Creating a Fresh Food Revolution: Revealing Kebun Kita(r)’s Secrets

Following the launch of Kebun Kita(r), Penang’s first self- sustaining community urban farm, and its mission to bring fresh organic food to the city’s population, regardless of their income level, The Citymaker caught up with Karthigayan Gunasegaran, Programme Manager at Think City and the project manager for Kebun Kita(r) to discover his inspiration for this urban milestone.

Where did the idea for Kebun Kita(r) originate?

Kebun Kita(r) started as a special project under the office of Think City’s Managing Director in 2018. Over time, it has grown into the model we launched as Kebun Kita(r), which brings us closer to realising Penang State’s vision to catalyse a bigger movement around urban agriculture.

Photo by Think City

What’s your vision for the project?

My vision for Kebun Kita(r) is for it to be central to community living. A farm that can demonstrate the possibility of sustainable lifestyles, the possibility of gaining access to highly nutritious food and that can bring the community together to champion concepts of living that are non-detrimental to the environment.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how essential it is to make that shift. The knowledge and skill urban farming brings to the community can protect it against future crises. Beyond just providing food and nutrition, it helps to build resilient communities. Communities that are agile, that can come together in a crisis and live more sustainable lifestyles.

Photo by Think City

How long did it take to create the farm in Penang?

Kebun Kita(r) itself only took 3 months to develop. We started designing just after the MCO was announced and we began the roll-out in May, leading to our launch in September. Prior to that, we did a lot advocacy work around nutrition and farming, trying to build an ecosystem of sustainable living through sustainable lifestyles.

Are you surprised by the way people have reacted to the project?

I was very surprised when I engaged with younger generations and I would ask them the question:“ Where do you think vegetables come from?” Nine out of ten of them say that they come from the supermarket. That surprised me and it made me realise that we had to go beyond advocacy and awareness; there needed to be a site that would demonstrate how food actually ends up on the plate. Something that shows that process from the very start. There are a lot of vegetables that are important to our culture; Malaysian dishes have evolved around them. So, it was important to show the different methods that are used to produce them.

Photo by Think City

How did that translate into the idea for Kebun Kita(r) itself?

That gave us the inspiration to mobilise this idea with different parties; to create it in a demonstrative way that people can feel, experience and be involved with. Especially as Kebun Kita(r) doesn’t use any chemical pesticides or herbicides. That helps people to think about eating safe, nutritious and organic food. To understand that their socioeconomic status doesn’t put it out of their reach.

This health crisis has forced people to look again at the way they live, and to re-learn what is really important. People have developed a lot of new skills during this pandemic. And one of those skills is living more sustainably.

Photo by Think City

How do you think urban farms can change the relationship we have with our food?

Urban farming may not replace conventional methods of getting food into an urban setting. But it can play a complementary role by increasing food security. That’s really been brought into focus during this health crisis. Farms like Kebun Kita(r) also play a role in showing how nature can heal itself, especially in cities, where our actions tend to have a detrimental effect on the environment. Kebun Kita(r) is located on what was an underutilized space at the Penang Digital Library. Today, the site attracts pollinators like bees and butterflies. Micro-biodiversity starts to reassert itself: we didn’t introduce earthworms into our system but they’ve found their way into our raised soil beds, nonetheless. It goes to show that if you practice sustainable, non-chemical-loaded agriculture, nature finds its own way into that process.

Photo by Think City

Kebun Kita(r) uses a lot of smart technology. Is this style of farming accessible to people who aren’t farmers, and don’t have much knowledge about agriculture or aquaponics?

If someone can use apps and communicate by social media, managing a farm like Kebun Kita(r) via an app shouldn’t be an issue. To give a simple example; our raised- bed system uses automatic sensor powered irrigation. You just have to set the timer; for example, if it needs to be irrigated three time a day, you can set the particular time intervals. The system does the job for you. The same with the sensors in the beds. They control the temperature and the humidity. They inform the system. The system analyses the data and acts accordingly. The operator only needs to step in if there’s a need for real-time intervention.

Photo by Think City

One of Kebun Kita(r)’s key features is its closed loop system. What makes this such an innovative and important inclusion?

It’s the reason why it’s called Kebun Kita(r). Kita(r) signalling that it’s both a cycle and a collective act. The farm contains two closed loops in its circular system. The first is the relationship between our raised-bed farming and our compost system. We wanted to address the amount of food waste that ends up in landfill, which is a major contributor to green-house gas production. In our system, the food goes to the consumers, the consumers consume the food and any waste or spoil goes into the food composter, which converts it into an organic compost. And that compost, and its microorganisms, goes back into the raised-beds where it feeds the plants and helps to create more nutrition.

The second closed loop is an amazing system. It’s our vertical aquaponics. It allows us to raise fish in the water that feeds the plants. Their waste is used by the plants, which in turn are filtering the water, not just consuming the nutrients but cleaning the water in the process, enabling us to reintroduce clean water into the system. This allows us to conserve water at a rate of around 95% compared to a conventional system. So, it’s another way that we can really push the idea of sustainability and being in harmony with nature.

Photo by Think City

Was it difficult to bring the technology and knowledge components of the farm together?

100% of the technologies used in Kebun Kita(r) were developed by local experts, we didn’t buy them off the shelf from overseas. The technology was created and developed by a group of professors from Universiti Sultan Idris Shah (UPSI). From a Malaysian perspective, that makes Kebun Kita(r) highly replicable.

Photo by Think City

Which is probably the key question. How does Kebun Kita(r) evolve from here?

One of the ideas of Kebun Kita(r) is to build capacity and networks within the community so that they can champion their own versions of the concept. They can champion Kebun Kita(r) 2.0 or 3.0 in their own community. The initial implementation phase would definitely need some form of knowledge or skills capacity building if it isn’t already there. But the technology itself is readily available. Communities would quickly reach the point where they could manage the farm on their own.

Photo by Think City

What would the cost implications be?

Another factor that makes it easier is that once the digital part of the platform has been created, as in the case of this first Kebun Kita(r), the cost of building or integrating that digital component for any subsequent farm is near zero. They would simply sit on the existing platform. Also, it’s very versatile. The concept isn’t constrained by size. It easily scales up and down according to the available land space of the operators. The same system scales from a half-acre farm to something that sits on a balcony and can provide fresh produce to a single family.

Kebun Kita(r) offers us this incredible convergence of cost-effectiveness, ease of use and flexibility in terms of scale. Enabling us to use that replicability and adaptability to build resilience in our communities.

Follow the progress of Kebun Kita(r) on The Citymaker and on Think City’s social media channels. An edited version of this interview is featured on the Reflexive City podcast.