Portraits of Purpose

Wild teen to urban farmer: He wants to make Singapore a more sustainable and liveable city

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Inspired by the self-sustainable movement in London, Bjorn Low gave up a high-flying advertising career to start Edible Garden City, an urban farming outfit which creates social change through community-centric agriculture.

Mr Bjorn Low is mild-mannered and soft-spoken, radiating an affecting calm quite becoming of a gentleman farmer who is happiest tending to his mustard frills, Mexican tarragon, micro basil and other greens.

The 39-year-old is the founder of urban farming social enterprise Edible Garden City (EGC). He set it up in 2012 and, in the last eight years, has been beavering away with the authorities, communities and businesses to propagate the benefits of urban farming, and make Singapore a more sustainable and liveable city.

Among other things, EGC develops and maintains commercial and residential food gardens, grows and sells vegetables to restaurants and families, and conducts workshops and talks about urban farming.

It also organises educational tours to its Citizen Farm in Jalan Penjara, a closed-loop farming model which not only involves the community, but also uses food waste from the city to fertilise the crops it cultivates.

The outfit - a 2017 DBS Foundation Grant awardee - is also big on social impact, hiring staff who have autism and other special needs, and pushing horticulture therapy to promote mental health. EGC employees have also received mentoring and leadership training through DBS' Foundational Leadership Development Programme.

For his efforts, Mr Low has earned several plaudits, including a 2018 nomination for The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year award.

It may surprise many, but the congenial man was once a wild teenager who hung out with gangs.

Faint scars on his right hand bear testament to his rebellious past - the legacy of a "suggestive Chinese poem" acquired at 15 and, shortly after, lasered off at the insistence of his exasperated mother.

A fish and other assorted symbols decorate his left arm. "These early tattoos have no meaning. Look fierce can already," he says, lapsing into Singlish.

"Only later in life did they become markings to remember milestones in my life," he adds, referring to the tattoos on his legs, which include The Tree Of Life, a sacred symbol in Celtic culture.

Hoping to rein in their son's rebelliousness, his parents sent the former Maris Stella High student to boarding school in Australia in his teens. It worked - he later graduated with a bachelor's degree in marketing from Curtin University in Perth and an MBA from Southern Cross University in Queensland.

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He was a successful adman for seven years, the last two of which were spent in London as associate business director at a digital marketing agency, where his then girlfriend - now his wife - also worked.

Then, farming and sustainability were never part of the game plan.

"It was about making money, going for champagne brunches," says Mr Low, who has two young sons. His wife is a part-time yoga teacher.

The couple's time in London exposed them to the self-sustainability and local food movements, which so intrigued them that they eventually left their jobs and spent the next three years working on farms across Europe and in Japan.

Mr Low later studied biodynamic agriculture in East Sussex before returning to Singapore in 2011 to become an urban farmer.

His folks were supportive, but relatives chided him for throwing away his career, especially since he has an MBA.

Over the past eight years, EGC has built more than 200 food gardens for the likes of Marina Bay Sands, Resorts World Sentosa and Fairmont Hotel, and won a slew of business and sustainability awards. Last year, the company, which was started with capital of $10,000, made $1.6 million in revenue.

Its 35 employees include several former corporate types, including chief executive officer Sameull Ang, who worked for companies including Burger King and Asia-Pacific Breweries.

The 62-year-old says: "I am blessed to be able to use my private and public sector experience as a force for good. I survived two close shaves with death when I was in primary school - being run over by a taxi and a narrow escape from a chopper-wielding amok.

"It makes me value life as if I have been given a second chance. When I wake up every morning, I remind myself to live my life to make a difference and impact the lives of those around me."

Asked what - conviction, faith or luck - has been most important in his journey, Mr Low says: "Having conviction is important during the initial start-up phase. Luck plays a significant part - it boils down to meeting the right people and being in the right place at the right time.

"And I turn to faith and prayers when I have no more conviction and luck left."

Mr Bjorn Low is the founder of urban farming social enterprise Edible Garden City (EGC). PHOTO: JASON QUAH

You were a rebellious teen and even briefly joined a gang. How did a wild child end up as a chill and introspective urban farmer?

Growing up as an introverted only child, I found it hard to connect with people and had trouble finding my tribe. But the tribe found me and brought me into a community of peers, who gave me the sense of belonging I craved.

Being rebellious in my early years made me more street-smart and gave me the need to achieve and drive to succeed.

