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Urban farming social enterprise bears fruit for local community
BECOMING a farmer in Singapore sounds risky enough, but former digital marketer Bjorn Low decided to take it a step further by starting his own urban farming social enterprise, Edible Garden City.
Established in 2012, the company aims to bring people together through farming, by building community farms and sharing its knowledge on urban farming.
"In every community there is always a group of people who need help. So when we have the opportunity and capability to do so, we jump straight into it," said Mr Low.
After learning that many male elderly men tend to be reclusive and are at risk of social isolation, he worked with social workers to start a new project, Ah Gong Farm.
Located at Pearl Hill, Chinatown, the farm serves as an avenue for elderly men to learn about farming together and forge friendships. It also allows social workers to get to know them better and to cater to each elderly's individual needs.
Mr Low was deeply moved when he saw one withdrawn participant become more cheerful and talkative as the biweekly lessons progressed. The man even shared that he visited the garden on nights when he had difficulty sleeping.
"Boundaries are very blurred between gardening and therapy," said Mr Low, who hopes that the elderly might become motivated to join Edible Garden City's team of part-time farmers.
"It is noble - something to be proud of - to grow food for the community. It is important to give our elderly this confidence," he added.
Recently, Ah Gong Farm also welcomed its first two female members.
Through collaborations with the Autism Resource Centre, Employment For People with Intellectual Disabilities, and the Singapore Prison Service, Edible Garden City also brings these farming lessons to people with autism, people with mental disabilities, and inmates as well, equipping them with the skills to pursue farming as a career.
Edible Garden City's other main objective is to solve the sustainability problem in Singapore.
"Mass-scale agriculture is causing land degradation. And Singapore, which imports 90 per cent of its food products, is at the receiving end of it. So this is an urgent matter not for the sake of us today, but for our future generation," explained Mr Low.
To tackle this, he is practising closed loop agriculture, where food waste is made into compost to grow more food.
As an example, after three years of trial and error, Edible Garden City recently discovered a viable way of using grounded coffee waste to grow mushrooms, which are then sold to local restaurants.
With support from Temasek Foundation, the company is also currently working on creating closed loop self-contained farming units in the form of containers. It hopes to distribute these containers to housing areas across the island, so that each community can grow their own food sustainably.
Similar to Edible Garden City's other farms, these container farms will also be semi-commercial, which means the yield will be sold to generate profit.
"For Singapore to be a fully closed loop is possible, but becoming fully self-sustainable will be a challenge. Growing rice and grains locally is still challenging, but if there is a need, we will find a way to do it," stated Mr Low.
To achieve this goal, Edible Garden City also holds workshops at its production arm, Citizen Farm, and collaborates with local primary schools to teach farming to students.
"The industry is so young and so new, we want to encourage more people to join it. We even encourage our own staff to go out and create their own urban farming systems. Competitors can bring in new ideas and push for healthy growth in the industry," said Mr Low.
However, competition does not hinder the business from growing rapidly. From a S$10,000 capital six years ago, Edible Garden City's revenue reached S$1.3 million last year. This was generated from building herb gardens for restaurants and hotels, teaching in schools, and selling harvested plants and urban farming tools. The company's team has also expanded to almost 40 individuals from various walks of life.
"Whenever we do a project, we always remind ourselves that we are a social enterprise, so we try to find areas where we can maximise our social impact."
This year, Mr Low was nominated as a fellow of Ashoka, a non-profit organisation which supports social entrepreneurship.
"It made me happy that the work done in the last five years is being recognised, but I'm also a little bit nervous because it means I have more responsibilities," shared Mr Low, who hopes to exchange knowledge and ideas with the fellows from all around the globe.
- This article is part of a fortnightly series highlighting socially impactful companies. For more information, visit www.raise.sg