Cover (Photo: Affa Chan/Tatler Hong Kong)

Common Farms founder Jessica Naomi Fong was named one of 50 global young changemakers by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants this year. The only Hongkonger to receive this honour, she tells Tatler about her mission to transform her home city’s food system since 2017

Why did you decide to start vertical farming, the process of growing crops indoors?

My parents are in kitchenware manufacturing, so when I came back to Asia after graduating from university in Paris, I worked with them in product development. I then got into the restaurant scene to help my friend [chef Gianni Caprioli of the Giando Group] grow his restaurant business. I learnt a lot about the food system, the supply chain issues it faces and food wastage in the city.

In Hong Kong, we import the majority of the food we consume. There is mistrust around quality because we don’t know where it’s coming from. Seeing the waste that comes with the import process and the high prices we are paying for food was eye-opening. I fell into a rabbit hole researching the food system, and ended

up with more questions than answers. I would see my grandparents eat [poor-quality food] because they didn’t have the knowledge or access to fresh, healthy produce. I realised quality food must be made accessible to more people.

How did you know where to start?

I didn’t even know what vertical farming was when I started. I just wanted more people to have access to quality food. The starting point was just growing something myself. The first thing I grew was a tomato at home. When you grow something and it looks good, it makes you want to grow more. I was originally going to start growing in mainland China, because there’s more space and it’s cheaper, but I wanted to service Hong Kong because this is my city and it’s where I saw problems in terms of food cost and waste. I didn’t know how to build a farm, what I needed, who I needed to hire or who to talk to. It was just-in-time learning.

Where do you currently grow your crops?

I moved from my mum’s house to Gianni’s rooftop at Gia Trattoria Italiana in Wan Chai to a 300 sq ft space in Cheung Chau to a 1,600 sq ft space in Tin Wan. Now, we are in a 8,500 sq ft facility in Yau Tong in Kowloon. We are taking underutilised industrial space and converting it into farms.

You sell produce to some of the most respected restaurants in town, including 8 1⁄2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana, Amber, Arbor and Caprice. How did you get them on board?

I started cold-calling and knocking on doors. I had my business cards and price listing, and would deliver my produce to restaurants in Ikea bags. I remember dropping off goods to 11 restaurants and I thought at least half would call me back. I got zero calls. At the time, I couldn’t afford to hire a salesperson, but I was able to leverage the contacts I had from the restaurants I used to work for. I started talking to chefs and asking them for introductions. Chefs would ask if I had a particular crop, like an edible flower, and I would go home at night, watch videos on how to grow it, order the seeds and begin growing. When a chef likes something, they’ll share information [within their network]. So chefs were telling their peers that they got a particular ingredient from a girl growing produce on Cheung Chau.

How do you set your produce apart?

[Clients come to us] because of our crop diversity and the flavours of our produce, which lasts longer, too. We are transforming the system by eliminating middlemen. It would be so much easier for businesses to go to a large distributor where they could get meat, dairy products and fresh produce in one place, but they come to us because we harvest on demand, so our waste is low. We also deliver within 24 hours of harvesting and have better quality and fresher produce.

How many products do you currently stock?

We have more than 30 different crop types and hope to increase this to 50 by the end of year. We are experimenting with fruit, too. We grow plants all the way to flower stage and sell the flowers as well.

What’s next for Common Farms?

Our pop-up with Nespresso at K11 Musea opened in September and will continue until June 2023. We have put our growth systems in place there and whatever we grow will be on sale. We work with Fortnum & Mason at K11 Musea, so the produce we grow there will be delivered to them. Our goal is to deliver [fresh produce] to people who really need it. We want to start with children and change their perspective [on food], allowing them to taste and experience produce as it should be. After Hong Kong, we hope to move to other high-density cities that don’t have access to quality food.

How did it feel to be named one of the 50 global young change-makers by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants?

I am grateful to shine a spotlight on Hong Kong. I hope people can take inspiration from what we are doing. Participating in the food system can be daunting and overwhelming. I would like to be a catalyst for positivity in Hong Kong. For [entrepreneurs], you have days where you wake up and wonder if you’re doing the right thing. There’s so much doubt—but then you get these moments of reassurance.

Now Read:

Is Smart Farming The New Face Of Agriculture?

How Social Entrepreneur John-Hans Oei Is Making Farming Cool 

Nikki Ng on the Joys of Farming and the Farm Together Initiative

Tatler Asia
© 2022 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.