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Tackling Food Insecurity in Lesotho and Rural Southern Indiana

Tackling Food Insecurity in Lesotho and Rural Southern Indiana

An agricultural startup founded by Purdue University alumni is addressing international food insecurity in the Kingdom of Lesotho and rural southern Indiana, with a goal to expand domestically and internationally.

Heliponix LLC, doing business as anu™, commercializes fully automated, in-home smart gardens that grow daily servings of produce using aeroponics. Aeroponics is a form of hydroponics, the technique of growing plants without soil.

The anu smart gardens consume less energy and more than 98% less water than conventional field farming. Produce includes most leafy green vegetables, culinary herbs, and fruiting and flowering plants, which anu manufactures in seedpods.

Purdue Polytechnic Institute alumni Scott Massey and Ivan Ball founded anu, inspired by working on NASA-funded hydroponic research at Purdue led by Cary Mitchell, professor of horticulture in the College of Agriculture. Purdue Innovates has invested in anu, and the Indiana Economic Development Corp. awarded the company an Indiana Manufacturing Readiness Grant in 2023.

Anu in Lesotho

According to the World Food Programme, Lesotho has a population of 2 million. More than 24% of the population lives in extreme poverty, and around 580,000 people face food insecurity.

In summer 2017, Massey met Fellows from the U.S. Department of State’s Mandela Washington Fellowship, who spent six weeks at Purdue for a Leadership in Business Institute. During their Institute, Fellows had the opportunity to learn about hydroponic farming. Massey participated in the fellowship’s Reciprocal Exchange component to build the first hydroponic systems in Togo in 2018 and Cameroon in 2019. Reciprocal Exchanges strengthen mutual understanding between the U.S. and Africa and contribute to U.S. public diplomacy efforts. U.S. experts and leaders are encouraged to collaborate with Fellows on critical issues such as promoting peace, stability and economic prosperity.

In 2022 Massey mentored Tiisetso Sefatsane, a Mandela Washington Fellow and Mosotho, or member of the Basotho people, during her Leadership in Business Institute at Purdue. Sefatsane returned to Lesotho with hardware to create a functional proof-of-concept system of anu’s technology. It was solar-powered to achieve complete off-grid self-sufficiency.

“Having Scott as my mentor has been a true turning point for me and the community,” Sefatsane said. “Scott not only assisted me on my business pitch, but he also gifted me a pair of grow-ring aeroponics systems. These have been used as proof-of-concept systems in the mountain kingdom to grow vegetables all year round so Basotho can learn climate-smart agriculture tools and techniques.”

Sefatsane, Massey and Ball received a Reciprocal Exchange grant to increase the capacity of the systems from 250 to 750 plants at a time.

“Today, we host students from different backgrounds for capacity building by producing high yields on small spaces and saving water using environmentally friendly tools and techniques,” Sefatsane said. “The anu system has proven its sustainability as we grow vegetables throughout the year, even in the winter season’s harsh, cold weather conditions. The system also can be used in rural areas where there is no grid power because it can be solar-powered.”

Massey said anu will continue its work with Sefatsane and her­­­­ farm.

“We will maintain the growth of Tiisetso’s farm and we look forward to expanding across the Kingdom of Lesotho and eventually the African continent in parallel to domestic U.S. growth,” Massey said.

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Photo Credit: gettyimages-valentinrussanov

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