2023 Indigenous Communities Fellowship



Creating an indigenous space in controlled environment agriculture for tribal economic development and community resiliency through training and knowledge sharing.

Team Lead

Chantel Harrison

Solution Overview & Team Lead Details

Our Organization


What is the name of your solution?


Provide a one-line summary of your solution.

Creating an indigenous space in controlled environment agriculture for tribal economic development and community resiliency through training and knowledge sharing.

Film your elevator pitch.

What specific problem are you solving?

The 2017 Census of Agriculture conducted by the USDA reported that there were 71,947 American Indian or Alaska Native producers operating on 56.6 million acres of land in the US - majority of these producers were located in the western States. Additionally, the number of American Indian or Alaska Native producers increased by 18% from 2007 to 2017, which is higher than the national average increase of 9%. These statistics suggest that there is a growing interest in agriculture on tribal lands and among enrolled tribal members.

However, there are significant challenges to overcome in order to promote sustainable agricultural practices and economic development on tribal lands. The economics of agribusiness on tribal lands are shaped by various factors such as land ownership history, government policies, and cultural traditions. Tribal communities have a long-standing history of farming and agriculture, which continues to play a crucial role in their culture and way of life.

Government policies, including complex regulations and past policies like the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and the termination policy of the 1950s, have also affected tribal economies and agriculture. This complex web of regulations can make it challenging for tribal farmers to navigate the rules and regulations related to their land and resources.

Tribal farmers face many challenges on and off the reservation, such as limited access to capital, markets, and resources. According to a study by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), Native Americans are more likely to live in poverty than the general population, with a poverty rate of 25.4% compared to 14.5% for the general population. NCAI also reported that Native American-owned businesses have difficulty accessing capital from banks, and only 19% of Native American business owners are able to secure bank loans compared to 31% of non-Native American business owners. Many tribal farmers have limited access to markets to sell their products due to a lack of infrastructure, transportation barriers, and limited access to distribution channels. The USDA reports that 90% of Native American farmers and ranchers live in areas with limited access to grocery stores and supermarkets. Tribal farmers often lack access to resources such as irrigation, water rights, and technical assistance. This can limit their ability to grow crops and maintain healthy soil. Climate change is a growing concern for tribal farmers, who often rely on traditional ecological knowledge to make decisions about when to plant and harvest crops. Changes in weather patterns and extreme weather events can have a significant impact on crop yields and soil health. Many tribal farmers also face cultural and language barriers that can limit their ability to access resources and participate in government programs.

To address these challenges, a multifaceted approach is required. This includes increasing access to capital, improving access to markets, providing technical assistance and resources, addressing climate change, and addressing cultural and language barriers. By addressing these challenges, tribal farmers can build sustainable agricultural enterprises that contribute to their communities' economic development, food security, and sovereignty.

What is your solution?

Access to technology has influenced the economics of agribusiness on tribal lands positively. Advances in technology have allowed tribal farmers to adopt new farming techniques and innovative technologies to improve crop yields, save time and increase profits. For instance, some tribes have started to use controlled environment agriculture (CEA) technology that enables them to potentially grow crops indoors in a controlled environment, ensuring year-round production, reduced water usage, and better pest control. CEA technology has the potential to allow tribal farmers to grow more food with less space, water, and energy. However, many urban and rural indigenous individuals and communities lack the resources and knowledge needed to successfully implement these technologies.

Our mission at Indigeponics is to promote sustainable food production and bridge the gap between CEA and indigenous communities. We strive to empower indigenous individuals and communities to:

  • Grow their own fresh produce and culturally relevant crops using innovative technologies and sustainable practices

    • Using various hydroponic systems, CEA sensors & systems, or specialized irrigation/fertigation techniques depending on community needs, available resources, and preferences for crop production.

  • Provide educational and professional training in hydroponics, greenhouse, and systems design to meet needs

    • Hosting hands-on workshops/trainings & greenhouse facility tours (virtually or in-person)

    • Maintaining a central virtual resource center website accessible to community members for professional development and education.

