Malaysia Fellow Will Chua is redefining success by nourishing lives with healthy food and a strong sense of community.
The notion of redefining success rubs against the status quo. Humans are status-seeking beings. We yearn to be accepted, respected, and loved. Our current systems reinforce a definition of ‘winning’ based on money, power, and fame. Rather than being rewarded for what we give, we’re too often affirmed by what we take.– Jacqueline Novogratz, Manifesto for a Moral Revolution
FOLO, also known as Feed Our Loved Ones, is a community farm that originated from the vision of Malaysia Fellow Will Chua, and his co-founders. Their deep conviction to ensure their loved ones have access to nutrient-dense, microbes-rich food led them to establish a farm community providing fresh organic vegetables to 150 families in Johor. Since 2015, the farm is the only one in Malaysia that successfully rescues and converts 3 to 4 tonnes of city food waste into compost every day, healing the soil and turning trash into treasure. All extra harvests are donated to low-income families regardless of race or religion.
But FOLO’s success is not solely measured by profits and enterprise expansion. In 2014, when Will returned to his hometown in Johor after a year-long sabbatical, he and his friends discovered his loved ones were suffering from various ailments.
Our parents were ill, our young people were getting mentally ill or getting all kinds of autoimmune disorders, chronic diseases, eczema, and cancer — I had a young friend who died of brain cancer. – Will Chua
Similar to many other social enterprises, FOLO initially had a dual focus: achieve financial sustainability and expand the impact of their organic farm. Their ambitious goals included establishing 10 urban farms, 100 rural or semi-urban/composting farms, and a 1000-acre campus dedicated to teaching the community about farming.
This eye-opening experience made Will, who had once believed in the conventional business success of profit above all else, realize there is more to life than material wealth.
Motivated by his newfound perspective and the pursuit of a more meaningful way of living and being, Will made the courageous decision to leave his successful career in international affairs and economic development and embrace a simpler life in order to care for his loved ones.
During this time, his childhood friends also returned to Johor to care for their own loved ones. Recognizing the urgency and necessity of finding an immediate solution to improve their community’s health and well-being, FOLO came into existence.
We did some research, and we thought, let’s start a small farm, grow organic, nutrient-dense food, and feed our loved ones. – Will Chua
Nourishing Lives, Nurturing Community
However, as time went on, Will realized their success didn’t need to be defined by conventional terms, such as growth and expansion in order to be truly successful. He had an aha moment when he realized:
We can have a vision but we also have to let it go and allow things to happen naturally. Just like a forest, you need to allow organisms to flow in order to see growth in biodiversity and complexity. – Will Chua
For Will and his co-founders, the true measure of success lies in ensuring their loved ones are well-nourished, both with healthy food and with a strong sense of community and a meaningful connection to nature. These elements, according to Will, are the real wealth in life, and the key to healing and transformation for those who are unwell.
Not only do we feed you with healthy food, but we also feed you with community, meaning, and connection to nature. Unless we can do these four things for those we love, there is no point in doing it at scale or on a large scale. – Will Chua
After nearly a decade of growth, FOLO has gained recognition as an exemplary model for social enterprises. This has attracted interest from potential investors and collaborators.
Nonetheless, their focus remains on creating impactful movements rather than pursuing extensive expansion at a large scale. Even when partnership opportunities arise, Will approaches them with wisdom, taking the necessary time to ensure alignment with FOLO’s core values.
The main challenge of running FOLO is to resist the temptation of spreading ourselves too thin, too quickly. We are reminded to always stay true to our values when it comes to making partnerships. – Will Chua
Fueled By The ‘Gift Economy’
FOLO values trust and relationships over profits. Instead of selling their harvests in supermarkets, where they could gain larger profit, FOLO remains committed to their founding reasons of ensuring their loved ones are fed with good relationships and nutritious food. Instead, FOLO offers vegetable subscriptions to families and individuals.
Subscribers participate in a prepayment system where they pay in advance for a 24-week share of the fruits and vegetables cultivated by local farmers. They then collect their harvest on weekends. This unique arrangement facilitates risk sharing within the community, relieving farmers from the burden of meeting production targets and reducing their pressure, particularly during unfavourable weather conditions. It also enables farmers to farm without cash flow and price stress, and not be forced to use harmful chemicals and pesticides, resulting in better health for them too.
When the weather is favourable, everybody gets a big box and we donate a lot of vegetables to the poor. When the weather is bad, everybody gets half a box and everyone is okay with it. It is a win-win. – Will Chua
Will calls this the “gift economy” in action since it reduces pressure on farmers to produce specific quantities and fosters a strong community bond between the farmers and the families. As a result, vegetable subscription renewal rates are high.
The farmers know who they are farming for and everyone receives a gift — whether it is friendship, fresh vegetables, or money for the farmers. This is the ‘gift economy’ at work. – Will Chua
FOLO also extends the gift economy philosophy to the public. Interested individuals can learn from them organic farming methods and ways to run a social enterprise that benefits all. These lessons and skills are offered without expecting monetary compensation.
If you’re interested in learning, we are happy to share our knowledge and experience with you. It is our gift to you. If what has been imparted is of value to you and you think we deserve a gift, then we are happy to receive it — but we don’t have any expectations. – Will Chua
The Gift of Camaraderie and Collaboration From the Acumen Community
Will’s extraordinary entrepreneurial journey took a transformative turn when he joined the Acumen Fellowship, discovering an inspiring community of support. Even amidst the challenges of the pandemic, Will found encouragement and motivation in the company of like-minded peers within his cohort. The Fellowship became a beacon of encouragement, offering a safe space where he could authentically express himself and share his truth without fear of judgment.
Within this nurturing environment, powerful partnerships and collaborations began to blossom. One such collaboration emerged with Dr Teh Su Thye, a visionary Acumen Fellow leading the Global Peace Foundation. Together, they launched a partnership with FOLO’s other farm collaboration, an awe-inspiring agroforestry project called “A Little Wild” in Kota Tinggi, Johor. They developed knowledge exchange and agroforestry programs dedicated to empowering Orang Asli farmers while respecting and learning from their indigenous wisdom. With passion and dedication, this project now thrives, transforming lives and nurturing sustainable practices.
Will’s inspiring business philosophy for running FOLO revolves around the concept of the ‘gift economy’ and the creation of a sustainable ecosystem where people, planet, and purpose are in harmony. For Will, the measure of true success and fulfilment lies not in profits but in the principles that shape a lasting legacy and nourish their loved ones.
Have you always wanted to redefine success on your own terms? Check out Acumen Academy’s course Inclusive Business: Redefine Success, or read about the exciting initiatives of the 2021 Malaysia Acumen Fellows.
FOLO Farm, an organic, family-run venture, is driven by a vision to nourish the world with nutritionally-packed vegetables while fostering meaningful connections among loved ones. By prioritizing the physical and mental well-being of individuals through health-giving produce and community engagement, FOLO seeks to create a widespread movement of wellness, inspiring others to establish similar farms that contribute to a healthier society.
This post is a collaboration with Malaysia Acumen Academy. The Acumen Fellowship brings together exceptional leaders from Malaysia, who ultimately become members of a global community that rebuilds lives and restores dignity. For more information, visit their website here.