(Photo: Successful community farming projects yield healthy home-grown vegetables that feed all the farmers and their families | Image by Tan Kai Ren)

City Farms Growing Resilience

Leadership, training and support help overcome challenges in community farming in Kuala Lumpur’s public housing, sowing success.

WITH FOOD prices ever increasing, community farming for food security among lower income city-dwellers is ever more critical. The pandemic saw the media trumpeting the importance of such programmes.

However, as long as 5 years ago in 2017, the local government in Kuala Lumpur started encouraging the residents of both the Public Housing (PA) and the People’s Housing Programme (PPR) to be involved in community farming. And the programme has sowed some success.

(Photo: Successful community farming projects yield healthy home-grown vegetables that feed all the farmers and their families  | Image by Tan Kai Ren)

The capital’s urban farming programme comes under the Local Agenda 21 Programme (LA21) of Kuala Lumpur City Hall. The programme is assisting communities to kickstart their farming by providing support such as applying for land, and obtaining soil, seedlings, fertilisers, and tools.

There are currently 63 PAs and PPRs in Kuala Lumpur. The LA21 Kuala Lumpur urban farming chairperson, Mohd Rashdan Abd Rashid, highlighted that although almost all the flats have tried community farming, only a few are successful. Most of the others are facing difficulties and serious challenges.

Here’s a look at three of these efforts.

A variety of produce is well tended by the Seri Perlis 2 community. (Low Kyle Yi)
A variety of produce is well tended by the Seri Perlis 2 community. (Low Kyle Yi)

A model for success: Seri Perlis 2

In the Seri Perlis 2 PA in Kuala Lumpur, numbered plots are packed with neat rows of healthy produce, from bayam and long beans to chillies and strawberries.

It is no wonder that its 40 active resident-farmers have been crowned community garden champions on multiple occasions, including the most recent Anugerah Kejiranan Hijau 2021 organised by PLANMalaysia. They won first place in the multi-storey housing community category, the second such award in a row.

Abdul Aziz Yahya is the chairperson of the flats’ Agriculture Community Cooperative. He says the cooperative has been going since 2019 but the urban farming effort started way back in 2014.

Healthy food

He said the original objective was not about generating income. “Our focus was to provide a space for learning and produce quality food for the community.”

However, the effort has yielded sustained and impressive produce, giving hope for the success of such programmes. What is the community’s secret?

Aziz says their success comes from strong communal support and knowledge sharing on farming techniques like fertilising, soil, and pest management. While the scheme is a mix of individual plots and community plots, such support enables everyone to flourish.

In addition, “we maintain our farming continuously. We don’t do it on-off, on-off, we just go on. Whether it is successful or not we just go on,” he says.

All produce is sold to the Cooperative at cost price and resold at a marked-up price. Although the prices are slightly higher than the market price, the residents are willing to buy from the Cooperative as they know that these are organically farmed, says Aziz.

The community farm is not large. There are 9 community plots covering less than 4000 square metres and several small individual plots. But the farm produces enough vegetables and herbs to sustain the 40 members of the farming community.

In addition, the Cooperative can generate an average weekly income of RM300–400, says Aziz. This income comes not only from vegetables and fruits. Fertilisers, seedlings, seeds, and soil are all also produced in Seri Perlis 2.

From strength to strength

In pre-COVID days, they even hosted a weekly farmer’s market under the Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority (FAMA) at the carpark of Seri Perlis 2 and participated in the weekend market at the Sungai Bunus Retention Pond.

Aziz says they have been able to improve their farming with the support of LA21 Kuala Lumpur and several other governmental bodies and NGOs. Also handy is the prize money the community farm has won.

Among other things, they have been able to acquire a self-watering system, grass cutting machine, dehydrating machine to produce dried food, mini greenhouse, and a fertigation system for irrigation on a multi-storey rack.

In August 2021, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (KPKT) launched the Urban Community Farming Policy (DKKB) which serves as a guide for urban farming through five thrusts that are aligned to the Twelfth Malaysia Plan (RMK-12). The expected outcomes are:

  • A sustainable, organised, and systematic increase in the number of urban community garden developments;
  • Increased production yields of urban community gardens; and
  • Increased social integration activities among the community cities across the country.

As they have very limited space available for farming, he says increasing the number of multi-storey racks is important to increase their yield.

Entering competitions is an important incentive to keep the community going. “If you want to be a strong community, our principle is you must enter a competition and win it. Then you will obtain an ‘aura’, an ‘aura’ to encourage farming,” says Aziz.

