poptani urban farm

PopTani: Pop-Up Farms for Urbanites

Despite its name, social enterprise Poptani wants pop-up farms in Kuala Lumpur to be more than just short-term ventures. The group was inspired by “pop-up” stores – a method of flash retailing where stores open and then disappear soon after. Poptani member Ashaari Rahmat says they want as many urban farms to “pop up” as possible in the city but for them to become a regular source of food residents.

The team played around with the “pop up” term and combined it with “tani”, from the Malay word for farmer, “petani”.

We met Ashaari at Poptani’s garden space and office, which it shares with other environmental non-profit organisations in the leafy and affluent Taman Tun Dr Ismail neighbourhood. He showed us Poptani’s aquaponics system, which he described as one of the many urban farming solutions Poptani wants to share with keen growers.

Ashaari describes the green space as his “laboratory”; he spends much of his time experimenting with farming techniques to find those that can deliver the best results for Poptani’s clients.

“The idea behind Poptani is to put a farm in every house and we’re not so righteous that it has to be like aquaponics or this or that,” he says. “So we’re experimenting with different ways to make things a lot simpler.”

The 33-year-old is no stranger to working with nature. His aunt was a founder of Yayasan Anak Warisan Alam (Children’s Environmental Heritage Foundation), which promotes nature education schools. As a teenager he volunteered regularly with them on school trips.

Although he studied town planning, he decided to work in the social sector because he disliked the adverse effects of development, particularly deforestation. This led him to a number of green non-profit enterprises.

Diverse solutions

Urban farming is picking up steam in Malaysia and Poptani wants to take advantage of the growing interest.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry has said it wants to double the number of urban farms to 20,000 in two years’ time through collaboration between communities and agencies such as the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute.

Poptani designs customised aquaponic farming systems for homes and condominiums. In an aquaponic system, fish and plants are grown together, with the waste from the fish providing nutrients for the plants and the plants filtering the water for the fish.

Ashaari has experimented with eggplant, lemongrass, wild cosmos and mint, as well as a range of freshwater fish.

“Here I have with me tilapia, patin (catfish) and I think there’s some lampam (barb), there’s some kelah (mahseer), there’s some sepat (gourami) and a whole bunch of guppies,” he says. “Previously we’ve also tried to grow soon hock (Cantonese for marble sleeper) and knifefish.”

But Poptani doesn’t only focus on hydroponics; offering a diverse set of solutions is part of its strategy to get more people onboard.

Ashaari says the right system depends on a gardener’s knowledge and commitment, the size of the space available and sun orientation.

One alternative to hydroponics is a wicking bed system, which consists of self-contained, raised garden beds with built-in reservoirs that supply water from the bottom up. The fuss-free system is perfect for time-poor (or lazy) farmers because they only have to water the beds once a week.

“That’s been producing a lot more and it’s easy for them [residents] to take care of,” he says.

In Poptani’s wicking bed, Ashaari is attempting to grow two types of sweet potatoes, taro and amaranth. The sweet potato leaves are growing prolifically, spilling over and out of the raised bed, and tubers may soon be ready for harvest.

He says Poptani is determined to change mindsets about urban farming.

“We want to break the perception that it’s difficult or tough – it’s something you can learn. We want to spark that interest again with the things we do.”

One way Poptani hit on to spark interest was creative names for its gardening systems. One is called gumball (it looks like a gumball machine), a jar version is called jar-jar and a system that floats on a pond is known as the “pondstar”.

These are all sold online and delivered directly to their customers, in order to make urban farming as convenient as possible.

Making farming hip

While Poptani may be sound like a hip trend for new gardeners to adopt, Ashaari insists it is more than fad.

The organisation, which is powered by a combination of grant money and private investments, has worked with international schools – such as Garden International School – private homeowners in the affluent suburbs of Bukit Tunku and Cemerlang Heights, and several property developers in Kuala Lumpur.

Property developers that have approached Poptani tend to want aquaponics or vertical farming systems in their show units to “sell” the idea to prospective homeowners.

Through the use of appropriate technology and innovation, Poptani claims it can build modular farm units that can suit different types of homes or properties. Some of its designs are completely indoors.

Constantly on the lookout for making farming hip, Ashaari says the team is devising new solutions to appeal to the modern audience as well as make it accessible.

One such system is to design an app that monitors the growth of vegetables and fish of an aquaponics system through sensors – basically, integrating the “internet of things” into farming.

“The sensors would ‘speak’ to your phone and let you know whether your farm is doing fine, so if you go on holiday you can monitor your produce,” Ashaari explains.

That’s what makes Poptani unique: its solutions are designed with a plug and play approach in mind so new gardeners find it easy to turn their own home into a food source.

“It’s all about how we create better ways of working [in food production]. You see plants do it all the time – with companion planting they help each other out in what they need,” Ashaari says.

“Of course it won’t be hunky-dory all the time; there will be conflict once in a while but by and large that’s how we grow.

“That’s one of the things we want to see Poptani be there to help put more farms in the houses, make it more simple and work together with other people in doing this.”