How Hong Kong is catching up to Singapore in urban farming tech

Farmacy grows vegetables and herbs hydroponically in Causeway Bay, and is trialling mobile farms. Co-founder Raymond Mak talks about cutting Hong Kong’s carbon footprint and delivering fresh produce.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

As a social movement gathers pace on the city streets this summer, there's another growing revolution - a green movement.

This one is all about groundbreaking farming technology that cuts lengthy supply chains to allow easy access to fresh produce rich in nutrients and bursting with flavour.

Farmacy, an urban farming technology company launched in January 2018, has been offering herbs, microgreens, and edible flowers to restaurants, hotels and home cooks. It will take things to the next level in a couple of weeks with the launch of its first "mobile farm".

"That's a farm that is so mobile it can be stored in your home, restaurant, school or supermarket. In the future, supermarkets won't need to import vegetables, you can grow the vegetables fresh - lettuce, pak choi, choi sum, whatever," says Raymond Mak, Farmacy's CEO and co-founder.

Farmacy grows vegetables and herbs hydroponically. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Using hydroponic technology, the greens will grow in-store so that consumers know exactly where their food is coming from - they can actually see their vegetables as they grow.

The pilot mobile farm will be launched in mid-August at the organic convenience store JustGreen in Sai Kung.

"They want to first roll it out at the Sai Kung store because there's more room and they have a good relationship with clients who are open to trying new things and are more demanding about sustainability and freshness," says Mak.

Customers will be able to order vegetables that can be harvested and delivered within minutes or hours, instead of the usual four-day minimum for imported goods. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

We are in the firm's hydroponics farm in Fashion Walk, Causeway Bay, a 200 sq ft space with two glass walls that allow the curious a peek at the herbs, microgreens, and edible flowers growing in their shallow blue tubs. There's no air-conditioning in here - the plants like it warm - and just a fan to cool things down a bit if necessary. At 11 am it's time to turn on the lights and "wake up" the greens. "They need eight hours sleep, just like humans," says Mak.

Hydroponic basically refers to the way that the plants absorb nutrients, which is through water instead of soil. Farmacy uses organic nutrients bought from the United States which has US Federal Drug Administration approval, and adds it to water. An advantage of indoor farming is that it's very "clean" - there are none of the pesky insects and pests you get with soil and outdoors - and it also saves water.

"Compared with soil-based farming, where a lot of water is lost, goes underground, hydroponic farming saves 90 per cent more water," says Mak.

Hong Kong imports an astounding 98.3 per cent of its vegetables, with 70 per cent of the imports coming from China and 28 per cent flown in from around the world. All the emissions involved in getting our greens into Hong Kong is a massive black mark in terms of sustainability - and it's also bad for our health.

As soon as produce is harvested, the roots stop supplying water to the leaves and stem and the plant starts leaking goodness, with much of the nutrition going as the plant's water evaporates.

"University of California studies show that vegetables can lose 15 to 55 per cent of vitamin C within a week and some spinach can lose 90 per cent of vitamin C within the first 24 hours after harvest," says Mak, one of five University of Hong Kong MBA graduates who teamed up to found Farmacy.

The beauty of a mobile farm is the ability to buy your greens with the roots still intact, take the produce home and cut it up and cook it while it's still super fresh and packed with goodness.

Raymond Mak co-founded Farmacy with four other HKU MBA graduates. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

He notes the irony of consumers forking out high prices at high-end supermarkets for organic goods from Italy and France when the long travel time seriously affects its nutritional value.

The four days minimum it takes to get from farm to supermarket represents a huge loss of nutrients. Even produce from Yunnan in southwest China - where much of Hong Kong's vegetables are grown - takes one to two days to reach Hong Kong, Mak says.

The longer it takes to transport produce, the more flavour it loses. Mak proposes an impromptu tasting session.

First, we try a purple flower, oxalis, which is super sour, then a yellow cucumber flower, followed by lime basil, and a nasturtium (known as Empress of India) which knocks our socks off with a powerful wasabi hit.

Harvested just moments before we ingested them, the flavours are full of zing, so it's easy to understand why Michelin-starred chefs want to get their hands on them. French restaurant Le Salon de The de Joël Robuchon was an early adopter.

University of California studies show that vegetables can lose 15 to 55 per cent of vitamin C within a week and some spinach can lose 90 per cent of vitamin C within the first 24 hours after harvest

Raymond Mak, Farmacy's CEO and co-founder

But Farmacy isn't about just catering to celebrity chefs - it's got a bigger mission in mind.

"We don't want this to be a small, niche thing, we want it to be accessible to the public, to all citizens, we want to make it a movement," says Mak.

The movement is taking hold elsewhere. In Germany, the Berlin-based Infarm, founded in 2013 by two brothers, has partnered with 25 major food retailers and deployed more than 200 in-store farms, and is harvesting 150,000-plus plants monthly.

Farmshelf, started by Andrew Shearer in a San Francisco garage in 2015, is now leading the urban farming pack in the US.

Closer to home, the idea has taken root in Singapore. Earlier this year the city-state announced its intention to have all the island state's needs home-grown by 2030, including vegetables cultivated in climate-controlled greenhouses under special LED lighting to maximise yields.

"Singapore has quite aggressive targets. Hong Kong needs to catch up and we want to play a role in it," says Mak.

The Farmacy team - nine staff, including the five founders - have been using the Causeway Bay operation for research and development and a base in Cyberport to develop the mobile farm technology.

Beyond the hydroponic technology, Mak says the team is developing even more sustainable and efficient farming technology, but they've taken it slow the first year to develop their green thumbs.

"You have to understand the plants before moving to the technology, or else it has no soul," he says.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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