Dunya Habitats: increasing food security with tiny farms

Cleantech team at Dunya Habitats

As we navigate a global pandemic and a just recovery, we want to amplify the stories of those who are working towards a low-carbon future, like Dunya Habitats. To build a vibrant low-carbon economy, we’ll need innovative tech that supports our needs while preserving the environment. That’s why Bullfrog Power is sponsoring the Centre for Social Innovation’s Earth Tech, an accelerator for startups and nonprofits working on climate and freshwater solutions.

The story of Dunya Habitats is several generations long. Founder and CEO Sugeevan Shanmuganathan’s father, Arun, was a former agricultural officer from a smallholder farming family in Sri Lanka.

Once he retired, Arun often visited the local market in Jaffna. There, he observed a young man selling produce. He learned this man was only there every few weeks. Because his family’s land was small, their produce would often perish due to pests and droughts. Hearing this story rekindled Arun’s passion for higher-yield, efficient farming practices based on the latest advances in sustainable agriculture.

Arun passed this passion for sustainable agriculture and social impact down to his kids Sugeevan and Sumi. It became the driving force behind Dunya Habitats.

Dunya—which translates to “earth” in many languages—is an agricultural technology company that provides modular, climate-controlled hydroponic farming solutions.

A family operation: team Shanmuganathan

Dunya Habitats' Tiny Farms
A close-up of one of Dunya Habitats’ Tiny Farms

“Dunya Habitats was established to support our vision to help minimize food scarcity issues in Indigenous and refugee communities,” explains Sugeevan. “It was inspired and remains inspired by our earnest desire to find a technology that not only addresses the problem of global food insecurity, but provides a livelihood.”

Their team created an innovative solution: Dunya Habitats. These tiny farms are based on the construction of a beehive. The habitat snaps together for easy assembly, maximizes use of space, and can scale as needed.

And in a time of frequent droughts and unstable climate conditions, Dunya’s products aim to minimize crop loss and increase food security. Currently, they’re working with Canadian farmers to ensure the product receives testing under the most rigorous conditions. Subsequently, they’ve received global attention from UN agencies like FAO, WFP and UNHCR that are working to support food security programs in the face of water scarcity and depletion of arable land.

Food security in a changing climate

Climate change is already impacting growing seasons. Furthermore, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for supply chains to adapt to consumers’ changing demands and trade barriers. The stakes couldn’t be higher for the challenges that Dunya Habitats addresses.

“There is an opportunity for tech to lead in innovation of new methods in agriculture. To not only mitigate against climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but to also strengthen local food systems.”

Sugeevan Shanmuganathan

Facing cleantech’s challenges

But it hasn’t been easy. Dunya’s biggest obstacle as an early-stage startup has been in raising funds. With a lot of hard work, they’ve secured investments to support their research and development costs. They’re also working hard to scale by applying for as many grants and competitions as possible.

“The Earth Tech program has been a valuable asset for our team,” said Sugeevan. “The advice we’ve gotten has been a tremendous help in guiding us over the last few months. I’m grateful to be part of the program at CSI.”

Working with their Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Trevor Coleman, Dunya was able to navigate a number of issues. They continued to grow even amidst the challenges of COVID-19 by closing a small but key seed investment and building a commercial prototype. They’ve also met fellow entrepreneurs that they can lean on for support and guidance.

Despite these challenges, the Dunya team continues to make headway with established collaborators here in Canada and further afield in Europe and Africa. And Sugeevan holds on to optimism.

“I stay motivated by the idea that Dunya Habitats can one day help smallholder farming families around the world in growing, feeding their families, and supporting their communities in prospering.”

Curious about other Earth Tech ventures? See how Flash Forest is planting trees at ten times the normal rate—and at 20% of the cost.

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