2014 – Off-grid Food Storage System

urban ag / design society development / industrial design / appropriate technology / UJ / food storage

The Design of an Off-grid Food Storage System for Small-scale Urban Farmers within the Community of Soweto, South Africa.

Natalia Tofas, BTech Industrial Design, 2014.
Supervised by Angus D. Campbell & Dr. Naudé Malan

Provisional Patent: 2014/08761: FOOD STORAGE SYSTEM

The focus of this project was the design of an off-grid food storage system for small-scale urban farmers in Soweto, Gauteng, South Africa. Central to the study, are the participants, who have informed the solution through a process of co-design, involving iterative prototyping and product development. The project is a response to the observation that there is a lack of an existing design solutions for the problem of inefficient post-harvest food storage for small-scale farmers, resulting in post-harvest losses and limited productivity. The study takes a stance that a pragmatic “bottom up” approach to design will result in a product that is more appropriate for the intended context. Such an approach has more potential to assist the farmers to emerge within their community, and is demonstrated in the resulting design of the Umlimi Urban food storage unit.

Food insecurity is an issue that continues to be apparent in many marginalised communities both in the context of South Africa and other developing countries. Issues of food insecurity are linked to food accessibility, distribution and nutritive value (Shisanya & Hendriks 2011:511). In South Africa, considerations towards this pertinent issue have been approached in the form of government grants and external aid programmes (only to name a few) yet food insecurity continues to intensify (McLachlan & Thorne 2009:4). External aid proves to be unsuccessful in introducing technology to marginalised communities as it fails to consider important aspects of the context, rendering the users dependent on the external source. An effective approach to this problem, that remains largely untapped, resides in the field of industrial design, specifically with the use of co-design methods. This research project concerned itself with the application of current and emerging theories around Participatory Action Research (PAR), to inform the development of food storage technology to be used by small-scale urban farmers located in Soweto, Gauteng, South Africa.

Research indicates that the concept of small-scale urban farming is ideally positioned within a community to elicit change in food accessibility, distribution and quality, but productivity on these farms is somewhat underdeveloped (Shisanya & Hendriks 2011:510). Small-scale farms that engage in local economic activity involve a significant amount of preparation, maintenance and financial investment in the farming process up until harvesting. Post-harvest losses and other inefficient post harvesting activities do not do justice to the intense pre-harvesting investments (tilling, purchasing seed, planting, watering and maintaining). This research responded specifically to the shortfall in productivity that happens during the post-harvest phase, and aimed to develop technology that assisted. This short fall involves the poor link between harvested produce and points of sale and was identified to hinder a farm’s growth to its full potential. The short term storage will, thus, aim to facilitate the climate controlled transport of produce to points-of-sale with the prospect of growth to a farm’s full potential.

The design criteria, rather than being pre-determined, were informed through participation with the farmers and so a pragmatic “bottom-up” approach was taken. The sample group consisted of members of the Region D Farmers’ Forum (RDFF).

The final dissertation is available for download here (3.1Mb)
Natalia blog which she authored during the field work of the project can be accessed here


This research is supported by a primary source of funding awarded by the National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa under the category of Innovation for an Honours/BTech study scholarship. This work is also based on the research supported in part by the NRF for the Thuthuka grants held by Angus D. Campbell titled Designing Development: An Exploration of Technology Innovation by Small-scale Urban Farmers in Johannesburg and by Dr. Naudé Malan titled Innovation in the Soweto Food System: Engaging with Soweto Agriculture. Any opinion, finding and conclusion or recommendation expressed in this material is that of the authors and the NRF does not accept any liability in this regard.


McLachlan, M, Thorn, J. 2009. Seedling change: A proposal for renewal in the South African food system. Midrand: DBSA.

Shisanya, SO. Hendriks, SL. 2011. Developing Southern Africa: The Contribution of Community Gardens to Food Security in the Maphephetheni Uplands. London: Routledge.