What began as a university assignment has grown into something much bigger: a free iPhone app for home-growers to exchange backyard produce with their neighbours.

Sprout was created by 21-year-old Monash University student Joseph Sinclair, who lives in Parkdale, a suburb in Melbourne’s south-east. Within three days of its launch around a month ago, the app ranked higher than Grill’d and Starbucks in the food-and-drink section of the App Store. (It’s still early days, though, and while there are plenty of users, not many have shared produce just yet.)

“I believe in giving everybody the opportunity to access fresh produce,” says Sinclair. “Having communities, especially in more rural areas … make their own fresh produce and share that with their community became a real passion.”

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Sprout users pin their location and create a profile to list the produce they have available. You can filter items by type (the categories are fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, animal products and herbs) and refine your search to free or for-sale items, as well as ripe or growing items.

With filters applied, a map will show “sprouts” signifying nearby users with the produce you’re searching for. Then you can send the owner a message directly to coordinate your purchase or swap.

All financial transactions are done outside of Sprout, and Sinclair encourages users to abide by social-distancing rules and do contactless swaps by leaving items in front yards or on porches.

Sinclair’s original assignment was to develop an app for an iOS development class during the first half of 2019, and he decided to base his project around his interest in healthy, sustainable and affordable eating. He was also inspired by a trip, taken earlier that year, to his girlfriend’s family’s orchard in New Zealand – the family is almost completely self-sufficient, and they leave excess produce out for neighbours in exchange for honesty-box payments. Sinclair liked the honesty system, which he decided to develop and modernise for Sprout.

At this stage the app is focused on Melbourne and surrounding regional areas, but users are budding all the way up the east coast to Queensland, in Western Australia, South Australia and even overseas.

Sinclair also plans to add a photo function so users can see available produce, and a newsfeed to share updates about new additions.

Down the track, he hopes an education function could share nutrition and cooking tips.

“I want to take it as big as possible and make it accessible to everyone,” says Sinclair. “I want it to be a movement that can benefit people’s health in all aspects.”

The app is currently only available on iPhones, but Sinclair has started a Gofundme fundraiser to raise money for the development of an Android version.