“We hope that the second generation from this community will be more involved in the farming. We aim to reduce the workload through adopting technology, such as setting timers through handphones. This will ensure they don’t have to come to the farm every day, allowing more time to be focused on their day jobs.”

Seri Sabah 3A's community farm is a former MRT waste dumping ground but plants are growing though in polybags, says community leader Raja Rahim. (Tan Kai Ren)
Seri Sabah 3A's community farm is a former MRT waste dumping ground but plants are growing though in polybags, says community leader Raja Rahim. (Tan Kai Ren)

Hiring a manager: Seri Sabah 3A

Getting a community together for a farming project is no easy task.

At Seri Sabah 3A Public Housing, most homes have 5–10 potted plants along the corridors with plants like serai and kesum. “That shows that most of the residents are interested in urban farming,” says Raja Rahim Raja Muhaiddin, the chairperson of the residents association.

However, the main challenge is to get the residents interested to be part of the community farm. One obstacle, he thinks, is the limited farming space. Covering only 3000 square metres, their farm is even smaller than the one at Seri Perlis 2.

Therefore, with only about 20 volunteer farmers, they decided to hire a dedicated farm manager.

Former wasteland

The Seri Sabah 3A residents grow around 30 species of crops. However, the crops must be grown in pots and polybags. The farm is on land that was previously a wasteland of construction debris from the building of the MRT. The pots and polybags were provided by the Department of Agriculture Malaysia (DOA).

There is yet another challenge to keeping the farm going. Raja Rahim says that although many residents know farming “by heart”, they will need to receive training to enhance their skills and knowledge.

To encourage them, he has prepared programmes and activities to ensure sustainability. “I don’t want an ad-hoc programme. I want to organise a programme that can be ongoing… (so) it will produce clean, halal and fresh produce.”

His aspirations are to commercialise 1 or 2 products this year. To achieve that, he hopes to be able to overcome the current challenges of infertile soil and build a stronger farming community in the Seri Sabah 3A Public Housing.

Brinjals thrive in a teeny plot and Seri Johor's Rashid Yusop couldn't be prouder of them. (Tan Kai Ren)
Brinjals thrive in a teeny plot and Seri Johor's Rashid Yusop couldn't be prouder of them. (Tan Kai Ren)

Size doesn’t matter: Seri Johor

Seri Johor has an even smaller space than Seri Sabah 3A but that has not deterred its residents from starting a farm.

Rashid Yusop, the chairperson of the Seri Johor residents association, is leading 30 committee members in their brand-new urban farming effort under LA21. For the past 9 months, they have been growing 300 polybags of brinjals on their plot of less than 150 square metres.

The day of the interview, Rashid and two other residents were diligently working on their plot to ensure the crops were well-tended with minimal pests. The brinjals are farmed using a fertigation system supported by the DOA, who also trained them.

Time to expand

“Many residents are actually interested in urban farming at Seri Johor, and they have started planting in small areas around the blocks,” says Rashid.

Due to this high interest, Rashid submitted an application to land authorities over a year ago to conduct farming under high tension wires adjacent to Seri Johor.

When the land is approved, he will be inviting all residents to be part of the community farm.

Food security is an urgent matter, says Mohd Rashdan from LA21 Kuala Lumpur. (Tan Kai Ren)
Food security is an urgent matter, says Mohd Rashdan from LA21 Kuala Lumpur. (Tan Kai Ren)

Food security ever more critical

Urban community farming such as these efforts is more crucial than ever as Malaysians come out of a challenging time of lockdowns. Many had lost their jobs and income.

“Many NGOs and corporations have contributed to food security through food bank initiatives to help the urban poor these last two years,” says Mohd Rashdan from LA21 Kuala Lumpur.

“I foresee that this is not a [sustainable] practice as once things get back to normal, the beneficiaries will be facing another problem as they don’t know where to start and how to start tackling the food security issue.

Private sector support

“That is the reason why we at DBKL LA21, we are really promoting the setting up of as many urban farms all over Kuala Lumpur.”

LA21 has on board a number of corporations that are interested in investing through their Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) efforts.

The main agenda of urban community farming is actually very basic, says Rashdan.

“It is to create positive social, economic, and environmental impact. This is how we can fix the food security issue. We don’t want the situation to prolong. We don’t want the urban poor to get poorer. We don’t want them to turn from having a place to stay and end up at the roadside as a homeless person.”

[Edited by SL Wong]

Tan Kai Ren (@Kai Ren) is a Macaranga Sprouts journalist.

We thank the supporters of the Macaranga Sprouts programme who made this story possible.

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