The gardening startup rethinking urban agriculture, bringing "green" back to people's busy city lives.
City life can be stressful, particularly in Vietnam’s economic epicenter, Ho Chi Minh City, known for its pollution, hectic streets and tall, skinny houses with no space for gardens.
Enter Gagaco, a local business rethinking agriculture into serviced balcony and rooftop gardens so that residents can grow plants in their homes.
“I would guess that your grandparents or their grandparents probably knew how to grow things, it just hasn’t been passed on because society got so distracted with modern life,” says Gagaco owner, Alexander Hoang. “So I want to bring it back.”
Gagaco owner, Alexander Hoang, and his dog
Alex, an Urban Farmer hailing from Germany, joined the company in 2017 when he came to Ho Chi Minh City to visit the Vietnamese side of his family. He took over from Gagaco's founders a year later and has been running the business ever since.
Now, he and his workshop manager, Mr Phong, are working on developing a number of initiatives under the Gagaco name, all with the aim of inspiring the city to re-embrace gardening.
Installation and Maintenance
The main revenue maker that keeps Gagaco afloat is the design and installation of their mini gardens.
“We usually get recommended through word of mouth,” says Alex. “Most new clients don't have an idea of what they want, they just ask me to come over and have a look and then I give them ideas for a design and if they like it I go ahead.”
“On balconies, we’d set up a little planter hooked up to the rail and then a box on the ground. If they have a rooftop we design a garden up there too but most clients just live in apartments.”
Plants being grown to be sold to garden customers
Gagaco creates their own planters and other gardening resources out of reused materials like old paint buckets and discarded plastic, rather than buying them new. In fact, many of their garden beds are made out of recycled plastic.
“I have friends who do plastic recycling on a commercial scale and we work with them. These are pressed milk boxes,” says Alex, gesturing to some massive grey boards leaning against the wall of the Gagaco house. “I think a board is about 2,000 milk boxes, or even more.”
“We use this material for some of our planters because wood is great, it looks perfect, natural, but in this climate when it's exposed to all the elements it doesn't last forever. But this plastic board will last for many years. It's plastic, it’s not going anywhere!”
Boards made of pressed milk boxes
Mr Phong, who runs the workshop, is also careful to ensure that their own waste is recycled - sawdust is used for compost, remaining wood is made into other things like tables, garden chairs, etc. He makes his own beautiful bespoke wooden boxes too, both at Gagaco and in his own personal workshop.
Gagaco also offers maintenance to its customers as many people are busy with demanding 9-5 jobs and young families and don’t always have the time to look after their plants.
“Every now and then they ask me to come over and help or fix something,” says Alex. “Or for example during the Summer school break people go on long holidays and they need someone to look after their plants while they are gone.”
Composting and Other Resources
To help their customers manage their gardens, Gagaco sells gardening resources like compost and innovative planter systems. They make compost on-site and sell bags of it to customers, but they also sell worms and composting systems so that their customers can make their own.
Composting systems made from old paint buckets
The systems are made from old paint buckets that have been cleaned out and had a tap attached for drainage. Mr Phong also makes platforms to put inside the buckets and help with removing excess water from the compost.
“Also, let’s say you want to use this bucket for something other than composting, you could grow something in it and have a water reservoir,” says Alex. “The water will sit under the platform and seep up to the plant, so say you go on a holiday and you have a few liters of water in there, it will stay moist for I guess a week, depending on the conditions.”
Mr Phong making platforms for composting systems
Alex’s ultimate aim is to give people the tools and the knowledge to eventually take ownership of their gardens themselves.
Currently, Gagaco's main clients are foreigners who had gardens back in their home countries, but their local Vietnamese customer base is growing.
“I think we’re right in the middle of a transition [from people wanting to leave farming, to them going back to the countryside],” says Alex. “I see young people leaving the cities to open farmsteads in rural areas."
Alex wants to foster this shift through working with the next generation. He does school group programs and installs gardens in schools and kindergartens across Saigon to teach kids that “you don't have to study business, there is also a future in agriculture.”
“Right now agriculture is not part of the curriculum and in my opinion, it should be central to it, because you can connect all other departments to gardening. Art, chemistry, biology, it's all connected,” he says.
The results have been tangible, with many children from his classes taking what they’ve learned away with them. One little boy even opened his own gardening club where kids from his neighbourhood come round every afternoon to tend to their plants.
“I will always remember those moments when I see an impact,” Alex says. “Like when a mum from a school I’m doing gardening classes in would come up to me and say, “I don't know what you did, but my kids started eating coriander”! That gives me a huge chunk of motivation.”
Leaving a Lasting Impact
Perhaps the most immediate impact of Gagaco’s work has concerned the link between gardening and mental wellness, particularly in the context of what we are living through today. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it so much stress and fear, to the point at which international bodies like the WHO are implementing global initiatives to assist those who are struggling.
There is a lot of documentation on how nurturing plants and spending time in nature is good for staying mentally healthy. One recent study found that people who garden at least two to three times a week felt less stress and a sense of wellbeing similar to what you get when you exercise daily. The study also found that satisfaction and engagement improved as the amount of green space in their sample’s gardens increased.
So, in simple terms... more green stuff = more happy
Creating household gardens could also be key to improving Saigon’s air quality and flooding issues. There is very little space in Ho Chi Minh City to develop new green areas like parks or tree-covered playgrounds, so bringing plants into peoples’ balconies and rooftops is a great way of increasing the “green” coverage in the city, which in turn keeps homes cool and limits air pollution.
Alex with Gagaco at the 1st Sustainable Fair at Malt, HCMC
“Also water capturing. We have a flooding problem in Ho Chi Minh City because everything is concrete so there’s nowhere for the rain water to go,” says Alex, “but if every rooftop in the city had plants they’d capture water and on a large scale I think it would make a big difference.”
Finally, there is the benefit to the environment that comes from growing your own food rather than buying produce that has been shipped sometimes internationally to get to you.
Gagaco focuses on edible gardens so that people don’t have to buy their food from supermarkets and wet markets, where food has been driven in from all around the country.
“There are a lot of things we don't see,” says Alex. “You don't see the whole chain: on the farms there is already waste, then the food goes to supermarkets and there is more waste, then it goes to your home and you’re probably not going to use everything. There’s so much waste along the way.”
Also, fruit and vegetables are often sold wrapped in plastic or with plastic bags, something that can be totally eliminated by growing your own garden.
Even if produce is organic, transporting it can give it a heavy carbon footprint
Gagaco is just one of many businesses worldwide that are working to inspire people to get back into gardening and spending time with nature. The aim is to rethink so much of our daily lives, from how we approach food and how we spend our time and money, to how to make our cities greener one home at a time.