By Monika Ghosh and Sharon Lewis This article is the last of a four-part Tech’s Year in Review series reviewing developments across industries in 2020. It discusses the world of healthtech and biotech, foodtech and agritech, and sustainability. This article is the last of a four-part [...]
By Jasmine Chan
Rooftop Republic is fertilizing a sustainable lifestyle through urban farming
Hong Kong is a city of over 7 million residents with a population density of 17,311 people per square mile (World Population Review). It’s challenging to elevate residents’ quality of life when space is as scarce as it is, but urban farming is being presented as a solution by incorporating wellness and sustainable practices into city-dwelling.
Andrew Tsui has always been passionate about social transformation and aimed to empower communities to adopt a greener lifestyle. In 2015, he co-founded Rooftop Republic, an impact business, with Michelle Hong and Pol Fabrega. They discovered that by nurturing a more intimate relationship with food and nature through the activity of farming, urbanites like Hongkongers would become more conscious about their consumption habits.
The company also aspires to shape future cities to be more livable and inspire people to re-think the produce they’re consuming. Rooftop Republic works with architects, engineers, organic farmers, chefs, and nutritionists to develop and deliver urban farming solutions, converting more than 60 idle urban spaces into rooftop farms across Hong Kong since its founding.
Jumpstart interviews Tsui to understand the company’s mission, the challenges it’s faced in advocating urban farming, and why innovating on a green economic model is the way forward for the movement.
From farm to circularity
Tsui was in real estate management before embarking on his social entrepreneurship journey. Working with architects, urban planners, and government officials led him to believe that building an economic infrastructure is the first and foremost criterion for changing people’s lives.
“A lot of people have been talking about sustainability–how important and how urgent it is for us to change. But without an economy around sustainability, it’s really hard to drive and sustain that,” he says.
In 2017, Rooftop Republic was awarded the ‘Most Outstanding Social Enterprise (Meritorious)’ and ‘Most Innovative Social Enterprise’ accolades at the Social Enterprise Awards Hong Kong. Although the company’s social mission is at the forefront of its operations, its co-founders have also created a revenue model that works alongside its efforts to build a circular economy.
Tsui describes the company’s business model as “farming as a service.” Its clients include corporations, restaurants, schools, and local communities, and it provides farm design and installation services for urban farms as well as professional farm management. Though these services are profit-driven, the company believes that such projects and partnerships will accelerate public understanding of urban farming, showcasing its potential to transform cities. The word ‘rooftop’ is an iconic representation of untapped urban sites.
“There are around 6 million square meters of rooftop that are potentially farmable in Hong Kong with good accessibility and physical condition,” Tsui says. “We mobilized, and we are forming a tribe of people who come together and transform these idle places.”
Inside the city’s mindset
Although the benefits of urban farming are clear, Tsui says that the cosmopolitan mindset of efficiency, which is deeply rooted in Hong Kong, is a notable challenge.
“In the fast-paced urban lifestyle, time is money. People don’t allow time for nature to take care of itself,” he says.
Tsui calls the feverish desire for efficiency the “instant noodle lifestyle.” In the context of farming, it’s the attempt to expedite natural processes with science to reach a higher yield, such as using synthetic hormones and chemical fertilizers. He says that this mentality is difficult to reverse through campaigning and advocacy, as it’s aligned with people’s values.
In this regard, the company goes against the grain. When selecting a suitable location for a rooftop farm, Tsui and his team strive to make the most of the natural environment, even if the conditions aren’t ideal. For instance, they don’t disregard spaces with insufficient sunlight, as the ultimate aim goes beyond efficiency.
“Technically, we can use artificial lighting, other technologies, or even move it indoors. But still, we ask ourselves: How do we shape an inclusive environment for the wellbeing of our people?” he says. “It’s not just a space to produce food.”
Tackling food waste is another focus for the company. Consumers are generally hypercritical of agriculture products, which generate a tremendous amount of food waste and pose another challenge to sustainable practices.
“One-third of the food produced in the world don’t reach the end consumers because they are not perfect-looking or meet the expected shape,” says Tsui. “If there’s a little scar on it, you cannot sell it for a good price. They’re not even taken from the farm.”
Unlike other urban farming companies, which strictly focus on food production or hydroponics, Rooftop Republic works to better food distribution in Hong Kong by donating a portion of its harvests to local food banks.
“Today, in an abundant city like Hong Kong, we still have a million people who are living in poverty. But at the same time, other parts of the city are wasting so much of our food,” says Tsui. He adds that, with hands-on farming experiences, consumers are likely to become more receptive to eating “ugly food” and drive systemic change in the produce supply chain, such as waste reduction and supporting more local farmers.
Blooming a green generation
Although it’s difficult to shift people’s mindsets, Tsui believes that innovation can enable change to occur at a faster pace. After five years of operation, Rooftop Republic has a clear direction in espousing the green movement through education, sharing the benefits of a circular economy that supports local food production, urban greening, and a sustainable lifestyle.
Rooftop Republic Academy launched in March last year. The program caters to urban designers, retirees, students, and anyone urbanite who is interested in farming. Participants can gain hands-on farming experience and learn urban agriculture knowledge, such as the principles of organic farming, soil management, irrigation systems, and more. It also provides upskilling opportunities for marginalized communities.
“Our purpose of existence is to create value for the 99%,” Tsui explains. “They share the commonality of being hopeless about having a green lifestyle–either they have no options where they live, the system does not allow them, or they feel like they don’t have the ability.”
Tsui hopes Rooftop Republic Academy will become the Le Cordon Bleu or Shaolin Temple of urban farming talent, as it also provides structured courses for property and facilities management. By connecting with urban designers through farming, the company hopes to bring about a new normal, where urban farms will be as ubiquitous as gyms.
“It is the cradle of empowering city people–specifically, one part of it is the professionals who are actually designing the future of our city,” Tsui says. “These are the people we actively engage with and share how they can engage urban green design in the future.”
By many accounts, Rooftop Republic’s push for urban agriculture is paying off. Matthew Pryor, Associate Professor and Head of the Landscape Architecture Division at the University of Hong Kong, estimates that there are around 1,500 farmers in the city. The number of farms has also increased consistently over the past decade and is showing no signs of slowing down.
Looking ahead, Tsui hopes to continue to change how the public views urban farming, not only as a leisure activity or an alternative to traditional food production, but a vital component to urban life.
The oasis may not be a mirage after all.
Jasmine is Jumpstart’s Editorial Assistant.