  • Work with tribes to develop culturally relevant CEA practices and business models that meet individual and community needs

    • Designing new workbooks and manuals that focus on individual tribal agriculture, food sovereignty, and growing practices alongside tribal representatives that they own.

    • Guiding business models for individual growers up to larger tribal agribusinesses to meet their goals using CEA technologies.

  • Indigenize a space within CEA using relevant language and stories to promote traditional knowledge and create new knowledge sharing

    • Creating protocols (stories) guided by traditional practices and ceremonies regarding seed keeping, sprouting, growing, harvesting, and processing plant products that fit into the CEA space.

    • Discovering new strategies in growing and protecting cultural and indigenous medicinal plants respectfully in tribal CEA.

    • Focusing on the philosophy that “Plants are Relatives” and creating a new Indigenous narrative for the CEA community.

At Indigeponics, we recognize the importance of not only providing resources and support to indigenous communities, but empowering individual communities to further strengthen their sovereignty through food security and potential economic development opportunities. That is why we prioritize culturally relevant educational and professional training alongside crop production as part of our mission.

The services and products that Indigeponics provides will help address the challenges tribal farmers face while providing an opportunity for economic development. Indigeponics provides a multifaceted approach to better utilize limited capital, improve access to markets while creating new ones, providing technical assistance and resources, addressing climate change through efficient natural resource use, and addressing cultural and language barriers. Alongside Indigeponics, tribal farmers and communities can build sustainable agricultural enterprises that contribute to their economic development, food security, and sovereignty.

Who does your solution serve, and in what ways will the solution impact their lives?

Indigeponics is an organization that has a variety of beneficiaries. The current services and products are tailored to help individual tribal community members find an interest in CEA and hydroponics. However, there is the capacity to work with larger tribal organizations such as health & wellness centers, schools, colleges, non-profits, and for-profit agribusinesses located within tribal communities.

During our training and through networking with indigenous farmers, we have heard their desire to incorporate CEA technologies into their programs. Many of these programs share a desire to learn about hydroponics and greenhouse crop production. Some tribal communities have constructed greenhouses but feel that they are under-utilizing its potential due to lack of training and knowledge. Some expressed interest in incorporating new growing systems into their communities but have no professional expertise in creating, running, or maintaining these systems. Those tribal communities who have a CEA greenhouse with hydroponic systems feel that they could use further training on crop production protocols, handling & food processing, and business planning assistance.

Our work and collaboration with Navajo Nation’s Diné College during our professional training highlighted Diné elders' concerns. They shared concerns about how their traditional knowledge and practices would be translated into the CEA and hydroponic space. They shared concerns about the connection between traditional agricultural practices & knowledge and how this newer technique/technology could interfere with knowledge sharing. They also shared concerns for the environmental and natural resource impacts that on their community.

The mission of Indigeponics is to promote sustainable food production and bridge the gap between controlled environment agriculture and indigenous communities, striving to empower indigenous individuals and communities. Whether it is working at the individual or community level, Indigeponics will start answering the question of what CEA technology holds for tribal communities and how can we indigenize the CEA space. Depending on the level, Indigeponics can provide these services and products:

  • Community Member

    • Hands-on training and workshops on-site or virtually

    • Greenhouse facility tour & introduction to hydroponic systems

    • Hydroponic & CEA manuals / workbooks / printed materials

    • Small agribusiness planning / modeling & CEA system design assistance

  • Organizations

    • Hands-on training and workshops on-site or virtually

    • Greenhouse facility tour & introduction to hydroponic systems

    • Hydroponic & CEA manuals / workbooks / printed materials

    • CEA system design; installation & maintenance assistance

  • Elementary & Secondary schools

    • Hands-on training and workshops on-site or virtually

    • Greenhouse facility tour & introduction to hydroponic systems

    • Hydroponic & CEA manuals / workbooks / printed materials

    • Demonstration DIY system installation in classrooms

  • Colleges & Universities

    • Hands-on training and workshops on-site or virtually

    • Greenhouse facility tour & introduction to hydroponic systems

    • Hydroponic & CEA manuals / workbooks / printed materials

    • Culturally relevant curriculum - CEA, agricultural technologies, hydroponics, Food-Energy-Water-Sovereignty-Security Nexus, food systems

    • Demonstration DIY system installation in classrooms or teaching greenhouse

  • Agribusinesses

    • Hands-on training and workshops on-site or virtually

    • Greenhouse facility tour & introduction to hydroponic systems

    • Hydroponic & CEA manuals / workbooks / printed materials

    • Agribusiness planning / modeling & CEA system design assistance

Which Indigenous community(s) does your solution benefit? In what ways will your solution benefit this community?

