With the turmoil wrought by Covid-19 focusing minds on local food sources, the urban farm is an idea whose time has come – nowhere more so than in the Malaysian state of Penang, where a tiny urban farm project established by the Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) has been setting the standard for over a decade.
In September 2020 Penang’s chief minister Chow Kon Yeow launched what was reported to be the city’s first self-sustaining community urban farm. Equipped with automated irrigation, vertical hydroponics, solar panels, rainwater harvesting and a zero-waste management system, the project at the Penang Digital Library was billed as capable of feeding 400 families each harvest. The project, on 2,000 square feet of converted land, was intended to be the first of 100 similar hubs across Penang.
Taking the headlines at face value you’d be forgiven for thinking urban farming is a new concept in the region – which it is not. Even so, the ambition of the state-backed scheme could be seen as a vindication of years of work by the Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP).
CAP has been growing fruit, vegetables and herbs, researching and developing agroecological methods, and training a community of urban farmers since 2004. And whereas the government initiative has shown signs of suffering from over-reliance on modern technology, CAP’s urban farm has made good use of local and traditional knowledge and innovation by farmers.
Benefits of urban farming
Even before the pandemic, it was estimated that around 15% of the world’s food is now grown in urban areas. Restrictions on movement, rising costs and vanishing incomes are only increasing pressure to innovate.
Urban food-growing projects have clear benefits for communities, the environment and the economy: they can support food security, providing nutritious chemical-free, locally-grown fruit and vegetables at an affordable cost to poor urban households; and their environmental footprint can be relatively benign – for example they can put wastewater and compostable domestic waste to good use. At a community level they can contribute to social cohesion. For individuals, gardening and growing food have demonstrable therapeutic value.
Key to the urban farm concept, though, is that it transforms vacant land in a city to productive use. This is certainly true of the flourishing quarter-acre urban farm project created by CAP on what was once a car park a stone’s throw from one of Penang’s main road intersections.
This used to be a car park
Ironically, it was a car park that CAP had to make, says research officer Mageswari Sangaralingam, or Mages, remembering the start of the project in 2004. “When we moved into this building, the local government requirement was that you needed a parking lot for staff cars. We didn’t have a choice – we had to pave it.”
As soon as they had taken occupancy, however, CAP – led by its late President, Mr. S. M. Mohamed Idris – dug up the paving stones and “revived the whole area. From a paved area, it has changed to this,” Mages says, indicating the small plot in the grounds of a colonial-style building which itself stands. “We added green manure, compost and did not bring soil from outside. It took about three years before we could start growing in this plot.”
“Initially this place was empty and we slowly started developing it,”
says her colleague Theeban Gunasekaran, who has been working with the CAP for nearly 20 years. Today the project, which carries out research, produces food, fertiliser and compost, and provides information and training to the public and small farmers, has a staff of five comprising two farm workers and three trainers.
Fruits of their labour
Among the produce from the project, ocra (lady’s fingers) are grown in rotation. “After this crop we will grow a different crop and then another – rotational planting to keep soil fertile,” says Theeban. The farm grows eight types of banana, sugar cane, papaya, rambutan (rose apple), varieties of egg plant, leafy vegetables, and tubers. Thus far, the farm has grown 65 types of vegetables. It has native moringa tree – known as the miracle tree, of which every part is used, including resin, flowers, leaves and twigs.
‘The goat is our scientist’
Fresh fruit and vegetables may be the most eye-catching output but herbs are where it all began, says Theeban. “We have around 47 types of herb, all used by Malaysians.” He lists holy basil, curry leaves, Indian borage, common basil, lemongrass, aloe vera, pennywort, cat’s whiskers (Orthosiphon aristatus) (used to treat ailments of kidney, liver and bladder), king of bitters (Andrographis paniculata) (to help with fever, sore throat and colds), neem (used to repel pests), stone breaker (Phyllanthus niruri) (in Malay, a child bearer because of the seeds under the leaves) which has antiviral and antibacterial effects. “Of all these herbs, quarter of them we use for farming, as pest repellents.”
Using herbs as a natural pest repellent captures the philosophy of the project.
“We say ‘the goat is our scientist’: whatever the goat doesn’t eat, we can use as pest repellent,” says Mages.
Planting certain crops together can also help control pests: ocra is grown alongside Lagundi (Vitex negundo), which attract insects. “You provide alternative food for the insects nearby so that they don’t eat your crop,” says Mages. “I give you food, you don’t disturb our crop,” adds Theeban. “Otherwise the war between the human and the pests is infinite.”
Other pest management methods include hanging up bottles containing water and salted fish. “Fruit flies go into the bottle, get trapped and drown,” explains Theeban.
Protecting food crops against birds and bats is a major challenge for local smallholders. “One bird can eat a whole papaya,” says Theeban. “Birds and bats are very clever – they know exactly when to eat something.” CAP’s low-cost solution is to cover the papaya with newspaper.
It’s not all about controlling the insect population, but striking a mutually beneficial balance – for pollination services, for example. “If you see a butterfly it means there are caterpillars. If we want the beautiful butterfly we have to sacrifice our plant and we do need butterflies for pollination. So we sacrifice some of the plants.”
Indeed the team needs invertebrates in the garden for its research. “We want the pests to come and then we can find out how to manage them,” Theeban says. “We use natural remedies like blended chilly, garlic and ginger, diluted and sprayed on the plant – and it will clear up the mealybugs” – which can kill a plant in a matter of weeks.
