(THE STAR / ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The Malaysian social enterprise making its mark in The Chivas Venture this year is built on the belief that having local, organic and nutritious food to eat is a right, not a privilege – that is the driving force behind Folo Farms, its first-name acronym standing for the heartfelt desire to Feed Our Loved Ones.
In the process of growing and feeding, the organic farm and social enterprise in Johor Baru is also tackling the monumental task of dealing with food waste – it works with local partners, including hotels and restaurants, to collect and compost organic waste and turn it into rich fertiliser for the farm.
Folo Farms is currently in week four of the five-week public voting portion of The Chivas Venture, which awards an annual US$1 million (S$1.382 million) fund to start-ups dedicated to creating a better future, all over the world.
The Chivas Venture was launched in 2014. Since its inception, over 6,000 social entrepreneurs have applied.
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Malaysia’s bright hope was chosen from about 50 applicants nation-wide, and is now competing against 30 finalists from around the world, in the public voting phase of the competition.
“In the five-week period, US$250,000 of the total fund is being given out to contestants, with US$50,000 released every week,” said Mr Will Chua, one of Folo Farms’ co-founders.
Until June 12, the public can cast their votes on the website using their Facebook accounts, and the percentage of votes per week determines the percentage of the US$50,000 fund. Last week, Folo Farms was in sixth place, one place down from the previous week, when it occupied fifth.
How the remaining US$750,000 will be split depends on the July 13 finals, to be held in Los Angeles. The contestants will have to make their pitches to a panel of judges, in front of a live audience.
Prior to the five-week voting period, an Accelerator Week of leadership and management training brought all the social entrepreneurs together at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the Saïd Business School of the University of Oxford, in Britain.
“We’re all doing good work, so everything has been very light-hearted and collaborative, rather than us being in a fierce competition,” said Mr Chua. “The Accelerator Week was a bit like a gathering of the X-Men – bringing 30 mutants together, and then we discuss how we might save the world!”
“Even now, we have a Whatsapp group for all the finalists, and it’s full of positive, encouraging messages. There’s been a lot of room to explore how we can help each other, because we are all from different countries, with different markets. It’s been a great chance to build relationships.”
A civil engineer, Mr Chua was a manager with the Singapore Economic Development Board – but decided that his calling lay in starting an organic farm with like-minded friends. These fellow organic warriors include two more engineers, a businessman, a doctor and a veteran organic farmer, Lek Meow Chor.
“I think 99 per cent of us in Malaysia aren’t enjoying the right to healthy, organic produce,” said Mr Chua. “And the way we are growing and throwing away our food is killing us – both in terms of health and environment. So Folo is solving two problems at once, and proving we can be sustainable while doing it.”
Folo Farms actually consists of three farming facilities – a half-acre farm in Kempas (open to everyone on Saturdays), a six-acre farm at Ban Foo, where the composting is done, and a five-acre former oil palm plantation at Kukup, currently undergoing recovery.
Weekly, Folo Farms hauls in a whopping three tonnes of waste, which would otherwise be languishing in a landfill somewhere, taking up quickly-diminishing space. That is composted to grow vegetables without any chemical pesticides or fertilisers – enough to feed 80 families.
“This is community-supported agriculture, so we have 80 families subscribing to a share of the harvest. They collect a 5kg box of fruits and vegetables weekly, which has about eight to nine different types in it,” said Mr Chua. The subscription costs each family about RM2,000 for 24 weeks – just over RM80 a week – and Mr Chua says they have a waiting list of more than 300 families.
“Some of the families also come to the farm to volunteer, with harvesting and packing or farm activities,” said Mr Chua. Folo Farms also has a volunteer programme.
Casting a brilliant shadow over its day-to-day operations is the dream of inspiring an urban farm movement across the country.
“We want to help people set up their own farms, train them,” said Mr Chua. “Imagine every single taman having its own composting project and community farm – zero waste and zero pesticides. We can drive chemicals and pesticides out of our country, build a new economy based on high value organic produce. That’s the big picture. Growing food brings communities together.”
“We’d like farming to become cool again – to make urban farmers as respected as baristas,” he added. “We want to spread the message that any young person can make even RM6,000 to RM10,000 a month, growing good food.
To cast your weekly vote for Folo Farms, go to www.chivas.com/en-my/the-venture/finalists/people/myfolo-farms