A Conversation with...

Zeina Chapman, co-founder of Liberty Produce

Zeina Chapman is a director at Liberty Produce, which is partnering with CHAP to create the Innovation Hub for Controlled Environment Agriculture, within the Future Farming hub at the James Hutton Institute in Dundee. CHAP chats to her to find out how she got involved in launching this agri-tech innovation start-up, her personal motivation and hopes for the future.

How would you describe your day job to someone outside your company?

At Liberty, no two days are the same. We have some fixed processes in place, including a weekly team planning meeting and a daily 10-minute huddle. These help us to align our priorities for the week and give each of us a better understanding of what our team mates are focusing on each day and how we can help.

Outside of this, I spend much of my time talking with customers, understanding their pain points and how we can make our technology as effective as possible. We recently launched our Folio Nova lighting system for indoor vertical farming and gathering feedback from trials with our customers is invaluable.

More recently I have spent a lot of time overseeing the build of the CHAP Innovation Hub for Controlled-Environment Agriculture (IHCEA). This is a commercial demonstrator vertical farming facility that aims to accelerate research and innovation in controlled environment agriculture.

How did you get involved with vertical farming?

I have always had a keen interest in food and food supply chains: my father is Lebanese and culturally, within my upbringing, food has always played a significant role. After leaving university with a degree in biology and travelling the world on a seven-month “food tour” (I based my travels on countries where I wanted to sample the food!), I returned to the UK and landed my dream job as a food buyer at Marks and Spencer, where I learnt about the complexities of our food supply chain and the impact its volatility has on availability, quality and price. I really enjoyed working with suppliers in the protected crop areas such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. I realised how growers were benefiting from new technology such as supplementary LED lighting to lengthen the growing season. At that point though, retailers were still a long way off taking produce from facilities that could deliver at the scale and economics required.

After leaving M&S, I was contacted by an old university pal – Philippe Mozzanega (Liberty’s Head of Growing) – who was in the early stages of starting a vertical farming business. He and his business partner, Dylan Banks (Liberty’s Chief Knowledge Officer) – recognising that the commercial viability of vertical farming required operating at a large scale – were planning to build a production unit that could supply directly to retailers and they wanted my help. Together we engaged with technology suppliers and potential customers to fully understand the opportunity.

It was then that we met the team from CHAP who were also interested in developing capabilities in this area. In the UK the technology to build vertical farms was limited, and turnkey solutions required imports from Asia, where such systems are more mainstream. We saw an opportunity to develop a UK technology base and sought support from CHAP to build an innovation hub for controlled-environment growing, specifically focused on commercialising technologies that benefit this industry. As a result of the progress we’ve made,  the large-scale farm is now also in the pipeline and we are working with a number of partners to build facilities in the UK and beyond.

What do you find most challenging about working in your field?

I think the most challenging elements of working in this field are those associated with it being a new and nascent industry. There are fewer than 10 commercial vertical farms in the UK and the skills and knowledge required to design, build and run facilities is limited to a handful of individuals. This provides an incredible opportunity for people involved to shape the industry but comes with a responsibility to do this in the right way. For Liberty Produce, this means remaining committed to our greater vision of driving innovations that will enable the UK (and indeed the world) to meet our food requirements over the next century without harming the planet.

How has the work you do been affected by the partnership with CHAP?

CHAP have been really supportive to Liberty Produce from our first meeting. They have been great at making introductions to people both within industry and academia, many of whom we have gone on to collaborate with on a wide variety of projects. I believe what CHAP does is quite unique: they take measured risks to work on projects that they perceive have the potential to fundamentally alter agricultural production and future-proof our food supply. The large array of successful projects and capabilities which CHAP have funded is testament to this.

Starting a company can be very challenging. Where do you look for advice or support when you need it?

I have a large network of people that I seek help and advice from, including my family, current and ex-work colleagues and friends. As a female entrepreneur working in an industry dominated by men, I also find myself seeking advice and support from other women in the industry where I can. I have been lucky to work with some inspiring leaders whose values I try to channel in my work. Indeed, while at M&S, I really learned what it meant to build a customer-centric business and the value of working in a positive, challenging and fun environment. This has been crucial in determining the positive working culture of Liberty Produce; we have tried to establish a respectful and agile working environment that fosters understanding by seeking and providing advice and constructive feedback both internally and externally.

What advice would you give to recent new entrants to the field?

Build your network: it will be an invaluable resource to you as you develop your career. The industry is small and people are generally very open to explore opportunities to work together, collaborate and welcome newcomers into the field. Be curious! Be open to different opportunities and possibilities: setting a plan or career path from which you are unwilling to deviate limits your chance of success. Liberty Produce is a very different company from the first business plan we wrote two years ago. We’ve explored different routes and threads of activity, some which have led us down dead ends and many which have been incredibly fruitful and rewarding. Whatever the outcome, we believe every interaction, meeting or call has had an impact and taught us something valuable.

What do you think/hope will be the biggest change in agriculture over the next five years?

I think the ongoing diversification of food production systems will continue, with the increased installation of more sustainable growing facilities such as vertical farms. This will be aligned with the development and adoption of new technologies as they come online.

I hope that the movement of change we are currently experiencing regarding the climate and sustainability continue to gather pace and that consumer awareness and understanding of where our food comes from alters their purchasing decisions. Changes like this could potentially accelerate the investment in and development of new tech like vertical farming.

For more information on the IHCEA go to our Capabilities section. For more about Liberty Produce go to the Liberty Produce website.

Please note, the opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of CHAP.