Sustainability in Singapore: An Interview with Darren Ho, Head of Citizen Farm

Can you tell us the background behind Edible Garden City/Citizen Farm and its role as a Social Enterprise in Singapore?

“Edible Garden City started five years ago building and designing edible gardens for schools and developments, and in doing so pioneered the urban farming movement in Singapore. As our advocacy grew stronger, we knew we needed a home, and thus Citizen Farm was born. Citizen Farm is an integrated urban farming concept designed to inspire liveability in all cities.”

Darren, what prompted you to start urban farming in Singapore and what role do you play today?

“Singapore is a first world country and city, but we have an issue with our food sovereignty. 90% or more of our food is imported, so a natural route to grow our food would be to do it in an urban setting. I am the Head of Citizen Farm, so I look after all aspect of the farm.”

In 2016 you started Citizen Farm as a project to develop a farming collective. Can you tell us about the Vision for your collective and how it has developed over the last two years?

“We wanted to bring in like-minded farmers who share the same vision as us to produce for Singapore, as technology can be abit tricky to adopt or create, so putting together people who like to tinker and experiment was an important step in our discovery as to how technology for agritech can be enhanced. Unfortunately but understandably, Singapore is lagging behind in terms of agritech but we are catching up fast!”

We understand that Citizen Farm has evolved as a business model, which has an array of different farming systems in place. Can you explain how the business model works? Who helps to manage the farm, what is produced on the farm and who are your key customers?

“We supply to 30 restaurants and 30 or more families a week currently. We are operating a relatively small and humble set up. The business model is simple, we grow and we sell. A secondary revenue stream comes from our workshops and educational programs. Our group of young and passionate farmers help to run it.”

Establishing a farm in the city is unique approach. What are the challenges you face in making the farm a success, and what are the key benefits of running an integrated farming model?

“The biggest challenge for me in Singapore is the economics of it. Costs of business vs price of food is a little bit imbalanced. But the key benefits we feel is something that can only be felt in the long run, after our hardwork is done now, we feel that the value of food will continue to rise as time goes on.”

How successful do you feel Citizen Farm has become? Do you foresee demand for urban farming and do you expect other urban farms to develop in Singapore? Is the market ready for more urban fresh produce?

“I think it has been a good start, but we are still miles away from being called a success. I think there will be an increase in demand for sure for fresher and ‘cleaner’ veggies.”

Citizen Farm also has its own social mission. Can you give us some background on how you provide opportunities for the social disadvantaged in Singapore? How would you like to expand the opportunities you can offer?

“We start by training them with the vocational skills at a training centre with our partner, Autism Resource Centre. After training and assessment, they are deemed ready to be employed. That’s when we bring them to our farm and that’s how we work with them to develop their skills before hiring them.”

From where do you draw your support locally? Do you work closely with International groups who are also developing urban farms?

“The government, the community & chefs and the big corporations have all shown their support in their own ways. Some by volunteering, some by using our produce, products and space. We are starting to work closely with a few of them to look at the possibilities of having an urban farm for a bigger scale.”

How do you interact with other Social Enterprises and local authorities? Have they been receptive and supportive of your project?

“Whenever we get together for events or conferences, we always share our problems and issues we face but we have quite a strong support group amongst us as we all are fighting the same battles everyday. The government is well aware of our situation and it is heartening to know they are doing their best to help us succeed both from a social enterprise point of view and from an urban agricultural perspective.”

What are some of the key challenges that your Social Enterprise faces? Where do you hope to see Citizen Farm in five years time?

“I feel that our work isn’t valued fairly, which is the biggest problem. I hope to see Citizen Farm become the thought leaders in integrating cities with urban farming concepts and models. Becoming the heart of every metropolis and inspiring liveability. We want to become a household brand.”

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