Cultivating urban farming in Malaysia

Urban farming is able to reduce food miles which are responsible for 3b tonnes of carbon emissions annually if measured on a global scale 


CITY dwellers have been growing fresh produce like fruits and vegetables in vacant lots, rooftops and abandoned indoor spaces since the World War II era. 

During that period, millions of Americans practised urban farming, which they called “victory gardens” in their backyards to produce additional fruits and vegetables. 

The then-US government also introduced meatless and wheatless days to cut consumption to combat rising food prices during the war. 

These farms managed to produce 40% of the crops nationwide. 

After the war, the food culture in the city and suburbs declined and was replaced by large monocultural factory farms which developed in the countryside. 

In Europe, pre-war crop failures and previous dependence on imported food led to serious food shortages. 

Therefore, urban farming was adopted in order to feed Allied troops. 

Fast forward to current times, Covid-19 has raised the popularity of urban farming after it caused severe food supply issues due to the Movement Control Order (MCO). 

According to a report by researchers from Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) and Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), the distribution of locally produced fresh food and imported food were disrupted in several urban communities. 

“The situation was especially bad during the implementation of the first MCO where — due to movement restrictions — fresh food supplies such as vegetables from local production areas ended up being dumped and never reached the intended local consumers,” it said. 

Plants produced by aquaponic method are healthier and cleaner since it does not require the use of chemical fertilisers (Pic courtesy of Muhammad Irwan Maruji)

Besides allowing consumers to take the issue into their own hands, urban farming was able to reduce food miles which are responsible for three billion tonnes of carbon emissions annually if measured on a global scale. 

It could also enhance local ecosystems which attracts pollinators while providing more green spaces to help reduce the heat in urban areas. 

Green Fingers Aquaponics Farm CEO and founder Charles Lai noted that during the pandemic, the Klang Valley suffered a shortage of vegetables because most of the supplies were brought from Cameron High- lands, Pahang, and imported from overseas. 

“There were also transportation issues which led to the increase in vegetable prices,” he told The Malaysian Reserve (TMR). 

Besides supply issues, Lai said people also had more extra time while being confined to their homes during the MCOs. 

Wanting something productive to do during the lockdown, Lai noticed that more Malaysians ventured into agriculture. 

Challenges in Urban Farming 

Despite its many benefits, urban farming poses some environmental issues where pesticides used in the city may cause air pollution, especially in areas with dense populations, and affect those with severe respiratory problems. 

Fertilisers and pesticides will also contaminate the water supply. 

“It is important that the use of these methods is reduced in urban areas and monitored by the local authorities,” Lai said. 

Moreover, the overuse of public water supply by these urban farms could cause water shortages in the city therefore, they would need to utilise treated wastewater. 

Urban farms also often lacked manpower as most skilled and experienced agricultural workers preferred to live away from the cities. 

Therefore, for urban farms to work, people had to be educated and supervised, which was very time-consuming, expensive and not on the top of local governments’ priority list at the time. 

Meanwhile, metropolitan cities have been heavily polluted which in turn harms crop production. 

To overcome this, urban farmers may need to buy new soil to carry out efficient farming with high yields. 

In Malaysia, there is insufficient land for urban farming and not enough support for urban farmers as well as limited resources and education. 

Although starting an urban farm may be easy, Lai advised that one needs to build it to a certain scale in order to make it economical. 

“If you do it small, your overhead costs will be high and then your sales will be low,” he said, adding that it is a matter of consistency and quantity. 

Lai hoped that the current government could support and fund city dwellers who want to build their own farms. 

He noted that the previous government was looking to encourage more youths into urban farming. 

The previous Youth and Sports (KBS) Ministry, Agriculture and Food Industry Ministry (Mafi), as well as the federal Department of Lands and Mines (JKPTG), have formed a strategic partnership to achieve the target. 

So far, a total of 8,000 young entrepreneurs have received assistance including grants, funding, as well as short-term courses and technical and financial advisory services. 

Fresh Delivery from Farm to Home

Located in Semenyih, Selangor, Green Fingers is an urban farm which uses an aquaponics system to produce vegetables. 

An approximately 50-minute drive from Kuala Lumpur, Lai opened the farm to provide healthy and fresh vegetables to the city folk. 

