Rooftop Republic: Painting Hong Kong’s skyscrapers green

Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, is home to Rooftop Republic, a social enterprise dedicated to urban farming. 

by Nikhil Sreekandan

The HSBC Holdings Plc headquarters building stands in Hong Kong, China, on Saturday, February 13, 2016. Photographer: Xaume Olleros/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Chung Kong Chow
Andrew Tsui, Michelle Hong and Pol Fabrega. (left to right) © Xaume Olleros

In recent years, Hong Kong has been witness to a strong organic farming movement with over 450 organic farms in the New Territories. This is due to the increasing demand for organic vegetables, with the people of Hong Kong beginning to be more conscious about their health and what they eat.

Still, agriculture contributes for less than 1% of Hong Kong’s GDP and the city is very much reliant on imported food. Even though there is a strong demand for organic vegetables in Hong Kong, the city’s skyscraper landscape offers minimum opportunities for agriculture.

Hong Kong is so dense and built-up that if you want to pick a place to do farming, it might have to end up being outside the city. But actually, if you look at the city from above there is plenty of space – rooftops that are completely under-utilised.

© Rooftop Republic
© Rooftop Republic

This is where the twenty-month-old startup from the central business district of Hong Kong steps in. Rooftop Republic, a social enterprise with a vision to revolutionise the food system, is utilising a platform of urban farming to transform both urban spaces and mindsets in Hong Kong. The organisation establishes and maintains organic farms in the under-utilised urban spaces and engages the community through various programs. 

INKLINE talks to Michelle Hong, one of the co-founders of Rooftop Republic, to learn more about how they are shaping the future of food in Hong Kong.

INKLINE: What gave birth to the idea for Rooftop Republic and how did you get the team together?

Michelle Hong: It started I think five years ago when my co-founders Pol Fàbrega and Andrew Tsui met in a sort of social entrepreneurship context. Andrew is a civil and structural engineer, born and brought up here in Hong Kong, and Pol is from Barcelona, an International Relations graduate. But what the three of us have in common is a commitment towards sustainability and we have always wanted to do something for it.

We realised that the food industry has a huge impact in terms of sustainability and is something every one of us participates in at least three times a day, yet it is invisible to us. What we want to do is to use urban farming to connect people back to their food sources. I joined the team three years ago when we started working full time to bring this whole urban farming concept into implementation in the city landscape of Hong Kong.

© Sarah Thrower
© Sarah Thrower

I: Could you briefly explain how Rooftop Republic undertakes a project and what the relationship is like with the stakeholders? 

M: It depends on the sort of segment that we are working with. For example, the Fringe Club [a building in HK], I would classify it under the Food, Beverages, and Hospitality segment. They would want to source locally produced vegetables or herbs that they can harvest to use in their menu right way, so that kind of relationship is more from a supply point of view. We also recommend our different clients in this segment to source locally from our partner farmers, because having a home garden wouldn’t replace 100% of the supply.

© Rooftop Republic
Fringe Club. © Rooftop Republic

In the case of Cathay Pacific, that would be more in terms of staff engagement. Because there is group of people within the organisation who are interested in a program like ours and in a company so huge, there are so many different departments so it’s an opportunity for employees and staff to come together and have cross-department interaction and also an opportunity to take a break from work and to indulge in a social process and have some harvest at the end of it.  So, very much driven from the staff-engagement point of view.

The third segment, which is also very important to us is the education and schools segment. When we work with them we also build an urban farm and have planting programs for them so that they are able to learn from the process. So, everyone has an element of learning, it’s just a matter of the purpose of that project.

I: What happens after an organic farm has been installed?

M:  Once we have a project set up we would also want to ensure that it’s a success. We would say that the ownership of the farm project would belong to say, the staff of Cathay Pacific for example, but farming actually can get a bit technical and tricky when it gets to specific problems like pests or some unexpected phenomenon. So, we come in every week to do our maintenance on the farm and that is also the opportunity for us to interact with the participants, to understand their challenges.

This maintenance bit we see it as technical support, so we do provide that. But on the other hand, it is also managing the different stakeholders. Ultimately, what we want people to take out of it is, yes, sure this season they know how to grow tomatoes, but they can also learn the nutritional value, how to cook it etc. We organise a lot of events centred around the topic of food, we would get a nutritionist to come in to talk a bit about the food that they’ve grown, we would get a chef perhaps to do a cooking demonstration with the seasonal vegetables.

Urban farming workshops. © Xaume Olleros
Urban farming workshops. © Xaume Olleros

I: Rooftoop Republic is not just about creating a few green rooftops, it’s about engaging a community and changing mindsets. How far do you think RR has reached in achieving that goal? 

M: There are still a lot of rooftops and spaces in HK yet to be converted. I think we have seen a lot of positive outcomes from our activities. What we do is we try to track the mindset or behaviour change of our participants with short surveys and interviews asking questions like, ‘Would you support a local farmer after your experience with urban farming?’ ‘Are you interested in setting up your own garden?’ And 80 or 90% of the people who have participated have indicated yes to those questions.

So, we definitely see a change happening but we have a lot more people to reach and a lot more spaces to convert. Our vision is certainly to make it commonplace in Hong Kong and hope it becomes a normal thing among city dwellers to grow their own food, something as normal as cooking their own food.

I:  What can us normal folk do to have an impact on the food system?

M: Be more conscious about your consumption. If you buy your food, do try to support local farmers as much as possible and if possible, definitely try to grow your own food. Right now, our consumption is very much like, something gets produced, you buy and when you are done, you kind of throw it, and it most likely would end up in a landfill.

With urban farming, we also want to inculcate that mindset that you can do composting and do recycling. It will form a sustainable loop. And more importantly, growing your own micro-greens or a small patch of vegetables is a great way to teach the family and children about how our resources are limited and how they can appreciate their food better.

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