Featured image photograph by Denise Lim.
This post includes the transcription of an interview conducted with Dr Lemuel Ng, co-founder of Malaysian social startup and organic farm, Feed Our Loved Ones (FOLO). From collecting local kitchen waste to upholding the farm-to-table movement by selling produce straight to consumers, the operation of the farm itself directly impacts the local community and contributes to social good.
I started home composting at the age of fifteen. In a way, that scrawny teenage girl wanted to make a difference by solving the kitchen and garden waste in her own home. I would become upset when my parents threw away fruit peels and dried leaves. At some point, I wondered if I wasn’t right in the head. Why was I composting and growing vegetables like a retiree – at fifteen years old?
In 2016, I visited FOLO with my classmates for a college assignment. This was how the interview came to be. I remember the enormous joy I felt when I saw the heaps of compost in their facility. The wonderful, earthy and slightly charred scent of ready compost! These were the people who were doing what I did on a much more massive scale. And they were right here in Johor Bahru (JB) – where I live.
The founders were highly paid white-collar workers who were now, of course, urban city farmers. Even with the sweat down their backs, they were all smiles and laughter, simply because of a collective dream that our city could be better. It was incredible to witness their work and hear their story first-hand.
Since childhood, we’re trained to conform, not to make changes. People need to understand the work of these change-makers first to learn how to be the change themselves.
When I write, I believe that awareness and understanding come through communication. Social startups like these continue to inspire my work.
Denise: Can you tell me how FOLO started? What was the story?
Dr L: FOLO started about 2 years ago when me and a group of friends came here when it was still a jungle. We brought our children and we started camping here. The kids were playing and we were having a campfire and we started dreaming about what this place could be. How we wanted a place where all our families, our parents, our children can come together and spend our weekends. So it all started with dreaming together with a group of friends.
Denise: What are some of the challenges faced when you first started FOLO?
Dr L: Well, one of the biggest challenges is being laughed at by all our other friends and relatives because none of us are actually farmers, I’m a doctor, my friend’s a businessman, [another is] a public policy planner for the government. When we shared this to our own parents, our parents laughed at us! Because we were all white-collar workers and our parents had never seen us working on a farm. So that was actually a big challenge – people not believing that this would be something that can be done.
Denise: Were there any financial challenges?
Dr L: Ah, yes. [laughs] There were a lot of financial challenge, because what we were doing here – this way of farming – we need a lot of inputs that are not available yet in our city here. For other places like America, a lot of existing infrastructure are already there. For us, we needed a lot of money just to build the infrastructure – talking about the transport, the kitchen waste, the composting. In Germany, [kitchen waste collection] is being done by the government. Here we have to actually build a whole model of collecting kitchen waste by our own trucks. We [have to] build our own compost facility, so all this costs money. We’re just, you know, a family structure, and it was a huge challenge for us when we started.
Denise: How does FOLO contribute to our society and our environment?
Dr L: That’s a very good question. I think, when we talk about big contributions, changing the world kind of thing – we’re not that. When we started this it was purely out of motivation to help our loved ones, because our family members were sick. We just wanted to buy good food for our own family members. How we realize is starting from there, as families come together, it is making a big difference. We see people looking at JB very differently.
In the past, all of us were educated and had the ability to [think] of migrating, to go somewhere else, like Singapore or Australia. But now, because of wanting to do something good for ourselves in JB, we start to see people thinking how to make JB better – people like you, that are surprised that something like is happening here, considering, “Hey, maybe it is possible.” Our own city, our hometown, our own country, can be a better place.
We don’t have to think big, we just have to do what we can, and become an inspiration to people – just to come together and do good, you know, make it better for ourselves and our families.
Denise: What do you look forward to with your farm? What are you looking to do more in the future?
Dr L: Well, we hope to do more of the same thing. And if you go to look for my Facebook profile, my official title is “Storyteller and tea drinker on a farm” [laughs] I drink a lot of tea! And I tell a lot of stories. That is what we – for me, I hope to continue to do it because this is part of a living community.
Denise: What are some of the bigger goals? Can you talk about that?
Dr L: For me, we talk about having farms like this one, like FOLO. We hope to have ten of these farms in Johor. In the city itself. This is what we call city urban farms – these farms are meant to be very close to neighborhoods. People can come easily, fifteen minutes from where they stay, and this is the place where education gets done. People get to see, get to touch, and understand why food is so important and why vegetables planted this way is good for them. [The farm] as an education centre, to help to educate the people and change their mindset.
And more than these ten city farms, we also need production farms. We calculated the JB population. One of my close friends who started this with me is a public policy planner, he used to work for the Singapore government and a lot of urban planning, so in our projections, we need about 100 acres of farmland – farming the way that we need to – for vegetables, chickens, everything – that will be able to supply to the whole population that wants this in JB and Singapore.
And our biggest dream is to have a thousand acres – about like a national forest reserve, a place where we can have a small village of our own, what we call our village university, where people can come and it’s a campus for people to be able to continue their research because there’s actually – there’s so much treasure and good stuff that God has given us on this land and we have neglected it. When we have young people coming in to learn and do their research. We believe that with the one thousand acres, it will be a place where the environment itself will be able to heal. And people will come, and the community will be able to – you know, people will forget to die.
Denise: What can people do right now to join in the movement – the work that you’re all doing?
Dr L: I believe there’s a lot that can be done. The first thing really starts with all our hearts. Don’t give up on ourselves, don’t give up on people around you, don’t give up on society, [even] with all these bad news being thrown around everywhere. Instead, look deep down and you’ll find something which you really care about, and start from there.
The world right now is so connected, so get yourself educated – go online, find out more about what is being done, and then ask yourself, “Why not here? Why not this? Why not me?” and start from there. That’s how we started. I believe as [long as] every one of us don’t give up hope, and every one of us start to have faith that things can be done, and every one of us continue to love our country, our people, ourselves – we can make a difference.