Chivas Venture Malaysia finalist aims to revolutionise urban farming

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 8, 2017 - May 14, 2017.

Chivas Venture 30 finalists

Chua (centre) with a few team members of FOLO Farms

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FOLO Farms is the Malaysian finalist in the Chivas Venture, and its founders have a dream — to transform urban farming by creating a movement that will see communities grow their own organic vegetables.

The social start-up was set up two years ago when six families came together with a mission to grow nutritionally power-packed, bionutrient-rich vegetables. FOLO means “Feed Our Loved Ones”.

“We want to grow our business by looking beyond expanding our farms. We want to create a movement that would encourage more communities to grow their own organic vegetables. We could consult with and teach them, even lending our brands to these communities,” says Will Chua, a civil engineer turned organic farmer and one of the founders of FOLO Farms.

Chua tells The Edge that the company is looking to expand the business by using a franchise model and is currently in talks with some property developers in Johor Baru to promote organic farming in a number of housing developments.

According to Chua, about 15,000 tonnes of food a day is dumped in Malaysia, and 99% of the food in the country is grown with pesticides that are harmful to the environment as well as to our health.

Concerned about the impact of traditional farming on natural resources and public health, FOLO Farms began converting the food waste into compost to grow organic vegetables. Currently, the company collects about three tonnes of dumped food daily.

“Together, we can change the system that destroys our health and degrades our land, land that our children will inherit. Eating locally grown, nutrient-rich, microbe–diverse food should be our right (like our forefathers), but at the moment, most of us do not enjoy this right.

“We have been recovering food waste and farming for two years now. We are slowly but surely proving that it is possible to grow our own healthy food for our loved ones, families and friends (80 families now, in fact), powered by food waste that we recover from the city. We see an opportunity to go from an urban farm to inspiring an urban farm movement — we want to work with farmers, developers, the public sector, waste management companies, schools and so on to bring this to every Taman, every city in Malaysia,” Chua says.

The start-up has three farms in Johor Baru. The first is a 0.5-acre farm at Kempas, which is open to the public. It even has a café. The second at Ban Foo, which is the main production farm, measures six acres and houses the composting facility, and there is another five-acre piece of land at Kukup.

According to Chua, FOLO Farms feeds about 80 families, with about 10 living in Singapore, which would have translated into about RM500,000 in revenue for the year. What is even more surprising, is that there are currently about 300 families on the waiting list.

It does not sell its organic vegetables in supermarkets, members pay for a 24-week share and come by the farm every Saturday to pick up their harvest for the week.

Chua shares that FOLO Farms is not looking at solely improving the company’s revenue and profit, but intends to remain true to its vision to revolutionise urban farming, feeding communities with health-giving vegetables.

While the social start-up might be young, Chua and his team have big dreams — they intend to accelerate the composting of waste food to 10,000 tonnes per day in the next five years.

It is indeed a big dream as it represents more than 3000 times its current capacity, but where would we be today if not for the dreamers of yesterday?

“Of course, it would be difficult for us to expand on our own. What we want to do is to create a revolution, to inspire more people to join us and form FOLO-type farms in their neighbourhoods, while we provide consultation services,” he says.

FOLO Farms will be the first Malaysian representative in the Chivas Venture competition. It recently completed the Accelerator Week programme, which is designed to hone leadership skills via practical workshops that focus on critical topics that affect social start-ups.

The Chivas Venture competition is a global search to discover and reward the world’s most promising social entrepreneurs with a share of US$1 million.

From May 8 to June 12, members of the public can show their support for FOLO Farms by voting for it online. It will be up against 29 other finalists from around the world and the vote will determine how the first US$250,000 in funding is split among the finalists.

The winner of the remaining US $750,000 will be decided on July 13 at the Chivas Venture Final in Los Angeles, featuring a high-stakes pitch in front of the judges and a live audience.

“We are extremely grateful to represent Malaysia, and to be among the amazing social entrepreneurs from 30 countries, whom we respect and call our friends now.

“FOLO has found a way for every one of you, every community, to have access to nutritious, organic food free from pesticides and chemicals and to heal our soil for a healthier Earth. We have a chance to make Malaysia an organic farming nation and help other countries to do the same. Winning the Chivas Venture will enable us to grow from a farm into a national and international movement,” Chua says.

To support FOLO Farms, cast your vote at https://www.chivas.com/en-my/the-venture/finalists/people/my-folo-farms

Click on the Facebook button to vote. You will be prompted to sign into your Facebook account (you will not be able to vote without a Facebook account). Cast your vote and then click on "CONFIRM VOTE" to register the vote. Otherwise, the vote will not be counted.

A confirmation message will appear saying "You've voted".