After graduating from university, Emil Jihad decided to venture into the food and beverage industry.
Nearly a decade later, together with his partner Tony Yong, he has gone through his share of twists and turns in facing the business challenges that arose. But something happened several years ago that changed his perspective of food for good.
One of Yong’s friends, a strict vegetarian who had always watched his health, died of stomach cancer.
His death caught Emil and Yong flat-footed.
The doctor theorised that the cancer had been caused by the pesticide used in the vegetables he ate.
Emil and Yong sat down to research the issue and found many other cases of health issues due to the ingestion of pesticide.
It was then that they decided to begin cultivating pesticide-free crops.
“That was our core idea,” Emil said in an interview with MalaysiaNow.
Now, he and Yong have converted some of the parking space on the roof of the One Utama shopping mall in Petaling Jaya into a farm complete with a fully functional aquaponics system.
The front of Fresh Growcer (Rooftop Farm @ 1Utama) is dominated by a display of fresh vegetables and fruit, while to the left lies the aquaponics garden. The water from the garden collects in a fish pond, where fat orange carps frolic.
“We invite visitors to see for themselves,” Emil said. “If we use any pesticide at all, the fish will die.”
Fresh Growcer offers 20 types of vegetable products, mainly of the Asian leafy and European leafy varieties.
The Asian leafy category includes a range of mustard, spinach and kale, while the European variety covers kale and lettuce greens.
Best sellers vary according to what Emil and Yong have to offer at the time.
“If we introduce a new plant, that is what customers will go for,” said Emil.
For the moment, though, crowd favourites have been the Italian lettuce, butterhead lettuce, green coral and mustard greens.
Emil and Yong are planning to bring in chilli plants, coriander and basil as well.
Fresh Growcer runs on a self-harvest system, in which customers visit the farm and choose for themselves the vegetables they wish to buy. This ensures that the vegetables they pick are fresh from the ground.
“You can find organic vegetables at the supermarket, but those are picked three to five days beforehand,” Emil said.
“Once the roots are chopped off, almost half of the nutrients are gone. If you self-harvest, the roots remain intact until the very last minute.
“This way, you don’t even need to put the vegetables into the fridge. Just leave them in a bucket of water and they will continue to thrive.”
The farm is also designed to be as self-sustainable as possible.
“Many urban gardens use glow lamps, but we don’t need those because up here, we get all the sunlight we need,” Emil said.
Meanwhile, the excrement from the fish in the aquaponics pond is used as extra fertiliser for the vegetables.
There is no air-conditioning system in place, either. Instead, they use normal fans without any artificial coolant.
While the aquaponics system takes up less space and cuts down on wastage, the vegetables are still vulnerable to mould and disease.
The key is to tackle such problems as quickly as possible.
Looking ahead, Emil plans to begin delivery services to the surrounding areas. And in terms of public awareness, he hopes that Fresh Growcer will become an eco-tourism centre where people can come and learn about sustainable farming.