In my early career, my focus was on making money, doing business, working my way up the corporate ladder. But it made my life too complicated and unfulfilling.

I found peace in the garden, working with plants and nature. When I first started, I thought I could outsmart nature, rush certain things, control the environment, play God. But I was so wrong. I've been humbled by nature. Now, I just try to find balance in my life.

You spent nearly a decade as a highly paid adman. The leap from contextual targeting to lasagna gardening is a bit extreme, no?

This is my rebellious nature breaking out, wanting to do something extreme. Perhaps it was more to fill the void of a frivolous marketing career, and the need to shake things up a little and do something with meaning. Lead a simple life and be kind to the earth.

You went to agricultural school, where one of the things you had to do was slaughter turkeys. How traumatic or life-changing was that?

Going to an agricultural school in East Sussex and spending time in Wales on a small holding was life-changing.

I'd been a meat eater all my life and having an opportunity to connect with the animals I ate was an important part of the journey.

I didn't want to continue to live a life of consuming and not knowing. Going through the slaughtering process kept me grounded and more appreciative of my food.

(From left) Edible Garden City's head of marketing Sarah Rodriguez, CEO Samuell Ang, Executive Director Bjorn Low, and head of farm production Sidney Chua. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

What three reasons would you give to convince people that urban farming is far from a loopy idea and that it is important for a place like Singapore?

It's not something new, trendy or loopy. Urban farming has been around throughout history. During World War II, the Dig For Victory campaign in Britain - where people were encouraged to grow their own food - saw farms sprouting all over urban spaces. The Cuban Oil Embargo got citizens to dig over carparks to grow their own food in the city.

Urban farming can improve community bonding, generate positive social outcomes and provide environmental impact. It allows citizens to participate in the food movement, gives them access to clean and healthy vegetables, and supports and improves their mental state of mind through the positive effects of horticulture therapy.

Urban farming can heal the body through the food we eat, the mind through the activities we can do on the farm and the soul by repairing the environment around us.

Which is easier to handle: vegetables or humans?

I love dealing with plants. They speak to you in subtle ways and if you nurture them, they give back. Humans are similar, but there is a challenge: They tend to talk back.

Also, dealing with human emotions can be mentally taxing. But I want to build on my connection with people. It is my personal journey.

Tell me about some of the interesting individuals who have joined EGC as urban farmers.

We've had former bankers, aerospace engineers, ex-offenders and adults with autism. Many of them want a change in career. They want to do something meaningful in the sustainable space.

One who has left a deep impression on me is Yijie, who is in his early 20s and has high-functioning autism. He had a data-entry job in a bank and was not happy with his role.

He said he didn't believe in working for a multinational corporation and wanted to join EGC as it is not mainstream. He has fully integrated with our team and taken on more responsibilities.

Do you agree that farming and gardening can be as effective as anti-depressants for sad, lonely or maladjusted individuals?

Yes, for sure. When I spend time in the garden, I feel happy and contented. I knew there were some benefits to my mental well-being, but it was always a feeling and not scientifically proven.

But the National University of Singapore and NParks have done studies with scientific evidence that horticulture therapy can have positive benefits such as lowering stress markers in the body.

What can farming and gardening teach us about life? Today, the garden looks beautiful and bountiful, but tomorrow, Mr Caterpillar can descend and munch through half your garden.

The garden and farm teach us that things are impermanent and are in a constant state of flux.

It's the same with life. Today, everything may be well for you, but the next day, everything may just go wrong.

Mr Bjorn Low was a high-flying adman, but gave it up to start urban farming social enterprise Edible Garden City, which aims to create social change through community-centric agriculture.
Mr Bjorn Low was a high-flying adman, but gave it up to start urban farming social enterprise Edible Garden City, which aims to create social change through community-centric agriculture. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

What does purpose mean to you?

The meaning of purpose has changed over time for me. When I first went into corporate life, making money was my purpose. It gave me the drive to wake up every morning and to work late every day.

When I left that world to learn farming, my purpose was to see if I could beat the rat race and live a self-sustaining life.

When I started EGC, my purpose was to build an agriculture movement in Singapore and a platform for Singaporeans who wish to do this to come together to learn and grow. My purpose was also to ensure that the business has a heart and will create change in the environmental, social and community spaces.

But, overall, purpose to me is to serve others as I find joy, fulfilment and meaning in doing that. I wake up driven every morning because of that.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 27, 2020, with the headline Wild teen to urban farmer: He wants to make S'pore a more sustainable and liveable city. Subscribe