How Rooftop Republic Is Creating A Sustainable Future Through Urban Farming

Written byAston Jon Genovea
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How can we create more sustainable cities by changing our food eco-system? The answer… urban farming.

One company, Rooftop Republic has pioneered the urban farming movement in Hong Kong for the past five years by transforming the relationship people have with food and the installation of farms in under-utilized spaces. From design, installation to maintenance, and community engagement, Rooftop Republic’s vision is to incorporate urban farms into city-dwellers’ lifestyles and reconnect people with their food. In a concrete urban jungle like Hong Kong or Singapore where its residents are highly dependent on imports, there is often a disconnect in where food comes from. By creating appreciation and knowledge about the origins of food, this will increase the likelihood of supporting local farmers. Rooftop Republic is leading the movement in Hong Kong through its multi-faceted approach to education and driving awareness of urban farming, working with corporate clients like Cathay Pacific, Starbucks and Kiehls and hosting interactive workshops to bring local communities together.

We caught up with Michelle Hong, co-founder of Rooftop Republic to learn more about how she came to start the company, why regenerative agriculture is the solution to climate change and what lessons we can learn from COVID-19 to create a more sustainable future.

Rooftop Farm at the Business Environment Council
Photo Credit: Mark Teo

Can you tell us about the background of Rooftop Republic and how you came to start the company?

Rooftop Republic Urban Farming is a social enterprise established in 2015 and our team is working towards the vision of more sustainable cities and communities through urban farming.

My founders and I are born and bred city people, and growing up in super urbanized cities like Hong Kong and Singapore brought us to a place where we easily took our food for granted – it was only where we started visiting local farms, speaking with local farmers and understanding the place of local, and organic farming amidst a huge dependency on imported vegetables (>98% for Hong Kong!) that we realized the need for people to be reconnected with their food, and to rethink our consumption habits.

We believe that through the process of growing their own food, they will be able to re-build this relationship with their food, get to know their farmers, connect with their local community and help to bring about a more sustainable, healthier and inclusive food system.

Being city-people ourselves, we wanted the accessibility of being able to grow our food close by to where we lived, and understanding the time pressure of many city dwellers like us, we knew that to get more people on board growing their own food, we would need to make it accessible for them so that they can engage with it on a daily basis.

We looked around and realized there was a huge untapped potential within the city itself – while we were surrounded by the dense build-up of concrete and skyscrapers, there were many under-utilized spaces on the roofs of our buildings.

According to the latest research by Matthew Pryor, a HKU architecture professor, there are 6 million square meters of rooftop space that could be suitable for rooftop farming and currently, not even 1% is being used. This is where the opportunity of bringing farming into the city lies – not only are we converting these underutilized into green and productive spaces but also as a platform where we can bring communities together.

How has the urban farming movement in Hong Kong changed and developed since you started?

We’ve seen a massive increase in interest around everything that has to do with urban farming, sustainable and local food. In the past 5 years, we have seen an explosion of farmers markets, organic vegetable delivery platforms, new restaurants priding themselves of sourcing their produce locally or sustainably, sustainable food related events or school programmes, etc.

Part of this interest stems from the fact that Hong Kongers are increasingly concerned about the food they put on their dinner tables and they are demanding for food that is safe, healthy and sustainably produced, and also the fact that generally speaking we are more conscious about our environment than ever before and are increasingly aware on the role the food we put on our dinner tables contributes to climate change and threats to our environment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also started an awakening among people and made them realise how vulnerable the food system and supply is, on top of reinforcing the importance to consume healthy and clean vegetables. In Hong Kong there has been an increase in demand for local organic produce after the pandemic broke out, as well as an increased number of people who wish to start growing their own vegetables at home to supplement their food sources.

Michelle Hong, Founder of Rooftop Republic
Photo Credit: Matthieu Millet

What problems are Rooftop Republic solving for the Hong Kong community?

Hong Kong is a city heavily dependent on food imports, where more than 98% of our food is imported,  but yet we are also responsible for huge amounts of food waste. We are 100% urbanized, and that means that our food growing capacity is limited.

We bring an experience-based urban farming lifestyle to the city, and this means that people are able to learn and grow their own source of healthy, nutritious, seasonal organic vegetables. Through urban farming, we are able to reconnect people with their food, and create more awareness about where their food comes from, and increase their likelihood of supporting local farmers. Through our urban farming projects, we are able to employ local farmers and provide them with additional sources of income. By providing urban farms/gardens within the city, we are able to create opportunities for city dwellers to retreat and connect with nature and improve their well-being.

What are some of the challenges of urban farming in Hong Kong? How have you overcome them?

One top challenge of urban farming in Hong Kong is definitely the typhoon seasons, and that causes a lot of uncertainty for everyone who is growing their own food especially in summer. Over the years, we have implemented processes and systems to secure the hardware even for Typhoons of Signal 10. What is difficult to guarantee though is the safety of the crops and vegetables, and while vegetables are usually hardy and can revive after the typhoon has passed, many taller plants or plants that require trellises such as corn, cucumbers, eggplants and so on may be completely uprooted and destroyed in a typhoon. 

There’s a silver lining even in such destruction, we think, as people do realize through the microcosm of their urban garden or rooftop farm, the work of local organic farmers who weather and bear the costs of the weather changes multiple times over, and this also leads to them appreciating these farmers more, as well as appreciating the value of our food better.

Tomatoes growing at a Rooftop Farm in Hong Kong
Photo Credit: Matthieu Millet

Why is regenerative agriculture now more important than ever?

Regenerative agriculture has a direct impact towards reversing climate change, and is essential towards restoring balance into our planet’s soil through improving the organic matter in our soil, and encouraging the growth of microorganisms, a huge amount of which has been destroyed through the process of industrial and conventional agriculture.

What we would really want people to realize is that healthy soil is essential for health and a sustainable and continued food ecosystem, but unfortunately many of the solutions available to feed our growing population remain to be at a hefty cost to the environment through the use of synthetic fertilizers, chemicals, and pesticides that destroy these precious microorganisms.

With the wake-up call generated by COVID-19, we see that many people around the world are now paying attention to how vulnerable our bodies can be to viruses, and vegetables that are grown through regenerative agriculture methods are much more nutrient-dense, but also ensures that we protect our soil and top-soil for the continued survival and provision of food for the world’s population.

How has sustainability awareness grown in Asia and where is there room for improvement?

With climate change issues, greater empowerment of youths, and other health threats and crises that came before COVID-19 (MERS, African Swine Flu in China), the topic of sustainability and the survival of the planet now has a more personal meaning and impact in the individual’s life. What is encouraging to see is that the plant-based movement has been growing exponentially, and there are more and more options, alternatives and solutions for people to easily make the change from a meat-heavy diet to a plant-based one. 

Sustainability to me is about social issues as much as it is about environmental issues, and while I can see the impact and change from highlighting the environmental side of things, I am hoping that through these innovative solutions that mitigate climate change, more can be done to reduce inequality in society for people who are in disadvantaged situations or who lack the resources or access to the benefits that are reaped from the work done to improve the environment and planet. One example would be for the real value of food to be recognized and for growers of organic produce, taking the effort to protect our planet through regenerative agriculture, to be more fairly compensated for their work.

Rooftop Farm at the Business Environment Council
Photo Credit: Mark Teo

What lessons can we learn about resilience and regeneration as a result of Covid-19?

One powerful message that stood out to me during this period that transcends language, nationality, background and cultures is that no matter how divided we are on many issues, humanity has the capability and capacity to rally together to overcome a global challenge, and to support one another at the grassroots level.

To learn more about Rooftop Republic, visit their website here.

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