When the team at social enterprise Eats, Shoots and Roots were brainstorming names for their urban farming campaign in 2015, they drew inspiration from an unlikely source: long-running American comedy-drama Sex and the City.

By opting for Sayur in the City (sayur is the Malay word for “vegetables”), they hoped that the fun and sophistication of the groundbreaking TV series would infuse their farming activities, and encourage more young urban residents of Kuala Lumpur to grow their own veggies.

“The campaign … is there to encourage people to grow more sayur in the city by showing what type of vegetables can be grown in urban spaces,” says Ms Beatrice Yong, who co-founded Eats, Shoots and Roots six years ago.

Sayur in the City produces colourful maps pinpointing growing spaces across the city as well as eating guides that promote restaurants using locally grown produce. The campaign also encourages participants to share photos of city gardens so the team can keep the map up to date.

The campaign is funded by Think City, a wholly-owned subsidiary of state investment arm Khazanah Nasional Berhad that was set up in 2009. Think City works with local governments, international agencies and communities to regenerate urban areas, building partnerships and enhancing capacity along the way.

The Sayur in the City concept was developed in response to high-density development in Kuala Lumpur and the sense it was becoming a “concrete jungle”. Yong says her group wanted to help residents reconnect with the natural environment by growing fruit and vegetables conducive to urban farming. Thanks to Malaysia’s tropical climate, this means everything from sweet potato to banana stems.

Aside from providing maps and food guides, they also lobby other organisations to build and run gardens in the city on rooftops, car parks and unused spaces.

Six years ago they set up their own garden in Jalan Gasing, Petaling Jaya.

The YWCA’s Vocational Training Opportunity Centre is one of their partners of Sayur in The City campaign, where they built a garden in 2015 for a culinary course for underprivileged girls.

The centre had been looking to develop a dump behind their hostel into a vegetable garden and Eats, Shoots and Roots was only too happy to help.

“It’s a win-win for us. The area was a wasteland and used to dump materials when the MRT [subway] was being constructed,” Yong says. “The school thought we can help them turn it around.”

The sustainability balancing act

While Eats, Shoots and Roots is not profit-driven, Yong says there is a strong focus on ensuring its operations are financially sustainable.

The organisation has several revenue streams. It runs harvest and garden workshops, offers consultancy services to design and build gardens, and has online and offline shops selling seeds and other items.

“Many of us [at Eats, Shoots and Roots] come from an advertising background, [or the] production and marketing fields, so we do branding work as well,” Yong says.

The brands and clients they work for may not necessarily be related to gardening but are chosen because they adhere to sustainability principles. Income from these design and branding projects is invested back into the enterprise.

However, there’s still some confusion about what being a social enterprise entails, Yong says. Some mistakenly think it’s the same as being a non-government organisation (NGO).

They key distinction is that a social enterprise uses commercial strategies to achieve its goals, which tend to be focused on improving wellbeing.

As companies become more aware of the importance of corporate social responsibility, they are increasingly seeking out Eats, Shoots and Roots’ services.

“We have seen the need for more positive environmental and social impact inching its way into [companies’] annual reports,” Yong says.

But she also believes that all businesses should basically be run as social enterprises, with their for-profit activities contributing to positive social change.

“All businesses would have the interest of their own communities and environment at heart [alongside financial interests] and if everyone was able to play their part then I think the world would be a better place for all.”

Going for growth

Eats, Shoots and Roots is about to embark on an exciting period of expansion. They’ve secured a new site in Damansara Heights, about 10 kilometres from the centre of Kuala Lumpur. At 10,000 square feet, it’s around double the size of their original garden in Petaling Jaya and is expected to open in the next few months.

“I feel like we are on a brink of something [big] – we’re trying to level up,” Yong says.

At the new site, the team will expand its educational activities by running workshops and programmes for children in collaboration with early education experts.

“We were blessed with the old site ­– it was really sad to see that era end after six years of our blood, sweat and tears have literally gone into it,” she says. “But we hope we can do more programmes for children and families. The new space will be able to give us that.”

Eats, Shoots and Roots has learned many lessons over the years, including the need to more carefully target their operations, such as campaigns and marketing of products. At times they have been unable to achieve their initial goals and were forced to shift strategy.

One example was when they surveyed restaurants in Kuala Lumpur to see if they would be willing to set up gardens to supply their own kitchens.

The idea was that customers would have the chance to see where their food comes from. But after speaking to some 250 restaurants, they realised that these establishments didn’t have the time to manage a vegetable garden, so Eats, Shoots and Roots shifted its attention to communities instead.

Yong says she’s confident that Eats, Shoots and Roots is on the right track to achieve its ambitions.

“We really see the teamwork amongst us,” she says. “The team has really grown into their roles.”

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