Rescuing food scraps to power an organic vegetable farm

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SKUDAI — How often do we think about the food we throw away? For FOLO Farms, what is trash for hotels and restaurants is future compost for growing their fresh, nutritious vegetables. Nothing goes to waste.

FOLO Farms (FOLO stands for Feed Our Loved Ones) is an urban community farm that is currently supplying nearly 100 families with locally and organically grown vegetables powered by food scraps free of pesticides and chemicals.

Founded by six families in Johor Baru in 2014, the team led by Will Chua was one of the finalists for The Chivas Venture, a global search to support startups that create “a better future for society” with a US$1 million (RM4.3 million) fund.

A Melbourne-educated engineer who grew up in Singapore, Chua returned to Malaysia in 2002 to help with his late father’s construction business. He recalls, “After seven years of ups and downs, I realised the industry was not for me; I wanted to do something more social oriented.”

In this vein, Chua headed a special international organisation’s division in the Singapore Economic Development Board, working with the United Nations (UN), Save the Children and various environmental and social enterprises.

He then took a year off to attend mindfulness retreats at Plum Village centres (established by monk Thich Nhat Hanh) around the world. During this sabbatical, he reconnected with family and friends, and realised they shared the same concerns about health and the environment.

“People around us are not well,” says Chua. “Not just the elderly with chronic illnesses, but young relatives and friends with autoimmune disorders, cancer, fertility issues, kidney failures, etc. We concluded that it resulted from the unwholesome food we were producing and eating, our disconnection from nature and a healthy environment, our increased isolation, and our spiritual disconnect.”

From that epiphany, the seeds for FOLO Farms was sown: a space for the families to get back in touch with the soil and to grow the healthiest produce.

As a community of wellness, the farms would also be a place to educate the public about regenerative agriculture through food waste composting. Their mission: To grow planet healing, not planet killing, food.

Chua says, “Every day, we collect three tonnes of food waste from restaurants and business partners. From this, we make the most diverse and rich compost nature can provide and grow 20 tonnes a year of vegetables on just over one acre of land.”

Currently there are three FOLO Farms in Johor. The first, a 0.5 acre farm at Kempas is open to FOLO members and the public on Saturdays for farm tours. “The 6-acre Ban Foo farm holds our compost facility while the 5-acre Kukup site used to be a palm oil plantation and is undergoing soil recovery.”

To connect with the hotels and restaurants to source for food waste, Chua’s team had to do quite a bit of legwork. He says, “We did old fashioned door-to-door knocking. It was really tough at the beginning — many businesses just could not be bothered to separate their food waste from other waste such as plastics. Some wanted us to pay, some wanted us to be their garbage collectors and some just chased us out!”

The FOLO team’s persistence paid off when Renaissance Hotel Johor Baru decided to work with them to create a system of collection and a feedback procedure that involved everyone. Chua says, “The hotel owner, Mr Lee, and the executive chef, Chef Mahady, were very supportive. We drove the truck ourselves so we could educate the Nepalese hotel stewards on the environment and why we were doing this — the Nepalese love nature! Once they understood, our waste became very clean in only 1-2 months.”

With the first partner on board, it became easier to recruit the others though FOLO Farms still faced other challenges. Chua explains, “None of us were trained as food waste composters, urban organic farmers, community organizers or vegetable sellers. So every day we have to make collective decisions based on what we know, but also with humility, respect and faith in nature and the unknown. It’s a little scary but we try and forge ahead leaning on one another as a team, and on the community we serve and feed.”

At FOLO Farms, everyone is involved as their modus operandi is to work together as an intergenerational team of families. Chua shares, “It’s different and at times challenging when my mum, my best friend’s dad and daughter sit in meetings alongside our team members. So we have to constantly find the balance between making efficient decisions and building consensus. We have no choice but to be genuine and real.”

These traits resonate with Chua, who tries to live by a philosophy of true generosity. He says, “I believe that understanding what is really needed and giving all that we can is by far the best savings, the best investment and yields the best returns — economical, social and spiritual. I don’t know if this helps me as an entrepreneur but it helps me as a small human being.”

Not wanting to rest on his laurels, Chua has many ideas for the next stage of FOLO Farms. This includes improving their processes for composting and growing vegetables as well as levelling up from an urban farm community to supporting an urban farm movement.

He adds, “We also want to train talented young adults who want to gently rebel against our crazy industrial food system, grow food for their community and do something for our planet. This means distilling the wisdom of our mentors and our own experience, and offering it as classes, apprenticeships and maybe even future training courses at our farm.”

Looks like it takes a village — or a farm — to make the world a better place.