Malaysian paraplegic farmer realises his dream of an aquaponic farm


In future, Aqua Hope desires that its farm will offer employment to people in the community, especially those with disabilities, single mothers and retirees, said Dr Tang.

In December 2015, a car accident left Dr Billy Tang, an agriculturist and private researcher, with traumatic spinal cord injury.

The accident happened near a university in Kota Damansara, Selangor. In trying to avoid a motorcyclist, who was not wearing a helmet, Tang inadvertently drove up a divider, causing his car to flip over and hit a big tree.

He was blinded in the left eye but later regained 70% of his vision after an operation. He also had six broken ribs and a transected spinal cord which rendered him a paraplegic. His world fell apart after the crash, and he was a broken man.

He was in rehabilitation in Melaka for six months. Thanks to the support of his loved ones, he was plucked out of his emotional doldrums and also became physically stronger.

A determined person, he aspired to return to his area of expertise – urban farming.

Last July, Tang, 53, of Kota Damansara, discovered a new purpose in life when he and four others co-founded Aqua Hope, a showcase of hydroponic and aquaponic urban farming in Semenyih, Selangor. Presently, only 1.2ha of the 8ha land is used for farming.

(Hydroponics and aquaponics are methods of soil-less cultivation.)

Aqua Hope
Aqua Hope, a demonstration urban farm, in Semenyih, Selangor, is the first of its kind employing soil-less techniques to grow fresh organic produce that is free from herbicides and pesticides.

Tang has been involved in agriculture and private research for two decades. That has inculcated in him the passion for sustainable farming and businesses that are environmentally sustainable.

This project was initiated by five co-founders. Tang’s business partners – and ex-schoolmates – are corporate lawyer Steven Lee Wai Kuen, gynaecologist Dr Mak Foo Sing and entrepreneur Danny Kok Yin Khong, all aged 53. The fifth partner is plastics manufacturer Tan Yow Wah, 60.

Aqua Hope
Dr Tang (middle, foreground) with co-founders of Aqua Hope: Danny Kok (second from left) with his wife (far left) and from right to left: Tan Yow Wah, Steven Lee and Dr Mak. Photo: Aqua Hope

A paraplegic, Tang could not undertake farming the conventional way using soil. After several meetings with his co-founders, they decided to embark on soil-less farming.

“Aqua Hope, a demonstration urban farm, is the first of its kind employing soil-less techniques to grow fresh organic produce that is free from herbicides and pesticides,” said Tang, who was an icon for People With Disabilities (PWD) at the Selangor OKU Career Carnival last November.

In future, Aqua Hope desires that its farm will offer employment to people in the community, especially those with disabilities, single mothers and retirees, said Dr Tang.

The farm is gradually gaining a foothold in the community.

Greater life after a setback

Today, he is cheerful and spirited, compared to his dark days after the accident.

He recalled: “For the first six months, I was faced with depression, big time. On several occasions, I contemplated suicide as I just wanted to end the pain of having lost urinary and bowel control.”

These days, he is still fighting chronic pain daily but is not on any painkillers for now. Nevertheless, he has more reasons to live.

“With unconditional love, encouragement and the support of my beloved wife and two sons, relatives and friends, I have come to terms with life as a paraplegic,” he said.

For over 10 years, Tang, also a missionary, was involved in humanitarian, sustainable missions through agriculture-based industries in Myanmar and the Philippines.

In early 2015, he was conferred an honorary doctor of philosophy in humanities, by the International Academy for Leadership in Oklahoma, the United States, in partnership with Philippine Christian College Inc and the Alliance of Chaplains for Transformation Society.

He said: “Aqua Hope was born as a research and development centre and vocational training involving the disabled. In partnership with Central Luzon State University in the Philippines, the farm is a pilot demonstration-cum-commercial urban PWD Smart Farm, which creates meaningful jobs and helps the community to integrate with disabled people and their families.

Aqua Hope
Single mother Seow Soo Teng (right) gave up her job as property agent to learn a new vocational skill in modern soil-less farming with her 19-year-old disabled son, Ooi Kai Wei.

“In the future, the farm also plans to provide technical education, with recognised certification, including a diploma in agricultural engineering.”

The farm currently produces 10,000 plants in a 557sq m green house each month. It has the ability to harvest 189 plants per square metre. It also breeds 250 Australian Jade Perch.

Varied backgrounds

Most of the tanks and hardware at the farm are manufactured in Tan’s factory.

He said: “The goal is to supply organic and pesticide-free fresh food directly to nearby communities within a 10km radius.” Tan believes the farm can drive the local economy that is environmentally sustainable.

Lee, too, is hopeful that “the direct supply of fresh greens to nearby communities will stimulate the local economy and reduce the importation of vegetables”.

Aqua Hope
Dr Tang (red T-shirt) and visitors tasting red lettuce from the farm in Semenyih.

Lee ventured into aquaculture over 15 years ago. His company was the first to import, breed and introduce the Australian Jade Perch to the Malaysian market. He is involved in a hybrid grouper nursery and also an all-male udang galah (Malaysian fresh giant prawns) hatchery and grow-out operations (breeding from fries to adult size).

A co-founder of seafoodmalaysia.my (an e-commerce marketplace platform), Lee is involved in farm development, operations, marketing and sales.

Kok is involved in the distribution of commercial kitchen equipment for the food service industry for South-East Asia. His company Ultimate Circle is the Asia wholesaler for many international brands, such as Fagor.

Well-connected to many hotels and restaurants in the region, Kok hopes to be able to introduce Aqua Hope’s pesticide- and herbicide-­free food to the hotel industry.

Dr Mak joined in the business to help Tang re-enter society to contribute his expertise.

In future, Aqua Hope desires that its farm will offer employment to people in the community, especially those with disabilities, single mothers and retirees. Presently, there are four disabled employees who help with seeding, planting and harvesting, together with the caregivers.

There are plans to set up more similar farms where interested parties will be invited to invest. This would allow consumers to know where and how their food is produced, that is, without harmful pesticides and herbicides.

It is also the farm’s plan to sponsor part of the produce to local old folks’ homes and orphanages.

Aqua Hope
Dr Tang briefing children about how food is grown at the farm.

 

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