How complete strangers banded together for affordable food for Pasigueños

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Floating farm on Inle Lake in Maing Thauk, Myanmar. Photo from CHRISTPOPHE95 /WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It’s become harder to expand one’s social groups in quarantine, but a group of strangers did just that, and managed to win the grand prize at the Climathon Pasig 2020.

Climathon is a sprint-like event, with only 72 hours to create tangible projects out of climate solutions. Pasig, Metro Manila and Silang, Cavite represented the Philippines alongside 140 cities worldwide in a call for climate action.

The group, which called itself EcoPolis, won with their pitch for a floating farm on Pasig River, as well as an app to help users navigate their way to an urban food garden near them.

One of the members is Joni Galeste, 31, a ballet teacher who says she incorporated sustainability in her life slowly, being more conscious of single-use plastics, shifting to natural products, going package-free, and eventually becoming vegan — all while sharing her growing research on her Instagram stories.

At 13 years old, she heard in science class that 8% of the Pasig River is polluted by straws.

“That was my turning point,” she says in an interview with CNN Philippines Life.

To this point, EcoLink, the app that she will be working on with a developer of waste collection apps called Circular Recoon, shows where urban farms, food waste drops and local produce sellers are located.

“If people want to plant and volunteer, they’ll also find it in the app,” Galeste added, illustrating the importance placed by the members of Ecopolis on building up a complete ecosystem.

But five days before the competition, they all didn’t know each other.

Working fast

Lanie Francisco, a compost group advocate, messaged Galeste asking if she could join what seemed like a brainstorming activity. To Galeste’s surprise, it was an actual competition, and Francisco had assembled a team, whom she later met through email exchanges and video conferences.

This included Jaymee Alon and Gianina Custodio from Bokashi Pinoy Composting, a group centering on food sustainability through composting, and Marie Sapuay and Rene Dimalanta of Circular Recoon, app inventors of waste collection initiatives, including one called Trash Panda.

What brought them together was the common goal behind the climathon. “Food security,” Francisco told Galeste, “access to sustainable, and affordable food for every Pasigueno.”

An informative video edited by Alon, written and narrated by Galeste sent the team straight to the finish line. Through photos of feeding programs and long queues at community markets, the video showed that hunger is a chronic problem even before the pandemic, something which they tied back to a dependence on groceries and a lack of knowledge on food supply.

To work under the tight deadline, the EcoPolis members took teammate Rene Dimalanta’s undergraduate thesis on unconventional techniques of urban farming as their proof of concept, as well as similarly implemented projects in Bangladesh, Netherlands and Lake Caliraya in Laguna, Philippines.

Meant for staycations, a floating house in Lake Caliraya inspired EcoPolis to adopt the structure for farming. Photo courtesy of AQUASCAPE/FACEBOOK

Proximity to the community

The team came up with a repeatable model for a floating farm that is physically close to the end users of the produce, with three key points in their design:

1. Products from the floating farm should be sold to the community at an affordable price, passing on the savings to them.

2. The team will place tarpaulins explaining the project and its benefits in the area of the floating farm. Having residents see tarpaulins will hopefully spark curiosity and get them to eventually participate in the planting and maintenance of the farms, providing jobs.

3. In order to make sure the produce is clean, EcoPolis proposes to create a two-layer floating farm, with plants taking in metallic toxins on the bottom layer, and the edible harvest on the top layer. Compost balls made from food waste could also be thrown into the water to cleanse the river.

Aiming to realize their vision by the end of 2021, Ecopolis will make use of their ₱200,000 grant from winning the tilt as well as the support of the climathon organization and the Pasig City government by the end of 2021. Thankfully, Ecopolis has two urban planners on the team.

“We will also be working with a mechanical engineer, an expert on waste water treatment and hydraulics,” Galeste said.