Indigeponics is currently servicing the Native American communities in the Tucson area, namely the Native American student population per a grant funding source. While Indigeponics hopes to include all tribal nations on turtle island, much of our focus and work is on tribal communities in the Southwest, predominantly Arizona. Much of the work and material design leading up to the official creation of Indigeponics was created for the Diné (Navajo) community. 

The students and faculty that have participated in our workshop represent 4 different tribal nations along with representation of Asian, Hispanic, Latino, and White populations. Also all the produce harvested from the Indigeponics greenhouse is donated to the student pantry on campus, the Women and Gender Resource center, and the Native American Student Association free of charge.

During our recent workshops and through marketing and networking we have started collaborating with other tribes such as Pascua Yaqui, Fort Mojave, and Tohono O’odham who have shared interest in our work and products. Our team has connections with many tribal farmers and tribal organizations on and off reservation lands. We have extended invitations to a few of these contacts to tour the greenhouse facilities and get to know more about our services and products.

The founding partners of Indigeponics are both enrolled members of the Diné Nation. Many of our collaborating partners and supporters at the University of Arizona are indigenous and have helped guide and train us to work within tribal nations respectfully. While the headquarters of our operation and our crop growing production greenhouse will be in an urban area, those we work with could be residing on or off tribal reservation lands. Most of the tribal organizations will be supported and reside on tribal lands while individuals / farmers could be on or off of tribal lands.

As we continue to form these partnerships and work alongside a variety of tribal communities, we are gathering more insight into what CEA technology might mean for them. We are able to  better identify where our work needs to focus, how to develop culturally relevant materials, and the type of training and systems are of interest. Through these interactions we will be able to provide guidance to individuals, tribes, communities, and organizations looking to learn more and improve community resiliency and food security through CEA technology.

How are you and your team well-positioned to deliver this solution?

The Indigeponics founding team includes Chantel Harrison and Jaymus Lee. Both team members are from the Navajo Nation and have familial roots in small-scale farming near the Navajo Nation Reservation. Both of the founding members of Indigeponics have recently completed a Professional Masters of Science (PSM) in Controlled Environment Agriculture. Through their course work, internship experiences, and an Indige-FEWSS NSF fellowship, they are confident in their abilities, interests, and work ethics to pursue developing one of the first Indigenous led and operated CEA hydroponic operations. Both see the need for CEA growing operations and CEA technical support on and off tribal lands due to the effects of climate change, limited resources, and continual contamination of water and land on indigenous lands.

Since 2019, Jaymus has been working with Diné College located in Tsaile, Arizona within the Navajo Nation on a pilot project. The pilot project is a collaborative project between Diné College and the University of Arizona to build an off-grid CEA greenhouse with hydroponic systems powered by  photovoltaic panels. The pilot project has provided direct opportunities to work within a tribal community and has allowed them to train and work directly alongside tribal college faculty, students, and campus programs. As part of the project he was tasked with developing training materials that the community could use to maintain the hydroponic and photovoltaic systems and to make the project sustainable for the community.

Chantel has been working to better understand how to respectfully cultivate and grow indigenous plants in a CEA greenhouse using hydroponic systems. Her project has allowed her to connect with indigenous seed keepers and farmers from southwest tribes. In order to fund her project and obtain the Indigeponics greenhouse space, Chantel was awarded the Tribal Resilience Initiative - Native Pathways grant. The grant aims to bolster traditionally underserved and underrepresented UArizona faculty, staff, and students committed to community-engaged learning, design thinking training, diverse and collaborative team-building, new technology development, and more impactful outreach that will promote tribal resilience. Chantel also has professional experience working with tribal health and wellness programs prior to starting her graduate studies. She was a nutritionist and SDPI nutrition educator for two different tribes in Arizona and was also an SNAP-ED instructional specialist for the University of Arizona.