Fertilisers and compost
When it comes to plant nutrition, again CAP’s approach is to work with nature and readily available resources. Like the agroecology projects that SAM supports in Sarawak, the Penang urban farm is expert in producing chemical-free compost and home-made fertiliser. These include farmers effective micro organism (FEM), egg lime solution and fish amino solutions.
The project uses a number of ways of making compost. The farm also produces vermicompost using earthworms. “Earthworms like a dark atmosphere, they don’t like sunlight. For 20 days the worms eat everything and then the vermicast will come to the top,” says Theeban. “We feed the worms with cow dung – they really like the cow dung.”
Theeban explains the low-maintenance four-tank composting method favoured by local farmers: “The system moves clockwise. Initially we make tank 1. We collect all our garden waste from this project and from outside – for example when people have grass cuttings. We fill the first tank. Once it’s full we sprinkle water and we sprinkle FEM solution and add cow dung. This enables faster composting.
“Then we move on to fill the second tank. By the time the second tank is full, the first one will have decomposed. This takes around a month. Then we release earthworms into tank 1. By the time the earthworms have done their job on the first tank, the second will be ready for the earthworms, who can then move to tank 2 through holes in the concrete walls. The earthworms will move of their own accord.” The same system follows for all four tanks.
“We have to vary the food, as the earthworms get bored with the same food constantly,” says Theeban. “One of our farmers told us to vary it with sugar cane husks. If you feed them too much of the same food, they run away to find something else to eat. So we give them banana stems, and keep changing their food – papaya and banana skins, whatever we can mix together from the garden.”
The wormery has developed into a small income stream. “We started with 10 earthworms,” says Mages. “Then we started breeding, and giving them to people. We used to give them out free but then we started to request a minimal donation. People will take care if they are paying for it.”
The project sells produce to the public and staff directly.
“When we have the kitchen garden training we also sell the produce and farm inputs, and other farmers who grow organically come and sell their produce here.”
They also make compost to sell, buying in soil and enriching it with their own fertiliser. They offer this in bags with a discount to customers who return the bag for reusing. “We also sell it in buckets,” says Mages. “The first will be 12 ringgit for 5 kg of mixed soil. If they want more they bring back the bucket and it is 10 ringgit.”
A no-waste ethos runs through the project.
“We try to bring the zero waste concept to the public – instead of pots we can use recycled containers. You don’t need to buy a new pot every time.”
CAP trains others to make compost – always with an eye on cost and resource efficiency. “Instead of encouraging them to buy fish to make the fish amino, we’ll ask them to collect fish waste or innards, as they can get it free. Then they need to get molasses or brown sugar.”
One of the key features of the urban farming project is to demonstrate that Malaysia’s rapidly rising urban population can grow their own produce virtually anywhere – a small yard, a balcony, a street corner.
Training and education
All this expertise developed over years would be of limited value if it were kept secret. So CAP has an active training and education programme for the public and for farmers. Trainees are mostly from urban areas in Penang but some come from other states and across the island. CAP has also run training in other states for farmers, local communities and indigenous communities in Sarawak and Sabah in Borneo island. They have even taken farmers to South India, where Theeban himself was trained. Every state in India has their own methods, says Mages. “We learn from them and then we adapt to our local situation and climate.”
Back in Malaysia, CAP’s trainees become multipliers, spreading the methods among their own communities.
“We set up this urban farm so they can learn how to manage pests on their farms and how to manage the whole thing as a business, make a profit – otherwise why would farmers use these methods?”
It’s not only farmers who come to be trained. “People come as families – the whole household will come, sometimes all three generations. We find it is mainly women who are interested in the workshops. We also provide programs specifically for women. We normally start with health issues and how chemicals are present in our daily life, the food we eat, the things we use. Then we talk about waste management and then demonstrate composting, soil mixing, farming methods, etc.”
With an eye to the future, CAP is also working with schools. “The children get to learn about farming, gardening, why earthworms are important, why you need to keep your soil healthy and what you can do with your kitchen waste, farm waste, garden waste. Sometimes schools buy the plants from the centre, or if we have funds we will give them free.”
Theeban adds: “We teach people how to consume and use this produce – what to use for a fever, for colds.” Some of CAP’s learning is captured in a book, From Garden to Plate – describing herbs that can be used as remedies, and how they are prepared.
“Many started growing their own food during the COVID-19 lockdown and faced problems with pests. So we published a new book on pest management,” adds Mages.
In fact there is such public demand for training that the team runs workshops monthly. And with Malaysia’s urban population on the rise, it seems unlikely the appetite for CAP’s knowledge and methods will fall out of fashion. On the contrary, the surge in interest from both the public and the state amid the Covid-19 strictures points to urban farming becoming a mainstream fixture.
It’s a far cry from the empty car park that Theeban and Mages stood in more than a decade ago.
“Someone did complain because most of the staff cars are now outside on the side road,” says Mages thinking back. “But the local authority came and saw it’s a good initiative. From a car park to a garden.”
Interviews and photography by Amelia Collins. Additional writing by Adam Bradbury.
Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) or Friends of the Earth Malaysia, was established as an independent non-profit organisation in 1977 and joined Friends of the Earth International in 1983. SAM’s headquarters are in Penang in Peninsular Malaysia, with a second office in Sarawak on the island of Borneo.
The Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) is a grassroots non-profit, civil society organisation based in Malaysia; established in 1969 to promote critical awareness and action among consumers in order to uphold their rights and interests. CAP’s activities are conducted from its office in Penang, engaging in education, community mobilisation, research, advocacy, training and publications.