Meet the ecologist growing sustainable greens for Stockholm's top chefs
Publish date: 22 March 2021
The decision to leave Tehran for Stockholm wasn’t an easy one for Alan Koliji. It was 2011 when the Iranian ecologist realised he needed to leave his homeland to pursue the professional freedom and impactful career he craved. He applied for a master’s programme at Stockholm University and within a month had packed his bags and made the move.
“Everything happened so fast! It was tough because my life was pretty much sorted out. But I knew I was leaving to study something I was really interested in.”
A natural-born entrepreneur, Alan says he often dreamed up ideas for new business ventures throughout his studies. Yet it wasn’t until 2018, four years after completing his master’s education, that he finally found his niche.
“I started growing microgreens at home in my living room. They are very nutritious and can contain up to 200 times more vitamins or minerals compared to mature plants. They’re very tasty and beautiful but it can be tricky to grow them.”
To test demand, Alan reached out to several of Stockholm’s big-name chefs to find out if they’d be interested in his product. His idea was still a seedling but the chefs were instantly onboard. Sustainability isn’t just a buzzword on Stockholm’s foodie scene, it’s embedded in the way the chefs work and run their restaurants. There are few cities in the world where the industry cares so deeply about its impact on the environment and in which there is such dedication to working with locally-sourced, seasonal produce. However, when you live in a country with a cold climate, fresh ingredients aren’t always easy to come by. Enter Alan.
“The chefs are really passionate not just about creating the best dishes but also about working sustainably, asking how to replace certain ingredients when they aren’t in season. It’s a really great culinary community we have here,” says Alan.
The chefs’ enthusiastic reception gave Alan the confidence he needed to establish as a sole trader (enskild firma). He set up Microgreens Stockholm and began nurturing his customer base, collecting data, and expanding his products. He soon realised that urban farming had far more potential for growth than initially anticipated, and this growth would be easier achieved as a limited company (Aktiebolag). And so in 2019 Microgreens Stockholm sprouted into Farmy, an indoor farm growing around 60 species of microgreens and rare edible crops and flowers, some of which are being grown indoors for the first time ever, as well as made-to-order produce in a climate-controlled vertical farm.
“Farmy approaches authorities to produce innovative and sustainable solutions for Swedish food production. We want to take urban farming to a higher level than just growing local produce. We develop technologies to grow highly nutritious crops and flowers that are not easy to grow and that are currently imported, which requires heavy plastic packaging. And then we grow them as sustainably as possible. That includes trying to operate in a way that creates more jobs for people who have less possibility to get a job here - like international students or new arrivals. We make sure that any companies we work with operate the same way in their region.”
Support from the City
Stockholm in general has a very active and supportive entrepreneurial ecosystem, which Alan says has played a role in Farmy’s present success. Being in Sweden’s capital, Alan is also well positioned to forge partnerships with some of the company’s largest distributors and is beginning to collaborate with supermarkets including ICA, Sweden’s largest grocery retailer. It hasn’t all been plain sailing, but when the going gets tough there are measures in place to protect businesses. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Alan was able to contact state-run business developer ALMI which offered him a loan despite Farmy not yet having any annual reports.
“It was a good feeling knowing that if something went wrong, we wouldn’t go bankrupt. I don’t think this kind of support is so easy to come by in many or even any countries.”
Starting his business in Stockholm has certainly come with its unique advantages, believes Alan. From the support he’s received from the City and startup community to the enthusiasm and openness of the local culinary scene, he admits he can think of few, if any, cities that would have been better for him to start up in.
“I surprise the chefs with my products, they like the product and the way it’s grown. I can bring them things they haven’t seen or grow exactly what they want without leaving a footprint. There’s this awareness within the community about sustainability, and I don’t know if it’s as strong in other places. So that’s a big advantage.”