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Interview with Michelle Hong, the mind behind Rooftop Republic

Michelle Hong is Cofounder of sustainable urban farming organisation Rooftop Republic.

Michelle Hong holds a Bachelor of Communication Studies with Specialization in Communication Research from Nanyang Technological University and has a Certificate in Horticultural Therapy. She specializes in marketing, communications, digital marketing, and project management. Michelle worked in two leading financial and urban hubs of Hong Kong and Singapore. She is the Co-Founder of Rooftop Republic Urban Farming, a social enterprise creating more livable cities through urban farming. She is also interested in connecting with businesses that empower disadvantaged communities, as well as businesses that have transformed or reinvented traditional business models or industries into new impact models and create opportunities.

This interview appeared first on Planet China Vol 11, Celebrating Women who push boundaries.

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When did you first realize you wanted to pursue a career in urban farming solutions? What initially drew you personally to becoming engaged in this theme?

I was previously from the advertising industry, and I had learned so much working with different commercial brands and clients in Singapore and Hong Kong, but it came to a point where I desperately wanted to work on a brand and cause that I am passionate about. While I was still at my full-time job, I had spent my time pursuing growing our own food in the city as a passion project, but when the time came to make a decision, I took a step of faith to plunge into entrepreneurship full-time. Living in Singapore, I felt extremely fortunate to be living in a very green city – “City in a Garden” – and living in the deep urban environment of Kowloon after I moved to Hong Kong, I thrived on the pace and the urban grittiness of the city but also realized I had a huge craving for a constant connection with nature. In addition, during my spare time then, I had the opportunity to meet and speak to local Hong Kong farmers, and that was when I realized the huge disparity between the food we import and food that we can grow locally. That took me down a rabbit hole learning about how food comes to our table, and I realized that my whole disconnection with my food arose from living in a highly urbanized environment. I also realized that if a city-kid like me could appreciate the value of organic farming so much more after growing my own food, there’s so much potential that we could bring to other city-dwellers in big cities like Hong Kong.

By creating sustainable cities and communities powered by urban farming Rooftop Republic is painting Hong Kong’s skyscrapers with natural colors

Rooftop Republic Urban Farm in Kwun Tong.
Photo Credit: Rooftop Republic, Matthieu Millet

Rooftop Republic encourages more sustainable food production and consumption practices

How did “Rooftop Republic” come to life?

With that realization in mind, my fellow co-founders recognized the importance of this, and working on it part-time was not going to help it achieve the impact, momentum, or scale that we had envisioned. Hence, with a lot of blind faith, we took the step forward to found Rooftop Republic, a social enterprise with the vision to create more sustainable cities and communities through urban farming.

Has your life changed since you started “Rooftop Republic”?

Yes indeed, it is filled with a lot of excitement and motivation, because every day I feel that I can make a difference through Rooftop Republic and I get to work with such a great team who is equally passionate about making our cities more green, and edible! In addition, through our work, we have got to meet so many different people on the same path of making our food system more sustainable – from restaurateurs to academics, to growers, and even corporates and individuals, and I am constantly being inspired by them and the huge strides they are making in their area of expertise to reduce food waste, to make our food system more equitable, and to advocate a lighter footprint on the planet through plant-based diets.

Michelle Hong is shaping the future of food in Hong Kong with Rooftop Republic a social enterprise with a vision to revolutionize the food system with urban farming

Rooftop Republic: Lok Fu Urban Farm
Photo Credit: LINK

Can you tell us about the biggest challenges you encountered at the beginning?

Some of the initial challenges were to convince building managers and owners to adopt rooftop farming in their buildings. There were naturally concerns around typhoons, and if it would cause problems in the day to day operations of building management, but we realized what was absolutely critical was to have a successful proof of concept, and we had achieved this with our team’s first management rooftop farm in Central in a building managed by Jones Lang LaSalle. Not only did we show how the farm could operate successfully, but we could also show the community benefits around farming, by bringing stakeholders together, donating fresh organic produce to charities – that apart from the environmental impact, an urban farm could bring so much social and community value.

Hong Kong skyline is never been soo green. Rooftop Republic helps to shape a healthier future for Hong Kong people and the planet

Rooftop Republic is an award-winning social enterprise committed to creating sustainable cities and communities powered by urban farming. Rooftop Republic is passionate about introducing others to the joys of urban farming, cultivating a greater awareness of sustainable living practices, and empowering the community to grow delicious and nutritious food in any space – from small residential balconies to large commercial areas. The food industry has a huge impact in terms of sustainability therefore Rooftop Republic uses urban farming to connect people back to their food sources. Rooftop Republic has also established programming to benefit people from disadvantaged communities or with disabilities including training hearing-impaired individuals to become urban farmers and with the intent to equip them with skills for employment in the urban farming and landscaping sector.

