Chivas-The Venture: FOLO Farms comes out tops

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 16 - 22, 2017.

FOR all our love of food and eating, there is one part of the equation that is often overlooked — food wastage.

Every day, the world over, tonnes of uneaten or inedible fruits, vegetables and other food products get tossed into landfills, giving rise to not only moral but also environmental concerns.

On the home front, Johor-based FOLO Farms has been trying to address the problem of food wastage in a sustainable manner. Not surprisingly, it won the Malaysian round of an international social enterprise competition organised by Chivas Regal, and will represent the country in the global finale that will be held in Los Angeles, the US, in July.

According to FOLO Farms co-founder Tang Thian Yeong, an estimated 30,000 tonnes of organic food waste are dumped illegally or in open landfills in Malaysia each day. “Our current food system is not safe and we are throwing away too much food,” he tells The Edge.

The FOLO in the social enterprise’s name stands for “Feed Our Loved Ones”, which has been its core principle since it was conceived as a solution to food wastage. It was started in 2015 by six families in Johor who share a common vision of feeding themselves nutritious, organically grown vegetables.

In its early days, FOLO Farms planted and harvested food for the consumption of only its founders’ families. But soon word about it spread and the demand for its organic vegetables grew quickly.

Today, the six founding families run three farms in Johor Baru, including a half-acre demo farm in Kempas that is open to the public on Saturdays.

The families have tied up with hotels and restaurants, including Johor Baru’s Renaissance Hotel, to collect any unwanted food to turn into bio-nutrient-rich compost and liquid compost.

Every day, they collect about three tonnes of food waste that would have otherwise been illegally dumped or occupied space in the landfills. According to FOLO Farms, this works out to a 7% monthly reduction in carbon emissions by its partners.

The compost can produce about 300kg of organically grown vegetables a week.

The three farms feed about 80 families in Johor and Singapore, who pay for a share of the harvest every week.

Tang says FOLO Farms wants to do more. Its aim is to feed everyone, not just immediate families and the community. It seeks to expand the initiative to a whole movement of community and wellness by inspiring others to join and form FOLO-type farms.

In its pitch for the Chivas The Venture competition, FOLO Farms said it hoped to widen its scope in multiple ways, including investing in equipment to produce more compost from food waste as well as expand its output range to include organic by-products, such as pesticide-free herbal tea, fermented kimchi and salad dressings.

It also wants to engage marginalized communities by providing them with the know-how and opportunities to supplement their income.

FOLO Farms has, to date, trained and employed eight urban farmers. They also work with the community, including forming partnerships with non-governmental organisations, a local university for soil research as well as like-minded communities, such as Eat, Shoots and Roots.

Tang says he was inspired by his mentor Pierre Loisel, an ex-NASA engineer and tech pioneer, who started composting to grow organic vegetables to nourish his wife who was recovering from cancer.

In the finale pitch, Tang said FOLO Farms is in talks with property developers in Johor to collaborate on creating more urban farming communities. The enterprise has a new business unit to help households and developers create urban edible farms.

Tang also said FOLO Farms is working with the Setia Caring School Programme by Setia Foundation to build an edible garden in a schoolyard in Johor, which will be launched in February.

It is worth noting that FOLO Farms is also one of the current winners of the national Amplify Awards by MAGIC SE. It has been invited to share its story on platforms like Tedx Sungai Segget, MaGIC Sehati, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UiTM) as well as schools and the National University of Singapore.