Lennard Ong is excited. He turns on the TV and makes himself an iced coffee. His parents and brother are sleeping, but for this eager 29-year-old, the night is young. So he gets cosy on the couch in anticipation of the World Wrestling Entertainment showdown between The Undertaker and Bray Wyatt.
Lennard lives with Down Syndrome, but that doesn’t define him in the least.
More adventurous than most, Lennard leads an active lifestyle. From Monday to Wednesday, he goes to the Down Syndrome Association (DSA) at Junction 8 where he takes cooking classes, plays games, exercises and learns about money matters. Every Thursday and Friday, Lennard works at the Natrad Food factory in Paya Lebar, where he meticulously labels the Laughing Cow cheeses sold across Singapore. Weekends are reserved for grocery shopping and bowling.
Kopi-Gu: It’s all about sustainability
It was in early April 2016 that Lennard was chosen to work on an exciting new initiative in local food sustainability. Informally known as “Kopi-Gu” — meaning “Coffee-Mushroom” in a mix of Malay and Mandarin — the project involved using coffee waste to grow mushrooms, which would then be sold to local F&B businesses.
Kopi-Gu, which began in January 2016, hired Lennard and Wang Wei Jian (both from DSA) to join a specially tailored on-the-job training that ran every Tuesday from April to June. Bjorn Low, co-founder of Edible Garden City (EGC), spearheaded the project.
“We believe it’s possible to provide meaningful employment to people who are left out by the system because they cannot find mainstream jobs, and sustain ourselves as a business too. The two are not opposites”, says Bjorn.
EGC’s mission to grow local produce for our nation’s consumption is linked to Bjorn’s conviction that our current import-heavy economy will not last forever. Currently, Singapore imports most of its mushrooms from China, Vietnam, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia and Japan. But, like many adepts of permaculture across the globe, Bjorn foresees a time when commercial farming and its monocultures will deplete the land of nutrients. When that happens, the price of produce will soar and more consumers will eat local.
For now, EGC has been steadily carving out a niche in the market for its fresh produce, thanks to a high demand for mushrooms and an increasing awareness among consumers about the benefits of organic, locally-sourced food.
Already, they’ve started helping businesses go green. Last year, EGC partnered with Marina Bay Sands (MBS) to dispose of the coffee grounds from its Sweet Spot café – this offset the integrated resort’s waste disposal costs while meeting its sustainability targets.
But as Bjorn reminds us, “sustainability is not just environmental and economic, but also social – an inclusive society is a sustainable society.” And EGC is particularly well-placed to include vulnerable communities, because growing crops doesn’t require highly technical skills. Plus, it’s therapeutic to feel the joy of witnessing a plant grow from your efforts.
The mystical call of Ling Zhi
The story of how EGC began experimenting with mushroom-growing would not be complete talking about its main mushroom expert, Ng Sze Kiat.
At 36, Kiat is a skinny dude with tattoos all over his body and long hair, which he keeps in a samurai-style bun atop his crown. He calls himself “The Fun Guy” (a play on the word “fungi”). Funny, boisterous and introspective, Kiat’s self-professed “shroom obsession” is the latest chapter in his adventure-filled life.
A little background on Kiat: he once moved to Istanbul for love, directed several indie films, got a job tracking musangs across Singapore’s forests, and collected more fish in manicured aquariums than could fit in the small semi-detached house he shares with his parents.
Unlike some of his past interests, he sees mushroom cultivation as a long-term, spiritual journey. Early last year, he was walking home from work when he suddenly felt the strong urge to go into the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve near his house.
“Something told me to stop walking and go into the forest”, Kiat recalls. “Although I was very tired, I followed my instinct. I felt I was being led on this particular trail, straight to this log.” There, he found a Ling Zhi mushroom, plucked and placed on top of the log, as if waiting for him. At that moment, Kiat got a message from his cousin saying that today was the anniversary of their grandmother’s passing.
He interpreted this episode to be a sign that he should follow in her footsteps: “My grandma had been a healer. She worked with herbs and with her hands. When I was growing up, I remember neighbours coming to seek treatment at all hours of the day. She would always receive them and never charge.”
