Europe and the team employed some plastic sourced locally in Kenya. The European plastic tends to be expensive and the local plastic eventually breaks down after prolonged exposure to the sun's UV radiation.

The Palmyra, Pa., native said the team's looking at recycling the plastic used in sacks of rice as a possible glazing substitute.

Working with students at Penn State Erie's plastics engineering technology program, the HESE students are investigating the bags' translucency and evapotranspiration properties.

Initial tests with the plastic from rice bags weren't very successful. "It turns into a yellow, foggy color," Bement said. The bags became brittle and broke down within weeks.

"We want to make sure the rice bags have the same water retention properties," he said. If successful the recycled rice bags could help further trim the cost of a greenhouse. The team will also continue investigating other materials and coatings.

This past summer, the team returned to Kenya and Rwanda to construct more greenhouses, establish partnerships with local banks and microfinance organizations, and conduct additional field tests. After Kenya, Mehta traveled to Cameroon to lay the groundwork for a greenhouse manufacturing company in collaboration with a local company called Jola Ventures.

"It's opened a lot of doors for me," Bement said of his experience with the HESE program. "I'm hoping to get a publication out of it. I'm hoping to start a career as an innovator-entrepreneur-type engineer."

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Last Updated September 10, 2013