BEHIND A NONDESCRIPT GATE in the middle of bustling New Manila is a lot that contains a bunch of container vans, some stacked on top of each other. One of these vans houses a hydroponic farm setup where arugula, basil, and kale grow at a constant 18°C every day of the year while the rest wait to be converted to similar indoor farms.
This is NXTLVL Farms, a hydroponic farm that aims to grow vegetables in the city. “We grow in the city so that we can decrease our food miles,” says NXTLVL’s Head of Operations and Growth Robin Kwee, 29. “We want to make sure that the quality, the consistency of the vegetables is always at its highest.”
“We also minimize the logistics of farming,” adds Sandro Cruz, 22, who is part of NXTLVL’s Engineering Team. “The produce that we have is more nutritious because it isn’t cut. Because [when] you cut the roots, it starts losing nutrition value over time. But since we cut [our produce’s roots] on the same day we deliver, we don’t have that much of an issue.”
The other members of NXTLVL’s core group are Head of Marketing Aaron Qui, 34, and Earl Lim, 33, who is President.
Not all of the partners expected to become urban farmers. Kwee was a software developer who worked in retail. “The reason I got into farming is I felt like I wanted to give back to the community. I went to Thailand and a few countries in Southeast Asia and saw how good the quality of vegetables are and when I came back here to the Philippines, because of logistics problems and because of our weather, we can’t always have good quality. That’s why I wanted to start growing better quality vegetables,” he says.
Cruz, who is still in college, used to grow vegetables in his home garden with the help of his grandmother. “I made my own hydroponic system when I was 18. It worked out well, and then I wanted to pursue it as a business,” he says. “When I graduate, I’ll still be full time at NXTLVL.”
There is an increasing interest in urban farming, especially as consumers demand a closer route from the farm to their forks. The challenges of setting up a farm in an urban environment is also what makes it attractive to people who work in tech.
“It’s not hard to set up a hydroponic farm. All you need is a pump, a reservoir, and beds. You have to choose what kind of channel you’re going to use, if you’re going to use Nutrient Film Technique (NFT), (or) if you’re going to use a drip system,” Kwee says.
NFT is a hydroponic system where the plants are placed in channels where their roots are allowed to touch very shallow moving water that is recirculated around the system. The water contains all the required nutrients to keep the plants healthy and growing. A drip irrigation system uses drip emitters to drip the required amount of water and nutrients onto the grow media, instead of being sprayed over or being run under the roots. “We use an NFT system and we use four pumps total in one box. Per pump, it handles a quarter of that box,” Cruz says.
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