That was how, in the middle of the forest, Kiat decided he would grow his own herb garden and teach himself all he could about mushrooms so that one day, he too could help people.
From Makeshift Tent to Spawn Lab
In Bjorn and the folks at EGC, Kiat found dedicated, like-minded allies with whom he could further his mushroom experiments. As Fungi Cultivator for EGC since 2014, he helped set up a rudimentary mushroom lab at their Growell pop-up, which ran from January to April 2015. There, he experimented growing Ling Zhi, oyster mushroom and the prized Lion’s Mane, native to temperate climes and hailed for its nerve regeneration and cancer-fighting properties.
It was a rather non-descript makeshift shack in the back of the shop house, covered in thick plastic sheeting to keep out contaminants. Inside was a smaller plastic tent, a kind of inner sanctum where several bags of mycelium-innoculated substrate sat like mystics in meditative silence.
For weeks on end, to the naked eye, nothing ever seemed to be happening, but within each bag, a million mycelia were feeding, fighting and multiplying in a microscopically-epic display of life’s most primal impulses.
“May the fittest survive!” he whispered as he squinted into his microscope.
And survived EGC did. Things began to look up in January 2015 when they secured the deal with Marina Bay Sands and was able to scale up its project to a less provisional mushroom lab in a flatted factory on Jalan Pemimpin. It also secured funding to hire two workers and partnered with Employment For People with Intellectual Disabilities (E4PID), an organisation that works closely with DSA. That’s when they brought Lennard and Wei Jian on board as trainees.
The work process
Under Kiat’s watchful eye, Lennard and Wei Jian learned about the process of mushroom-growing and how to prepare the substrate. It starts with pouring the sawdust into a big plastic tray, then scooping out an equal part of coffee grounds into the tray, followed by mixing the two until an even, chocolatey colour emerges. Then the flakey mix is put into special plastic bags and sealed. Later, after sterilising each bag, Kiat will inject them with Lion’s Mane or oyster mushroom mycelium.
“I was scared to work with Lennard and Wei Jian before I met them”, Kiat shared, tilting his head to one side pensively. “I’d never worked with people with Down Syndrome before and I didn’t know if I could do it. But they actually gave me energy. They made me extra motivated and made my work more meaningful. They’re really great guys, very curious, funny and sincere — when they ask ‘how are you?’, they really mean it.”
Every Tuesday, upon arriving at the farm, Lennard peered intently at the logs, scanning the surface as if to coax the shy fungi to finally make an appearance. One day, after examining the logs with his inquisitive gaze, he suddenly turned to Kiat and asked if mushrooms could also grow on Milo powder. “He’s very smart!”, exclaims Kiat with a broad grin, “you know, Milo contains malt, which is germinated grain, so technically they could grow!”
Then, after about a month of log-making, something magical happened: their first mushroom was spotted! Abuzz with excitement, Lennard, Wei Jian and Kiat peered down at its little white head breaking the surface like a delicate tendril probing the tropical air.
The future of Kopi-Gu
EGC’s inventive business model has not gone unnoticed: The Singapore Centre For Social Enterprise recently awarded them a $200,000 grant, which will offset construction costs of their new 8,000 sq ft farming village in Queenstown, and allow them to scale up, become financially sustainable and hire more people like Lennard over the next two years.
There’s still a lot to be done to successfully scale up the Kopi-Gu model in the years ahead, but that shouldn’t be measured solely in terms of profit. Kopi-Gu’s greatest value lies in showing us how to think out of the box – to lead with our hearts instead of with our pockets.
One Tuesday in May 2016 at the Pemimpin “farm”, Lennard quietly sat down and scribbled a note. He had finished filling his last bag of the day and carefully placed it alongside the others. Kiat found the note moments later, under a mug. It read: “Mr Ong Cute-Cute Lennard would like a kopi-c”, with a smiley face drawn below. And so, satisfied with another day’s work at the lab, they sat in silence, contentedly gazing out at the HDBs and condo blocks in the distance, sipping their kopi-c.