“We harvest our vegetables usually in the morning and deliver them straight to the customers in the afternoon. 

“At the moment we serve retailers, restaurants and directly to end users,” he told TMR. Currently, without its own market, Green Fingers provides the produce to fresh markets such as BilaBila Mart and Ola Mart.

Green Fingers also does e-commerce delivery which customers can order through fingers/2744 and they will deliver it straight to their homes.

Lai shared that their journey had not been a smooth one. His team began developing the farm at the end of 2019, just when the pandemic began breaking out. 

“Just when we started to clear the land and in the aeroponics method have their roots suspended in air and are given nutrients by having them sprayed with mist. 

The seeds are “planted” in pieces of moss filled in small pots, which are exposed to light at one end and to nutritive mist at the other. 

The foam also maintains the stalk and root mass in place as the plants grow. 

“Technology is always advancing as we speak so it is up to the modern farmers to keep up with the technology and to be competitive in the industry,” Lai said. 

Another trend in agriculture is embracing digitisation through the use of robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT). 

The use of IoT in farming enables farmers to reduce waste and enhance productivity, fully utilising resources and monitoring field conditions from anywhere. 

“We are still looking into what way IoT can help our farm to be more cost-efficient,” he added. 

Kebun-Kebun Bangsar 

Nestled in the heart of Kuala Lumpur’s upscale township is a hectare of an urban community farm called Kebun-Kebun Bangsar (KKB). 

It sits on the slope of a hill located on Tenaga Nasional Bhd’s (TNB) reserve land between Jalan Cenderai and Lorong Bukit Pantai 4 in Taman Bukit Pantai, Bangsar, and overlooks the capital of Malaysia’s skyline. 

It is home to not only vegetables and flowers but also roaming with farm animals such as chickens, goats, sheep and rabbits. 

The farm has received more than 100,000 visitors over the past five years. 

KKB was established and owned by the Kebun-Kebun Bandar Society in an attempt to utilise the underused reserved areas for the community (Source: KKB Facebook)

KKB was established and owned by the Kebun-Kebun Bandar Society in an attempt to utilise the underused reserved areas for the community. 

Chairman and co-founder Ng Sek San received the green light from the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) and Local Agenda 21 (LA21) to build a community garden and farm. The project also received funding from Think City KL. 

Unfortunately, there had been many complaints on the farm regarding odour pollution, flies and noise from its livestock. On June 23 last year, it was ordered to shut down. 

The Federal Territory Lands and Mines Department had taken action against the community farm for violating the terms of the Temporary Occupation Licence (TOL) for nursery purposes. 

According to the FT Lands and Mines director Datuk Muhammad Yasir Yahya, they were not supposed to build any permanent build the facilities here, the first lockdown was implemented, which put our project on hold for six months before we could continue,” he explained. 

All About Aquaponics 

Hydroponics and aquaponics are some of the methods that are used in urban farming, as they can be done indoors and in small spaces. 

However, they are not the same. While plants are grown in an inert medium and fed with nutrient solutions through hydroponics, aquaponics combines both aquaculture (growing fish and other aquatic animals) and hydroponics farming techniques in one environment. 

Plants are cultivated in the culture bed while the fish are placed in the aquarium. 

The fish waste makes the bed, where billions of good bacteria is used to break the ammonia down into nitrites which in turn, is used for nutrients for the plants. 

The roots of the plant clean and filter the water before it returns to the fish pond so that the fish can live there when the cool, clean, oxygenated water returns to the aquarium. 

“You can set it up anyway regardless of the length of the soil condition so the location does not matter. Secondly, it uses a closed loop system that always recycles the water, so we only replenish water that has evaporated from the air,” Lai shared. 

According to Lai, he cost of setting up a do-it-yourself aquaponics farm can range from RM5,000 to RM10,000 depending on the size (pic: Muhd Amin Naharul/TMR)

Aquaculture farming also uses 95% less water and saves space where 50% more crops can be planted compared to conventional farming methods. 

Plants produced by this method are healthier and cleaner since it does not require the use of chemical fertilisers. 

“It also reduces carbon footprint because you can set it up anywhere and then it also produces fish at the same time. 

