2014 – Umlimi Urban 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

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).


This work is based on research supported in part by the National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa for the Thuthuka, unique grant number 88030 held by Angus D. Campbell and titled, Designing Development: An Exploration of Technology Innovation by Small-Scale Urban Farmers in Johannesburg, and unique grant number 88059 held by Dr. Naudé Malan and titled, Innovation in the Soweto Food System: Engaging with Soweto Agriculture. Any opinion, finding, and conclusion or recommendation expressed in this material are that of the authors, and the NRF does not accept any liability in this regard.


Umlimi Urban Behance Portfolio, 2017: https://www.behance.net/gallery/58496981/Umlimi-Urban-off-grid-food-storage-small-scale-farming

Campbell, A.D. & Malan, N. 2017 (forthcoming). Izindaba Zokudla (Conversations About Food): Innovation in the Soweto Food System. In, Abendroth, L.M. & Bell, B. (Eds.) Public Interest Design Education Guidebook: Curricula, Strategies, and SEED Academic Case Studies. London: Routledge.

Malan, N., Campbell, A.D., Sibeko, J., van Zyl, C. & Benecke, R. 2015. Service Learning for Food Security: The Izindaba Zokudla Experience. The Fourth Conference of the South African Development Studies Association (2015): Development in Troubled Times. Port Elizabeth, South Africa: Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Oct 12.

Tofas, N., Campbell, A.D., & Malan, N. 2014. Food Storage System, ZA Provisional Patent 2014/08761.

Tofas, N. 2014. The Design of an Off-grid Food Storage System for Small-scale Urban Farmers within the Community of Soweto, South Africa. BTech Industrial Design Mini-Dissertation. University of Johannesburg. (3.1Mb)

Natalia’s blog which she authored during the field work of the project can be accessed here


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.