Growing your own food in the city

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Shao-Lyn Low (left) and Beatrice Yong have made it their mission to teach people how to grow their own food in an urban setting. Shao-Lyn Low (left) and Beatrice Yong have made it their mission to teach people how to grow their own food in an urban setting. Shao-Lyn Low (left) and Beatrice Yong have made it their mission to teach people how to grow their own food in an urban setting.

When two friends in the advertising industry decide to do their own business, the typical thing for them to do would be to start up an advertising agency of their own. But Shao-Lyn Low and Beatrice Yong decided to go down the path of social entrepreneurship instead.

Quite simply, a social enterprise is defined as “an organization that applies commercial strategies to maximize improvements in human and environmental well-being, rather than maximizing profits for external shareholders.”

That pretty accurately sums up the kind of company Eats, Shoots & Roots is. And, as its name implies, it advocates the notion of growing your own food… but in an urban environment.

It’s the latter part that makes it unique and interesting. Rural folks often grow their own fruits and vegetables but in the city, we usually go to the supermarket for our produce. Shao-Lyn and Beatrice have made it their mission to teach people how to grow their own food in an urban setting.

Their company is about three years old now and is growing steadily but it’s not yet profitable enough for them to do it full time. “We still take up freelance work now and then to help pay the bills,” says Shao-Lyn, but adds that they are selective about the kind of advertising work they do.

Usually, it relates to agriculture or social based jobs. For example they recently took up some web design work for Crops for the Future Research Centre.

Both are avid gardeners but it’s not the promotion of gardening per se that is their big agenda. The environment and sustainability is the big picture they are looking at.

“Gardening is a way to address environmental issues,” says Beatrice. “It’s not just about food either but about waste and about water. These are all environmental and ecological issues we are concerned about.” Edible gardening was a means to make these issues relevant and understandable to the masses, adds Shao-Lyn.

Eats, Shoots & Roots currently have three core areas of business: training courses, garden builds and seedboxes. The courses teach people how to grow their own food. Some people prefer for their garden to set up by experts though, so that’s where the garden build aspect of the business comes in. Finally, seedboxes (their latest venture) gives people the necessary seeds to grow their own food.

Each box is curated to have seeds that are hardy and grow well in tropical climates like Malaysia’s. “We’ve made the growing process even easier by providing peat pellets, which are growing mediums and plant containers to start seedlings before you move them into a bigger pot or plot,” says Shao-Lyn. “When soaked, these pellets grow to seven times its size and can be transferred whole when your seedlings are ready.”

The seedboxes can be purchased through their online store, which is still in beta stage but already functional (you can place an order if you want to).

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Running a social enterprise is not easy. Since profit is not the main incentive, business practices are not always geared towards making the most money. The problem is bills need to be paid to keep the business going and growing. So, it’s a challenge.

That their target market is a niche one – young adults, usually with some overseas exposure – makes it even harder. However, the fact that gardening as a hobby is growing in popularity among urban folks is a positive sign for their business. “If you go to Ace Hardware, you’ll see that its gardening section is quite big now,” remarks Beatrice.

“You need a lot of endurance and perseverance,” says Shao-Lyn. “The belief that the work we do is important and that we can make a positive impact is what keeps us going.”

Oon Yeoh is a new media consultant.

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