Hong Kong’s skyline is dominated by towering skyscrapers, fragmenting the city’s sky. Andrew Tsui, who shuttles through the narrow streets, often contemplates how urbanites can live comfortably in a highly commercialised environment while cultivating an appreciation for food and the environment.
Even though fresh fruits and vegetables are readily available in this prosperous city, understanding our food source is essential to build a resilient and sustainable city. Recognising this need, Andrew established Rooftop Republic (RR) in 2015 with two partners. RR aims to reconnect urbanities with food.Amidst the ubiquity of phubbers in Hong Kong, one can discover the hidden gem of the green sky city cultivated by RR if they simply lift their heads in this bustling metropolis.
Rooftop Republic’s Success Hinges on a Close Trilateral Relationship
While dining at a penthouse may be easily accessible, venturing into rooftop farming poses its challenges. Andrew describes the partnership of building a rooftop farm as a trilateral relationship. The RR team collaborates with building developers, tenants, and property management companies to create a green sky.
RR currently serves a diverse range of clients, including commercial buildings such as offices, malls, restaurants, hotels, and private housing estates, with commercial buildings comprising the majority. “By partnering with these three stakeholder groups, we could successfully secure idle urban spaces and develop rooftop farms. Additionally, we hope to engage a broader audience, such as building employees and their families and friends. Each party plays a role in maintaining this long-term, stable triangle relationship, which grants us the flexibility to meet varying needs,” shared Andrew.
Nurturing a Grounded Culture
Social participation and community culture cultivation are integral to RR’s long-term goals. They aim to convey the concept of urban farming and its behind-the-scenes stories to a broader audience. In collaboration with DBS Bank and Swire Properties in 2021, RR established a rooftop farm at One Island East in Taikoo Place. This farm, situated at an elevation of almost 300 metres, stands as the tallest urban farm in Asia and is one of the five urban farms as part of The Loop – Swire Properties’ sustainable development initiative.
In addition to 50 planter boxes for growing vegetables and herbs, the rooftop also features food waste processors, converting the building occupants’ food waste into compost for the farm. The organisers of the rooftop farm encourage building employees to visit during their leisure time to discover the joy of farming and connect with nature in the city’s heart.
RR utilises the rooftop as a hub to transform urban life and cultivate sustainable living practices. They host planting workshops and guided tours intermittently during holidays, attracting more people to engage in farming beyond the confines of conventional urban life. They then bring those experiences and stories into various communities. During the interview, Andrew and several urban farmers provided detailed descriptions of each plant, leaving a lasting impression of verdant vegetation on the minds of the urban residents.
Enhancing High-altitude Safety and Improving Farming Efficiency Through Technology
Chun Yin has worked as an urban farmer at RR for over a year. With his extensive experience in conventional farming, he transitioned to aerial farming. He said, “Urban farming differs greatly from traditional farming regarding the farming environment, mode, and processes. The primary focus is on utilising technology to reduce physical exertion. Nonetheless, the passion is not diminished for people like me who love planting, and we may even derive greater pleasure. Urban farming allows us to reach more people, and through my work, I can teach others interested in agriculture based on my previous experience and relevant courses I’ve finished, which is highly satisfying for me.”
Developing farming at heights comparable to the Eiffel Tower also raises safety concerns. Andrew utilised his civil engineering expertise to conduct preliminary assessments during site inspections. He then consulted professionals to evaluate the building’s load-bearing capacity, wind speed, and urban planting conditions, including sunlight, waterproofing, and drainage, to create an optimal and safe farming environment.
“Our farm design has been tested for different levels of typhoon weather in Hong Kong, and the management techniques we have learned are also applicable to other urban areas and future adverse weather conditions,” explained Andrew. Although not large in scale, this farm has all the necessary facilities. RR farmers visit the rooftop every week to manage the farm, observe plant growth and implement an automatic irrigation system, regulating water usage and irrigation time for the following week, thus reducing water consumption and efficiently allocating manpower resources.
Striving for a Sustainable Path Together
The market features numerous comparable enterprises, and in the face of market competition, Andrew stated: “We believe that competition is necessary for gaining a more objective and comprehensive understanding of the entire market and exploring different development perspectives.” The Hong Kong market still holds unlimited potential, with many idle building rooftops as potential development targets. Before expanding into other markets, RR commits to scaling up within Hong Kong, further cultivating its unique urban farming culture and community, and applying the successful experiences gained to other cities in the future.
As companies continue to pursue their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) targets, urban farming has become an easily accessible and meaningful approach for listed companies, real estate development projects, and green buildings. RR assists these companies in reducing carbon emissions and promoting stakeholder engagement and well-being through urban planting, accelerating their progress towards sustainable development.
Social Impact Partners (SIP) believes that by investing in enterprises with significant potential for social impact, such as RR, it can help expand the scope of urban life while exploring creative approaches to sustainability.
Lillian Li, CEO of SIP, commented on this investment project: “As a city with an extremely high population and building density, Hong Kong’s limited space presents opportunities for rooftop farming. RR has explored the operational direction and innovative business models for eight years, maintaining stable development even during the pandemic’s restricted social interactions.”