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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Gardeners hit the roof

Gardeners hit the roof

This imaginative bunch is busy turning Mumbai's urban crawl into a farming sprawl, with an ambitious project to reinvent a terrace on Mohammed Ali Road as a 500 sq. ft farm

Nicola Antaki, Adrienne Thadani and Mohan Jha on Mohamedi Manzil’s terrace. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/MintPremium
Nicola Antaki, Adrienne Thadani and Mohan Jha on Mohamedi Manzil’s terrace. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Fresh & Local’s Flyover Farm

Past life

Before 25-year-old Adrienne Thadani left the US in 2009, she had a T-shirt company in Washington, DC, and worked as a painter, “making things for people in their homes".

“Incredibly random," she says, smiling.

When she visited Mumbai to document stories about her Indian grandparents, she found herself full of ideas about things she wanted to do here and decided to move. In late 2010, she began Fresh & Local, a start-up creating small projects, including rooftop kitchen gardens and food gardens for NGOs like Sneha (Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action) and SPROUTS (Society for Promotion of Research, Outdoors, Urbanity, Training and Social Welfare).

Eureka moment

Just over a year ago, Thadani met Naheed Carrimjee, board member of NGO Under The Mango Tree, and began discussing her ideas to “farm the city" with her. Then came the idea for a project of unusual scale.

Carrimjee owns Mohamedi Manzil, a five-storey, mixed-use building on south Mumbai’s Mohammed Ali Road, whose terrace overlooks the arterial JJ flyover which connects Byculla to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Bursting with people and commerce, its surroundings are densely populated and there is little green space within walking distance.

“The terrace is an amazing space and we had all these ideas," Thadani says. “We didn’t know how it was all going to come together." In stepped 32-year-old Nicola Antaki, a London-based architect, illustrator and photographer who had recently come to Mumbai to conduct research for a PhD on how architecture influences children’s learning.

Antaki’s strengths as an illustrator articulated Thadani and Carrimjee’s vision on paper, transforming a mosaic-tiled open rooftop into a farm, yoga centre and eventually a grocery, with a community dining area.


Once they realized their plans could work, the Fresh & Local team, which includes Thadani, Antaki, Mumbai-based musician Liam Rees and Carrimjee, sat down to work on the implementation. They decided to look for funding via Kickstarter, an online platform that allows projects to seek “crowdfunding", departing here from most Indian start-ups.

“Our team is fairly international," Thadani explains, “and instead of appealing to a few wealthy individuals or doing this on a smaller scale, we could tap into all our networks this way, get people from both India and abroad to fund us."

Putting the project online also put them in touch with other communities of urban farmers around the world, keen to exchange information and track each other’s progress.

Over the last two months, Thadani and Antaki, with input from Carrimjee and a small group of friends, began planting their flyover farmland. The team planted okra, cucumber, tomatoes, spinach and herbs like basil and lemon grass in pots and soil beds. “We’ve given the first lot away to people in the building, the security guards, and the vegetable vendors downstairs," Thadani says.

Help came from an unusual source: The building’s watchman, Mohan Jha, had some experience of farming in his native village, and began to come up and look after the plants, advising Thadani on which soils would work best.

Residents also participate in farming by, for example, providing kitchen waste for compost. “It’s a space for everyone in the building," Thadani says. “We’ve calculated the yields so that each of the 50 families in the building will get enough for a vegetable dish every day (free of cost), for about six-eight months."

Any surplus will be sold to vegetable vendors and the proceeds farmed back into the project. But Thadani says Flyover Farm’s real goal is to “show what’s possible for a sustainable community", which will allow Fresh & Local to expand its projects to include rooftop farms and gardens for profit.

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“Organizing stuff and getting our information together took time," says Antaki. “Just creating our website was a good test of how we were going to pull it all together."

It was trial by experiment.

“The landlord (Carrimjee) owns the building, but this isn’t her private garden," says Thadani. “Fresh & Local is a start-up and doesn’t have the money to pay for the farm, and the residents of the building are choosing to participate in it if they want to, so we didn’t want them to be responsible for paying for it. We knew we had this budget, but was it high, was it reasonable? We didn’t know how people would react to it."

Results indicate they have reacted well—Flyover Farm’s Kickstarter page charged past its goal of $5,500 (around 3.02 lakh), raising $6,510 by the first week of May, within just six weeks. After various deductions, the group will get about $5,000.

Farming has stopped temporarily, while the terrace undergoes construction through the monsoon, to accommodate the next phase of farming from September.

Plan B

Flyover Farm is Fresh & Local’s biggest project yet, but it remains experimental; it’s too soon to think of Plan B. “I’d say this is our proof of concept," Thadani says.

Secret sauce

“Adrienne!" exclaims Antaki. “None of this would have happened without her." Thadani laughs. “I was going to say, ‘Everyone else.’"

This story was first published on 2 June 2012. It has been republished due to a technical issue.

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Published: 11 Jun 2013, 06:43 PM IST
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