Chantel and Jaymus collectively have over 10 years of experience working directly with indigenous individuals, families, and tribal communities, and have a deep understanding of the unique needs and socioeconomic challenges. They believe Indigeponics will empower the next generation of minority CEA growers and promote sustainable food systems through hydroponic growing operations while making a meaningful impact on our local and indigenous communities.

Which dimension of the Challenge does your solution most closely address?

Support the creation, growth, and success of Indigenous-owned businesses and promote economic opportunity in Indigenous communities.

In what city, town, or region is your solution team headquartered?

Tucson, Arizona

In what country is your solution team headquartered?

  • United States

What is your solution’s stage of development?

Pilot: An organization testing a product, service, or business model with a small number of users

How many people does your solution currently serve?

10 tribal members & 5 non-tribal; 1 tribal community farm (in discussion)

Why are you applying to Solve?

As a new small agribusiness, we face several barriers that Solve can help us overcome through its network of partners and resources. These include:

  1. Financial Barriers: One of the most significant barriers we are facing is access to funding. As a new agribusiness, it can be challenging to secure funding for initial capital expenditures such as land, equipment, and supplies. Solve can help by connecting with investors and financial institutions that can provide the capital to start and sustain Indigeponics.

  2. Technical Barriers: Another challenge we face is the lack of technical expertise and knowledge required to operate a successful agribusiness. Solve can help us by connecting us with mentors and experts who can provide guidance on best practices when starting a business.

  3. Legal Barriers: Starting a new agribusiness can also be challenging due to complex regulatory requirements and compliance issues. Solve can help me by connecting me with legal experts who can provide guidance on navigating the legal landscape of agriculture and business startups.

  4. Cultural Barriers: Agriculture is deeply rooted in culture, and as a new agribusiness, it is important to be sensitive to cultural traditions and practices. Solve can further help me by creating a community of indigenous Solvers who can provide further guidance on working with local communities and respecting cultural practices that we may not be aware of presently.

  5. Market Barriers: Finally, as a new agribusiness, it can be challenging to establish a market for my products. Solve can help me by connecting me with partners who can provide guidance on market research, product development, and distribution channels.

We believe that Solve can help us overcome these barriers by connecting us with its vast network of partners and resources. Through this support, we can establish a successful and sustainable agribusiness that contributes to the economic development and food security of our local community.

In which of the following areas do you most need partners or support?

  • Business Model (e.g. product-market fit, strategy & development)
  • Financial (e.g. accounting practices, pitching to investors)
  • Human Capital (e.g. sourcing talent, board development)
  • Legal or Regulatory Matters
  • Product / Service Distribution (e.g. delivery, logistics, expanding client base)

Who is the Team Lead for your solution?

Jaymus Lee

Please indicate the tribal affiliation of your Team Lead.

Diné (Navajo)

How is your Team Lead connected to the community or communities in which your project is based?

Jaymus is a member of the Navajo Nation and a recent graduate student of the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona. He is one of the founders of Indigeponics, LLC with a background in CEA greenhouse & hydroponic system design and has experience working and living in tribal communities. He was born in the Four Corners area and has been a resident of Arizona for 30 years with strong ties to his father's family community in Red Mesa / Teec Nos Pos Arizona and is a registered member of the Shiprock Chapter.

More About Your Solution

What makes your solution innovative?

There is no other program or business model that aims to empower indigenous communities with culturally relevant CEA and hydroponic education for their communities. We want to be more than just CEA hydroponic crop producers for urban communities, we want to provide an opportunity for any level of growers to find success and create knowledge in the CEA space. Through these opportunities we could catalyze economic development on and off the reservation for tribal members. By training tribal communities in CEA technology and techniques, we are creating resilient communities and helping to preserve and create new traditional agricultural practices.

What are your impact goals for the next year and the next five years, and how will you achieve them?

