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Agropreneur hopes to help Sabah move ahead with hydroponic farming

Michael and his son Keith at the greenhouse.

17 Dec 2021

By Wartawan Nabalu News

KOTA KINABALU: While Sabah is known for its fresh greens, Michael Ford believes that the state can move further ahead with hydroponic farming as not only it is sustainable, but also very eco-friendly as it saves 90 per cent more water usage than traditional farming.

The co-owner and head grower of Swasana Hijau hydroponic farm saw how Sabah is always falling behind in a lot of things, including food security, and aims to make a change through the farm.

Michael, 32, and his three partners formed Swasana Hijau in February 2019 but substantially took off during the Movement Control Order (MCO) implemented last year when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

The farm is situated in Kg Rugading, Penampang, near the Babagon River where they grow about 2,000 plants there – different types of lettuces, herbs, tomatoes, and more.

Initially, he started growing mint and several other types of herbs at his front porch as a hobby, after he came across a YouTube video about aquaponics.

“I did engineering in school, I can do something with my hands so I designed my own bell siphon that runs automatically, allowing water to rise and drain back into the tank through a siphon.

“It’s kind of like a toilet basically – what happens is that the water would fill up and escape through a pipe, and the water outflow going back down to a tank would be greater than the water coming so it could create like a suction.

“You would see the water rising, it would start to overflow and go down, and then when the air gets in, you hear what sounds like a toilet flushing … We call it an air vent clog system or flooding drain. I did all myself,” he explained.

According to Michael, the mint leaves he grows through aquaponic gardening are huge with really pungent smell. After being harvested, they grow back within a week.

The system is beneficial to him as he is able to freshly supply the herbs to the bar he owns – the renowned Irish Shamrock Bar and Restaurant at the Waterfront in the city centre – instead of buying them.

He realised that the quality of the mint leaves that he bought were usually reduced since they go from the farm to the middlemen, and on to retailers before reaching consumers. With so many external parties involved, food safety could be jeopardised.

“For local demands of local vegetables, I think it’s doing okay. But when it comes to growing ones that go with higher-end salads, it is not enough to really supply the local market.

“As a direct consumer, as well as a businessperson, when you go to a restaurant or supermarket and paying RM10 ringgit for 200 grammes of lettuce that's flown in, it's not fresh.

“The demands are huge but there’s not many that’s locally produced. There are people growing in Kundasang but it’s not enough to cut out the Western Malaysian market.

“I thought there's got to be someone or a better way of doing it, so we tried and here we are.”

Michael chose to do hydroponics by using a watering system called a closed-loop system – a recirculating system which basically means that there's no water running off.

“The water is constantly being turned over in time through the pipes so the plants always have water running over the roots.

“We clean the tank once a month so there is no water wastage. It's only 800 litres of water. It's really not a lot of water,” he stated.

Michael also mentioned that it saves a lot of water as it does not apply a sprinkler system where the water is sprinkled out and hit just bare ground.

“The water goes directly to the roots and the plant uses as much water as it needs. The plant determines how much water it wants to use, which is not a lot – about 300 litres for some 2,000 plants a day in our greenhouse,” he said.

Most of their customers reach them via referrals from friends and family as well as social media.

“But we do have the plan to supply to supermarkets in the future. I think now everything's starting to snowball, we got the new greenhouse coming in so we're hoping to be able to source some more outside funding to grow exponentially.”

Michael also revealed that hydroponics business is a viable way to make money as they can get a decent income – for a two-acre plot, they can easily make RM10,000 to RM12,000 a month.

Michael who is half Malaysian, half Bristish has been in Sabah for more than a decade.

“Obviously, splitting amongst us is not a lot, but we're not looking at it as our main. It's our steppingstone. It's very commercial-like and very economically viable. I would encourage people to get into it,” he said.

A plan to turn Swasana Hijau into an agro education hub is afoot and Michael said it is expected to be ready at the second quarter of next year, the earliest.

This, he said, is an initiative to spread awareness among the locals and government and help them realise how hydroponics farming can help boost Sabah’s image.

“We will welcome schools if they want to bring students down just to come and have a look. We also want to approach colleges universities if any of them want to do an internship programme to learn how to run a farm, not just theory, at least get their hands dirty and work.

“And if we do go down that road, then we will build one or two chalets and then have tourists come to visit where they can ‘mandi sungai’, and even pluck their own produce at the farm.

“And then Swasana Hijau will probably expand somewhere else. There are plans to buy land, just next door. We might expand there but we're not sure yet,” he said.

Mike also mentioned that Swasana Hijau’s goal is to be a tech-based agro company by using Internet of Things (IoT).

”Automatic dosing of fertiliser, automatic shading, and all these can be monitored from afar.

“With this, we can create a new sector of farming jobs in Sabah. Those who are interested will be able to come in and start from regular cleaning, planting, and harvesting, and then move their way up into living systems and managing.

“Then, they can go elsewhere in the world with it. They wouldn't just be a farmworker, they will be a farmer with new skills,” he asserted.

Michael also wished that the locals would get rid of the fear of venturing into agro-culture just because of mindsets and assumptions that farmers are poor.

“For hydroponics, if it's managed well, you don't have to work that many hours during the day. In the morning you come and make sure your water is topped up with enough fertilisers and the pump doesn't run dry.

“With this, you can also work part-time somewhere else if you had good systems in place … It's a very rewarding and quite smooth industry to get into,” he said, however adding that initial capital is high.

“Don’t think about quick money, think about the long term. Everyone needs to eat so this is going to be an opportunity as technology gets better … It can be done, as long as you have the will.”

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