Rooftop Republic Academy at the JCEB Building Photo Credit Rooftop Republic Mark Teo

What does the urban farming movement mean for social and environmental impacts in Hong Kong? How does food shape the social context? What problems are solving for the community?

Urban farming brings many benefits beyond greening, and some of the well-known benefits are:

  • Reduces our carbon footprint through growing locally and minimizing the need for extensive transportation.
  • We get to enjoy freshly harvested produce, minimizing nutrition loss through storage and transportation.
  • Almost 17% of all consumable food and the equivalent of 931 tonnes of all food sold is wasted (according to the UN Food Waste Index Report). Growing our own food also creates more opportunities for the use of composting as a growing medium, helping to reduce and minimize food waste going to the landfill, and promoting the circular economy for our food system.
  • Through our business model, we train and employ organic farmers as instructors and maintenance farmers, helping them to increase their income and income streams beyond production.
  • Urban farming also has a powerful biophilic effect, improving well-being and creating opportunities to relax amidst the busy lifestyle.

Creating sustainable cities and communities powered by urban farming

Rooftop Farm at Metroplaza Shopping Mall.
Photo Credit: Rooftop Republic, Natalie Lam

Rooftop farming can offer low-income families a new source of revenue and better access to quality products

How has “Rooftop Republic” grown since its start? What are the milestones you have achieved so far?

We term our business model as “Farming as a Service” – where we provide end-to-end urban farming solutions from design, consultancy, set-up, management, and education to clients such as corporates, building owners, hospitality industry, schools, and individuals. Since our inception in 2015, we have set up more than 65 urban farms and transformed more than 70,000 square feet of urban spaces into thriving urban farms. We are also pleased to say that we have reached 17,000 city-dwellers through our urban farming events and workshops.

Are people’s food habits over the last years changing? Do you think that easy and quick access to some kind of food is one of the obstacles that don’t let you think about quality, pollution, and waste?

Most of the developed world benefits from this highly industrialized and connected food system, but more than 98% of our vegetables consumed are imported because of our low food growing capacity. The low cost of food and the availability of products has given a false and undervalued status of these foods, and undermines the value of vegetables grown organically, resulting in many people having the perception that organic food is “expensive”. We are glad that through our urban farming programs, the average city dweller or individual will get the chance to grow their own vegetables from scratch through organic farming methods, and they begin to see the sweat and effort, and expertise put into growing food without chemicals and pesticides. Hence, our team really believes that to understand the true value of food, one must know the story of it – and how food is grown from the soil.

Michelle is transforming Hong Kong spaces into lush green farms and engaging communities to learn to create sources of nutritious organic food and engage and empower communities to lead a sustainable lifestyle

Rooftop Farm at JLL-managed building in Central.
Photo Credit: Rooftop Republic,Xaume Olleros

Raise awareness among sustainability and educate people about planet Earth’s pressing issues is every day more and more evident since the world is facing Covid-19. Do you think that is getting easier to involve people to make changes and to start a more sustainable future?

One key trend we are noticing is in the growth of the vegetarian and vegan market. More and more people are adopting a more plant-based, if not vegetarian/vegan diet for health, climate change or animal welfare reasons. Combined with COVID-19, more and more people are becoming more conscious about the food they put into their bodies, and are seeking ways to understand more about how the food is grown, and to consume more organic food, and reduce the volume of pesticides and chemicals in one’s bodies. During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, we have begun to observe a greater demand for organic food, as well as the interest in setting up their own gardens and growing their own food.

Rooftop farms are also helping to cool buildings as they defer this “heat island” effect. The greenery of rooftop farms absorbs CO2 and releases oxygen, so buildings don’t diffuse as much heat

Rooftop Farm at JLL-managed building in Central
Photo Credit Rooftop Republic: Sarah Thrower

Besides the benefit for the environment and health, gardening and farming are therapeutic. Spending minutes into the green is a mental panacea for psychological well-being. Do you work also on this topic? How do you motivate people to arouse this potential?

While there is a strong environmental and health impact through farming, living in an urbanized environment like Hong Kong creates stress and a demanding lifestyle on the average city-dweller. Access to nature may be difficult during a typical work-day, where most country-parks maybe a couple of hours away. However, urban farms also are a place of relaxation and are easily accessible to many people who work in the city, and we recognize the importance of having a nature getaway from the office, or the high-stress urban environment during the workday. We have horticultural therapy within our team expertise, and while it may be applied mostly in the therapy field, the benefits and effects are very much seen in day-to-day urban farming practice. For example, more than 70% of the surveyed participants at our urban farming programs and workshops indicated that they are more relaxed, and also 70% of them indicated greater bonds with their community (colleagues) through growing their own food.

Photos courtesy of Michelle Hong & Rooftop Republic

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