As a new business, our focus is to find capital to start our crop production side of the business. Over the next five years, while trying to secure funding for land and infrastructure, our goal will be training and educational development with tribal communities who may already have greenhouses. We will work alongside tribal organizations to help them develop their CEA infrastructure and hydroponic systems while continuing to develop our small new agribusiness.

Which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does your solution address?

  • 1. No Poverty
  • 2. Zero Hunger
  • 3. Good Health and Well-being
  • 4. Quality Education
  • 8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • 9. Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
  • 10. Reduced Inequalities
  • 11. Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • 12. Responsible Consumption and Production
  • 15. Life on Land

How are you measuring your progress toward your impact goals?

Currently in our "Pilot Phase" we have been assessing our impact through pre and post survey of participants attending our workshops. We have seen a positive trend of knowledge learned and shared during our workshops.

Aside from surveys we have assessment tools that we have to complete to satisfy our grant funding requirements and end of year reports.

What is your theory of change?

Native American communities have historically been agriculturalists and are considered the stewards of the land. Much of the sustainable agricultural practices that are being talked about in the Southwest are common knowledge and practices of the original inhabitants of the area. As indigenous people we care for and connect with our land, it is was helps identify who we are and connects us all.

The reason that our solution will have an impact is because it provides an avenue in which tribal members can reconnect with their land and conserve and protect it. It provides an opportunity for food security and sovereignty while creating resiliency in their communities. The solution creates an indigenous space that supports farmers and members looking to improve themselves and their communities.

Describe the core technology that powers your solution.

The core technology that powers our solution is focused around CEA greenhouses and hydroponic systems. These are the most common types of technology that might be found, but that are not all inclusive.

Controlled Environment Greenhouse:

  • Climate control systems: including heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and humidification
  • Automated irrigation systems: to deliver precise amounts of water and nutrients to plants
  • Artificial lighting systems: to supplement natural light and maintain optimal plant growth
  • Carbon dioxide injection systems: to enhance plant growth
  • Environmental sensors: to monitor temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide levels, and other environmental factors
  • Shade curtains and blackout systems: to regulate light levels and photoperiod
  • Computerized control systems: to automate and regulate all aspects of the greenhouse environment

Hydroponic Systems:

  • Recirculating water systems: to deliver nutrient-rich water directly to plant roots
  • Pumps and timers: to automate water and nutrient delivery
  • pH and EC meters: to monitor and adjust nutrient levels in the water
  • Hydroponic substrates: including rockwool, perlite, and coconut coir, to support plant growth
  • Vertical farming systems: to maximize space utilization and increase yields
  • LED grow lights: to provide specific wavelengths of light for optimal plant growth
  • Nutrient dosing systems: to precisely deliver nutrients to plants based on their growth stage and needs

Which of the following categories best describes your solution?

A new business model or process that relies on technology to be successful

Please select the technologies currently used in your solution:

  • Ancestral Technology & Practices
  • Audiovisual Media
  • Materials Science
  • Software and Mobile Applications

In which parts of the US and/or Canada do you currently operate?


In which parts of the US and/or Canada will you be operating within the next year?

Southwest US

Your Team

What type of organization is your solution team?

For-profit, including B-Corp or similar models

How many people work on your solution team?

2 full-time, 1 part-time

How long have you been working on your solution?

Less than a year

What is your approach to incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusivity into your work?

Our current leadership is all Native American tribal members (Diné), one is a female.

Our current part-time worker is European White.

Our goal moving forward would be Native American preference for hiring as we grow into a larger business. The goal is to create a workforce of Native American CEA specialists that either continue on with our business or create their own.

Your Business Model & Funding

Do you primarily provide products or services directly to individuals, to other organizations, or to the government?

Individual consumers or stakeholders (B2C)

What is your plan for becoming financially sustainable?

Currently all our funding has been through a variety of University associated grants amounting to around $50,000. Due to the grant funding sources in connection with the University we are unable to sell our crop products.

We have applied for some small business grants focused on infrastructure building - waiting to be notified. We are also just starting to work with the local Farm Bureau to get connected to USDA resources.

One of the biggest draws to the MIT solve is make connections and learn more about funding sources for our new agribusiness and revenue modeling / financial planning.

Solution Team

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