“So, you have double the income of fish and vegetables simultaneously,” he added. 

However, those who are interested in setting up an aquaponics farm do need to consider the higher costs and efforts. 

Lai explained that the cost of setting up a do-it-yourself aquaponics farm can range from RM5,000 to RM10,000 depending on the size. 

“It is pricier than other farming methods because we need to integrate both fish and vegetables into one system,” he said. 

He also advised that one needs to have the interest and patience to participate in farming, as well as the time and effort to care for vegetables. 

For beginners, Lai recommended planting leafy vegetables such as Pak Choi and lettuce as well as cucumbers, tomatoes and long beans as they are easier to start. 

The Potential of Urban Farms 

According to the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DoSM), the urban population has increased from 26.8% in 1970 to 71% in 2010. 

The department is also expecting the figures to climb higher to 88% by 2050. 

With more Malaysians migrating to the city and embracing urbanisation, Lai believed that urban farming will replace the more conventional methods. 

This is mainly due to the issues with the cost of land and soil suitability. 

“Secondly, more consumers are becoming health conscious and they want to be in charge of where their vegetables come from. 

“Thirdly, the method of urban farming is easier compared to conventional farming so it is less labour intensive and the younger generation is able to cope,” he elaborated. 

Researchers are also coming up with new methods in agricultural innovation which would help farmers save cost and effort, and reduce carbon footprints. 

Vertical farming is one of the methods used in urban agriculture where crops are grown on top of each other rather than in usual horizontal rows. 

This type of method can be combined with aquaponics farming and also allows the conservation of space, which results in a higher crop yield. 

Just like aquaponics and hydroponics which do not require soil, plants which are planted structure under electric pylons.

“We also received complaints of disturbances from the residents.

“Investigations revealed that the nursery kept various livestock such as chickens, ducks and sheep, thus raising other issues such as odour pollution, flies and noise disturbance which led to the enforcement action,” he said in a statement. 

Although the department supported the farm’s initiative, these requirements which have been prescribed under LMS must be adhered to by all. 

KKB was eventually able to remain on its current site after receiving a new TOL from the FT Lands and Mines Department. 

It will also be placed under the department’s LA21 programme which will continue to monitor its operations and issues. 

Other Community Farms in the Klang Valley

Lands which have been underutilised have been converted into community farms such as the TTDI Edible Community Garden. 

The 1,486 sq m plot of land located in Taman Tun Dr Ismail (TTDI), KL, had been abandoned for some time and was restored in 2017 under the guidance of the TTDI Residents Association. 

This farm is not for profit and is managed by volunteers while its residents are able to adopt a plot of land there and grow or plant whatever they want to. 

In order to improve their knowledge, the volunteer farmers took courses held by LA21, universities and other urban farms. 

On the other hand, shopping malls have also hopped on the urban farming initiative. Central i-City Mall in Shah Alam and City-Farm Malaysia have collaborated to bring Malaysia’s first rooftop melon farm.

This is to encourage city folks to look at sustainable urban agriculture solutions and grow locally from wherever they are.

Cyber FarmUr was opened in 2020 and consists of a compositing station, germination station, goat pen and chicken coop (Source: Cyber Farmur Facebook)

For starters, the mall’s empty roof has been transformed into an eco-friendly urban farm with help from CityFarm Malaysia.

The Selangor Agro Transformation Plan policy encourages the growth of high-value fresh farm fruits and vegetables for their potential in select local markets.

Therein, Central i-City and CityFarm Malaysia’s efforts align with the Selangor government’s strategy as well as becoming a lifestyle hub which cares for the community. 

Additionally, Cyber FarmUr is an urban farming project under the Prima Group of Cos which focuses on sustainable organic farming methods and community inclusion in Cyberjaya, Selangor. 

The farm was opened in 2020 and consists of a compositing station, germination station as well as a goat pen and chicken coop. 

Around 100 fruit trees and half of the vegetable beds have been planted. 

Furthermore, Sime Darby Property Bhd recently launched its social corporate responsibility (CSR) initiative, the Elmina Community Edible Gardens which is dedicated to wellness and liveability. 

The farm was started by the property’s own community where the company sponsored all the necessary planting materials. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition