1. What activities did you take part in while studying Aerospace Engineering at UNSW?
As I was in Sydney, I spent most of my time surfing. I also started a social community café called “Surfbox Café” to bring people together through food. That was when I realised the extraordinary power of food in bringing communities together.
I took Aerospace Engineering because I’ve liked building and designing things from a young age. Leonardo Da Vinci is my idol.
2. What is your greatest takeaway from your education years?
My greatest takeaway is that nothing is ever wasted; all of our life’s experiences and knowledge accumulated over the years will help us in our endeavours to come. For instance, people might perceive no connection between engineering and urban farming. However, there are many similarities between those two domains, such as design thinking, thought processes, systems thinking and building management. I am always led to new projects, circumstances/situations where I can apply what I’ve learnt before. In essence, I am always building on my existing knowledge and these skills would be relevant to my future undertakings.
3. What inspired you to kickstart your urban farming journey?
As I delved more into the food sector, I grew more aware of the broken food systems within the circuit. For example, when working in the fine dining restaurants, I witnessed how perfectly safe and edible food, such as fish, were thrown away, generating a huge amount of food wastage. I also wondered why the fresh produce (e.g. tomatoes) from Italy and France imported were of higher quality than local produce. It was then I decided to take trips to these places and had first-hand experience while living with self-sufficient families. With this newfound inspiration, I brought these diverse values and knowledge back to Singapore, hoping to further contribute to the agri-food sector.
4. What are some of the key challenges you faced in your career and how did you overcome them?
Back then (aeons ago), we needed much more money and resources to scale up big farms. It was neither feasible nor practical to be an urban farmer at that time. Eventually, I found ways to work with like-minded folks to create urban farms in the city at much lower cost, and spearheaded and set up edible gardens in Singapore.
When I first came back to Singapore and joined Edible Garden City, I helped its founder, Bjorn Low, start the Citizen Farm at Queenstown. I worked at the Edible Garden City as the lead farmer in Singapore’s highest rooftop Farm-To-Table Farm, on the 51st floor of a new building in the Civic Centre. This was a relatively niche and novel idea, and in the course of this adventure, I discovered that there was a lot of underutilised and unutilised land around in Singapore. The landlords we worked with were very open-minded then and were warm and receptive to using these spaces to draw in more crowds and increase the foot traffic. The crowd also enjoyed the array of sustainable and green activities we conducted for them at these spaces. I also had the privilege and good fortune of starting many green projects throughout the years, which also included being head farmer of Capitaspring.
In the past, most did not understand this career choice as it was not something common nor familiar. It took a lot of perseverance to convince others of the value and importance of urban farming and the skillsets and competencies that came with it. My team and I did not have the expertise then to compete with those more experienced in this industry. We made many costly mistakes as we were just starting out so capability building was challenging. To overcome this, we took on whichever projects that came our way to develop more expertise and hone our skills. We learned things the hard way and got better and smarter with each new project.
At the same time, unknowingly, the stars aligned while my team and I were going down this trajectory. The government, regulators and policymakers started introducing green space policies such as the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA)’s LUSH to support urban farming. Agriculture and horticulture-related courses were also offered in our Institutes of Higher Learning. I lecture at Republic Polytechnic on modules such as, “Sustainable Agriculture” and “Organic Farming”.
5. Where do you see yourself five to ten years down the road?
I hope to influence people in decision-making roles, like those in government, policymakers, urban planners and designers to help them appreciate the notion of holistic city living and the wellness benefits that come along with living in environments surrounded by nature. There are indeed many built and lifestyle benefits in being around these healthy environments; it cools down buildings simultaneously. I would also like to create frameworks, tools and new knowledge to support this industry and integrate these ideas into designers’ building design plans in developing and developed countries. I hope to create a sustainable and healthy ecosystem and not focus on food production alone. I love amalgamating things together.
6. Any upcoming works can we expect and look out from you (e.g. Growing Wild with CNA)?
Yes, I will appear on the screens again. In the meantime, you can check the previous seasons out.
7. What are your hobbies?
I spend all my time in the garden! It is an occupational hazard, I am crazy about urban farming.
8. What is one quote you live by?
“When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favour.” – Elon Musk
9. What is one thing you would tell your past self and your future self?
To my past self: nothing. I wouldn’t change anything, continue to embrace the YOLO motto. If I did not live with the YOLO mentality, I would not have been who I am today, with all these unique memories and skillsets.
To my future self: To remember to take stock of what I’ve accomplished, how far I’ve come on this journey, to be thankful and look back on what has been achieved despite the ever-evolving and fast-paced nature of life.
10. What advice do you have for younger urban farmers/environmentalists in Singapore?
Continue to double down on your interests no matter how tough it is or how the difficulties you face. Don’t have any expectations and take one thing at a time. It will all eventually happen organically and come together in due course. Focus on what you’re good at, what you like to do and what the world needs. Create new pathways for yourself.
*The pictures in the article were taken from an open and experimental community garden in Serangoon North called Nutopia where you encourage communal farming, with the aim of bringing people together and growing their own edibles. Some items grown there are Wild pepper leaf, Kai Lan, Kale, Mint, Grapes, Cauliflower, Special chilli pepper, Eggplants and Tomatoes.
More about Christopher Leow
Christopher graduated from the University of New South Wales (UNWS) with a Bachelor’s Degree in Aerospace Engineering in 2011. He also has a Diploma in Culinary Arts and Management (Culinary Arts/Chef Training) where he is trained in Western & Asian cuisine and F&B management. He wrote a book titled, “The Freestyle Farmer” and was part of the team that started the world’s highest urben farm and food forest and farm-to-table project (1-Arden Food Forest, 280 metres high in the sky). He is passionate in sustainable food production and is on a mission to enable businesses and individuals to be more sustainable through regenerating food systems. Read more about his journey here.