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Composting comrades: Giving back to the Earth, getting vegetables in return

Will Chua is a civil engineer with three master’s degrees who was working in a high-powered job as a manager with the Singapore Economic Development Board before deciding to give it all up and return to Johor Baru — to get into organic farming.

Instead of neatly pressed shirts and suits, nowadays you would see him in a sweaty T-shirt on the farm or driving a truck with large brown garbage cans around town, making rounds to pick up food waste.

He makes stops at Renaissance Hotel Johor Baru, a fishmonger, a restaurant, an onion and garlic wholesaler, and a vegetable wholesaler.

“I guess you could say we are a bit like a private waste management company but with no contract. We get these places to separate their food waste. We go collect it then turn it into compost.

“Before this, some were burning their waste, some were throwing it out, which meant it ended up in the landfill, so we are helping them to cut their carbon footprint,” he says.

The 37-year-old Chua says food waste makes the best compost for organic farming.

“Stupid,” he jokes good-naturedly, when asked if he is stupid or intelligent for making such a switch in careers.

More than a year ago Chua was at a crossroads, looking to choose either his career as a public servant in Singapore which meant getting Singapore citizenship then maybe going overseas or coming home to JB to be with his mom who was living by herself.

“I took a year’s sabbatical, did some meditation and saw that the highly-stressed, high-performance Singapore life wasn’t the life I wanted to lead, away from family and friends.”

It so happened that four of the close friends he had spent time with in Melbourne while studying there were also coming back to Malaysia around the same time.

And they noticed family members and friends having all sorts of medical problems, which they believed had something to do with the food they were all eating.

So the four of them — another civil engineer, one electrical engineer, a finance graduate turned businessman and a doctor, all in their 30s — got together with Chua to start an organic farm.

Chua’s late father had left him an acre of land in Kempas, Johor. It all fell into place when they met Ah Lek, a 47-year-old organic farmer who was struggling with not enough land and with having to deal with middlemen who forced his prices down.

And so a partnership — and bond — was forged.

“We told Ah Lek we are in it for the long haul and wouldn’t cheat him. He put his trust in us and came on board. And we found a lot of synergy together.”

It started off at first as an effort to “Feed Our Loved Ones,” which is how Folo Farm got its name. Ah Lek was the one who told them about the wonders of kitchen waste and what it could do for the soil.

“Initially we thought, ‘My goodness, do we have to go to all the mamak stalls and collect the food waste from there?'”

Then Ah Lek told them about 72-year-old Pierre Loisel, a French-Canadian who has become a bit of a hero in Taiwan for turning food waste into compost to grow organic vegetables, which he used to feed and heal his wife who had breast cancer.

The guys went over to Taiwan to meet Loisel who generously shared his knowledge with them. And eight months ago, they gave it a shot, setting up their own composting center on a plot of land one of them owned in Ulu Tiram, Johor.

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