It is early afternoon in Hong Kong and primary schools are emptying out into a chaotically busy part of north-west Kowloon.
On the roof of a five-floor shopping mall, Michelle Hong is explaining how she and her two co-founders set up a rooftop gardening company.
In the suffocating heat and standing in what is, at 13,000 sq ft, Rooftop Republic’s largest project in Hong Kong, she points out a small girl in pink school uniform.
Instead of walking straight through this mini organic farm garden like the other passers-by, the girl lingers as her mother walks around the beds and points to the flowers and vegetables.
They study asparagus, okra, lemongrass, lemon trees, pandan leaves, peanuts, spinach, watermelon and an array of herbs; aubergines have been cropped and some rows lie fallow before they can be replanted.
This is not a run-of-the-mill ornamental roof garden.
The interest on the girl’s face delights Ms Hong, who wants people to understand more about where food comes from and how hard it is to produce.
Yet Ms Hong, whose background is in advertising and communications, is a convert to urban farming. She learnt the business from scratch after arriving in Hong Kong from her native Singapore with her husband 10 years ago.
“I’m very much a city person, but I still want to have the experience of being able to grow my own food,” she says.
She started with producing herbs on her apartment balcony, and then in 2015 she and husband Andrew Tsui, who was born in Hong Kong, joined with Pol Fàbrega, from Spain, to set up Rooftop Republic as a social enterprise.
There are three strands to the business: marketing, consulting and set-up; managing the completed gardens several days a week; and workshops and events, which contribute about a fifth of revenues.
Clients pay a one-off fee for the initial consultancy, design work and raised beds, seeds and plants. They then engage Rooftop Republic to maintain the gardens, with work carried out by its eight employees.
Clients’ staff often volunteer to help in the gardens and the company has also engaged local organic farmers to pass on their skills and give guidance on projects.
Ms Hong says an important part of the company’s mission is to involve people in tending the plants. “The set-up is the easiest part,” she says. “Managing and working with the participants is difficult.”
Once the volunteers feel confident enough to work on their own, Rooftop Republic supports them through WhatsApp groups where they can find answers to questions such as “Can I eat this yet?”
Sometimes, Ms Hong says, the team is inundated with pictures of blemishes or insects as volunteers try to find if their plants have been blighted by pests. Her proudest moment, however, is when a volunteer tells her that farming is really hard. That means they have seen the effort needed to produce good food, she says.
Ms Hong says revenue growth has averaged 30-40 per cent a year, though she declines to say what it is.
Rooftop Republic started at a time when companies in Hong Kong were looking for ways to make their operations more sustainable and to connect with staff or customers.
“We set up using our own savings but we were fortunate to get a few clients in the first few months,” Ms Hong says, adding that the service-based business model requires little capital investment.
Working with her husband was intense. “Especially during the first year it was nearly impossible to draw the line between work and personal life,” she says, adding that this situation improved vastly after a few months when Mr Fàbrega joined full time.
“Working with a couple did also have its challenges, so I give Pol due credit for his courage to be in that position,” she says.
In less than five years the company has established 55 projects including two in mainland China, with the highest being a rooftop garden 40 floors up.
The first clients included PwC, the consultancy, Swire Hotels, and Jones Lang LaSalle, the property management company.
They were followed by others such as Cathay Pacific, the territory’s flagship airline, and Bank of East Asia, both of which commissioned Rooftop Republic to start farms that would involve staff as volunteers.
The three founders are planning to expand the company further. The two projects already set up in China, for a design company and a property company, one of which is a rooftop garden, have already moved to the management phase.
Ms Hong says those initiatives were particularly challenging because the soil there was not organic, and they had to identify local farmers who could advise and keep an eye on the projects.
Most of the company’s employees are women. The business model seems to be particularly attractive to women, who also make up the bulk of applicants when the business is hiring, Ms Hong says.
For any woman planning such a venture her advice is to “try it out as a side-hustle first”. At some point, however, she says you have to decide to devote yourself to it.
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