When Covid-19 hit, among the questions raised, besides the obvious health and safety issues, were food security and accessibility.
With the lockdowns and more time on their hands, many people turned to their garden or balcony space for a sense of calm and also for a practical reason: to grow edible plants.
“Due to the pandemic, there was a spike in interest in people wanting to grow their own food, especially with the various issues of food delivery, transportation, and produce wastage.
“So food security was a very big issue, and having access to local, diverse, and wholesome food was a concern,” said Beatrice Yong, strategy director of Eats, Shoots and Roots (ESR).
Now, however, she has noticed that such interest has slowed down, but what is interesting is the increase in corporate sector commitments.
“The discussion has turned more into wellness and sustainability, and corporations are trying to create more food gardens for their employees,” said Yong.
ESR, a triple award-winning social enterprise established in 2012, was founded with the main purpose of empowering urban folks with skills and tools to grow their own food and reconnect with nature.
To date, it has helped to build 100 edible gardens and aided in the planting of over 28,990 seedlings, working with individual urban dwellers, NGOs, various institutions, and the private sector.
Yong said their projects have a greater impact when there are long-term partnerships, such as the one they have with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA).
“We have been working with the YWCA for over five years, and we helped them set up an urban farm right in the middle of the city.
“We have seen that space grow over the years, and we feel that’s one of our biggest achievements. When we have longer-term partnerships, we can see the changes, as gardening is not a short-term thing,” she emphasised.
ESR also partners with a Montessori pre-school in Bukit Damansara, Kuala Lumpur, where it holds gardening classes every week and conducts school holiday programmes as a way of instilling a love for nature, the environment, and growing their own food in young children.
Among ESR’s key programmes are the No-Dig Raised Gardens and Wanted Waste projects.
“The No-Dig Raised Gardens initiative is about not disrupting the existing soil and ecosystems, but rather adding nutrients to the soil and using raised edges (with bricks, wood, or galvanised steel) and planters to plant on top of the soil,” explained Yong.
“The Wanted Waste project is like an extension of the above, where we turn food and plastic waste into usable solutions.”
Yong said they are also working on creating simple, yet aesthetically pleasing, composting bins that people can put in their homes.
“If you have a garden, it’s easier to compost, but if you do not have land or soil at your home, you may need a different waste management solution.
“We are looking to work with plastic manufacturers to turn people’s plastic waste into these bins and encourage people to compost more,” she said.
Yong added that gardens actually demonstrate all the ecosystems that sustain us, be they water, soil, or biodiversity.
“We can learn all that from the garden, so we hope that subtly, we can help people connect the dots, raise awareness about ecological and social issues, and teach people about local and seasonal foods.
“We try to build resilience through the garden, teaching people about growing from seed, how to make good soil, or how to turn waste into something valuable,” she added.
The NGO’s work does not come without challenges.
“Urban farming, while sounding exciting, is definitely not as sexy as other (ventures) because it’s a lot of hard work and comes with a set of expectations.
“People want their (edible) gardens to look a certain way and not be messy, but it takes a lot of effort, love, and care for them to bear fruit, be consistent, and yet also look good,” said Yong.
Over the years, she said that there has definitely been a growing interest in people wanting to consume the vegetables that they grow themselves.
“But I think the reality is that gardening requires space and is time-consuming, and not many households can afford to spare that.
“Nonetheless, we would like to encourage more Malaysians to compost, eat more local produce, and support their local farmers,” she said.
ESR also aims to find more project partners for long-term projects.
“We also hope to play a role in incorporating more awareness and education within the school syllabus and also start more community gardens in schools,” she said.
Rooted in purpose
A strong advocate of food access and sustainability is PWD Smart FarmAbility (PWDSF), founded by agriculturist and paraplegic Dr Billy Tang Chee Seng.
The multiple-award-winning social enterprise was set up to empower underprivileged communities through regenerative agriculture principles by making nutritious food and food-growing skills accessible to them.This is achieved through key projects like the organic regenerative vegetable terrarium project (Hope Box) and the organic tilapia fish and nutrient-dense vegetable aquaponics satellite farm systems.
From March 2021 to March 2023,
over 7.5 tonnes of fresh vegetables were harvested and consumed from the terrariums, including 665kg of organic red tilapia and 7.56 tonnes of fresh vegetables harvested from 20 satellite farms.Additionally, PWDSF’s Tilapia Global FITS joint venture project, which converts protein-rich fish into ice cream and biscuits, aims to improve the country’s food security as well as reduce stunting and obesity in children.
In 2016, Daerrys Tilapia Ice Cream and Cookies received the SIAL Innovation Gold Award. In 2022, the product won the ETCOR Outstanding Research Management and Innovation (Higher Education) Award.
“The key to empowering the most vulnerable households lies in decentralising food systems through regenerative agriculture. It’s not only about farming; it’s about providing nourishing food and making underserved communities resilient. In this context, sustainability equals survival,” said Tang.
“We’re steadfast in our commitment to the #ScalingUpNutrition Movement, aiming to empower marginalised groups by eliminating hunger, enhancing nutrition, and revolutionising agricultural practices,” he added.
“Globally, farmers are adopting regenerative practices in agrifood startups or large-scale farms. Regenerative approaches promote robust soils, improved water absorption, and reduced erosion, sustaining yields and lowering production costs,” said Tang, adding that they also aim to establish Malaysia’s inaugural farm school, offering comprehensive ethical food production courses.“Let’s invest in people and nature. Let’s explore avenues to support local initiatives for nature-based solutions, conservation, and ecosystem revitalisation through suitable financing methods and incentives.
“We call upon financiers, business visionaries, policymakers, and scientists to collaborate in discovering how we can nourish, heal, and nurture our communities, all while safeguarding and renewing nature and boosting our economies,” he said.