Organic farmers in Zambia are the first this year to take part in the free trial this year of the company’s patent-pending, transportable Smartbox, a compact, shipping container-sized system that operates flexibly on field sites.
Here all the harvested plant, including the fibre which is not used at the moment, can be turned into the feedstock for commercially valuable products while the “box” runs on energy from the oil produced.
“Hemp is an incredible plant that sucks huge amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere while it grows, it has a bigger impact than trees,” says London-based eHH chief executive and entrepreneur Peter Miles.
“It’s resilient, grows quickly and helps soils retain moisture. It can be a foundation for the green industrial revolution that we desperately need to reverse the damage and help communities who live with the consequences now.”
eHH views its Smartbox as a catalyst to drive the opportunities hemp offers. “Especially on under-utilised land. All the plant is put to good use, not just the seeds. Our focus will be on pellet production and growers, many of them women, will be among our stakeholders,” explains Miles.
“Farmers won’t grow hemp unless there is an end market and manufacturers won’t establish uses without a guaranteed supply. We bring the two together in a viable way.
“Our farm has 1,000 acres in Zambia and teaches Integrated Organic Bio-Intensive Agriculture to local communities and charities so cultivation can take place efficiently on less land without artificial fertilisers.
“As we begin to scale we see production and employment opportunities for our system in the UK where forward-thinking growers are emerging. Our box could be truck mounted and sustainably serve farming communities and bring economic growth to more economically challenged areas.”
The modular Smartbox was invented by eHH co-founder engineer Andy Neal, a long-time friend of Miles from the days when they both worked in the music industry. A third partner is agricultural specialist and Zambian resident Steven Putter.
“How our box is configured is the clever bit,” says Miles. Unit manufacture is currently in the US and the founders, dispersed across the UK, the US and Africa, have bootstrapped the project from scratch over the past couple of years.
Up to 1883 hemp was the largest crop in the world, it was so important providing the raw material for ropes and sails for the Navy during king Henry V111’s reign it was actually illegal not to grow it.
But since that high it has suffered from its classification leading to restrictions. Although often confused with cannabis, it is a different variety of the same plant and contains less tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a compound that causes the ‘high’ that people associate with cannabis use
“The crop has still been demonised for years,” says Miles. “Thinking and approaches are changing about its benefits, but still we need licences to grow it. This increases bureaucracy and costs.
“In Zambia the regenerative agricultural potential has been recognised as growers contend with the impact of changing weather patterns on other crops. Restrictions have eased and we’re in the vanguard of the new industry there.”
Now eHH has grown to a team of 15. Expansion is being stepped up and the company is aiming to raise up to £1.5m of external investment by this spring.
Cofndrs.com, a platform championing social and environmental causes, is also adding its support.
A £10million turnover is forecast for 2023 when it plans to have more than 100 Smartboxes in action, backed too by grant funding. Selling carbon offset credits to more polluting companies will also contribute to revenues.
eHH’s future business model is likely to take the form of a leasing, sales and franchising mix with a million hectares under hemp cultivation by 2030.
When the company showcased its innovation at the recent UN Climate Conference Cop26, “we were amazed by the goodwill we encountered from people, especially the young, for our Smartbox. We came away with plenty of strong leads,” says Miles.
“But,” he warns, “time is running out to save the planet and we must seize this chance and supercharge the hemp industry.”