All it took for Time To Grow was a seed of social-entrepreneurial determination, fertilised with imagination.
By Alexis Lai
In a concrete jungle like Hong Kong, the thought of lettuce bonding with skyscrapers may seem implausible.
But urban farming consultancy Time To Grow (TTG) has planted the seeds of a greener future in the city of seven million, which imports more than 90 per cent of its food.
Co-founder Pol Fàbrega, an NGO worker originally from Barcelona, traces TTG’s roots to a meeting of minds in early 2012 through the social entrepreneurship network Enspiral.
He and four other Hong Kongers met with veteran organic farmer Pui-Kwan Chu, who wanted to bring the organic farming movement from the New Territories into the heart of the city.
“Hong Kong real estate prices are insane, but we have all these big empty rooftops,” says Fàbrega.
“We saw an opportunity to create a market for transforming them into edible landscapes, and platforms to raise awareness of food sustainability.”
Kicking off with pooled personal savings of around HK$150,000 (A$21,400), TTG began developing a rooftop farm installation service.
Chu and other organic farmers from the New Territories taught them how to assess the viability of a rooftop, looking at issues such as space, light, and water access, and determining suitable types of vegetables and soil.
But before TTG had figured out its business plan, Chu’s reputation attracted a plum contract from Hang Lung Properties to build a rooftop farm and organise family-friendly workshops for a campaign at its Peak Galleria mall.
“Somehow we had to get our act together and deliver our first project,” Fàbrega says. And it coincided with Typhoon Vicente in July 2012, one of Hong Kong’s worst storms in 13 years.
“We tied up all the planters, but we had no idea how the farm was going to cope. Fortunately, none of the plants died and the damaged ones recovered quickly,” Fàbrega recalls.
“To our surprise, we quickly realised there was a big demand for rooftop farming. People were coming to us. We came in at the right time.”
Last year, The University of Hong Kong launched its 185.8sq m rooftop farm growing cherry tomatoes, leafy Asian greens such as bok choi and tong hao (edible chrysanthemum), and herbs such as rosemary, thyme and mint to seed its students’ ideas about sustainability.
Rooftop farming has also become a popular corporate social responsibility initiative for companies.
TTG has created a farm on the roof of the Bank of America Tower in Hong Kong’s central business district as part of real estate company Jones Lang LaSalle’s employee engagement program.
Flourishing on the tower’s lofty roof is an impressive range of lettuces.
Rooftop farming has also become a popular corporate social responsibility initiative
While competitors have sprung up, Fàbrega believes TTG maintains a competitive edge by providing a “full package” of services: installation, maintenance, and bilingual educational programs, such as workshops, community meals and farm-to-table events.
One of its current projects – building and maintaining rooftop farms at two secondary schools – was funded by a corporate sponsor and the harvest is donated to a food bank.
TTG has already launched around 20 urban farms and turned a profit. But only one of the co-founders works full-time at TTG; two have left and the other two still have day jobs. A full-time program manager has been hired.
“It’s more than about making money,” says Fàbrega.
“Hong Kong is the most urbanised place on earth. We go to the supermarket and everything is there, but we’re not aware of what’s behind that tomato before it gets to our plate.”
One piece of advice
If you see an opportunity, absolutely go for it. We went in blind and didn’t know if there was a market or not.
But we had passion, we saw the opportunity, and didn’t think twice.
Read next: Does urban farming have a future?
This article is from the November 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK.