Gardening and eating meet on Ghent rooftop

Summary

It's the perfect solution to supplying vegetarian foods sustainably – growing the ingredients on top of a social enterprise centre

Up on the roof

A piece of advice: If you’re walking around without lifting your gaze to the rooftops, you might be missing a business opportunity.

That’s the moral of the story of Sabien Windels (pictured), the owner and half of the staff of Roof Food, a Ghent-based co-operative that intends to grow food on the roof of a business centre, then use it to make vegetarian meals for catering clients.

The idea didn’t exactly come in a flash of inspiration, however. Windels, 26, works at the former KAHO Sint-Lieven, now a University of Leuven campus in Ghent. She is working on a European project on sustainable cities and also guiding the theses of Master’s students in industrial engineering.

“I was looking for a topic that combines industrial engineering with a personal interest in urban farming,” she says. “That’s what brought me to the subject of rooftop greenhouses. Last year I was on a study trip in the Netherlands, and I visited Dakakker, a 1,000-square-metre rooftop garden project in Rotterdam. I was inspired by that.”

It’s one thing to have a bright idea, but something else to turn it into a business. “The question was how to make this into something economically viable,” Windels continues. “OK, urban farming is a cool subject, but it’s tough to make it a business.” 

Twin passions

She struck up conversations on the subject with colleagues and friends. “I talked to a lot of people, then a friend told me her company was thinking about organising a Thursday Veggie Day, but they were having trouble finding a supplier who could bring 40 vegetarian meals on the day. I thought that would be the perfect combination with my rooftop, combining my two passions of eating and gardening.”

I was really lucky to find this great partner because we have a lot of synergies

- Sabien Windels

The rooftop itself will belong to De Punt, a social enterprise centre planned for completion in 2016 in the Gentbrugge district. “There was a time I was constantly looking at rooftops, contacting people and meeting with architects who advised me on which buildings were strong enough in the Ghent area. I contacted a lot of places, including De Lijn, which was working on a new bus garage, but in the end that wasn’t ideal. They sent me to De Punt.”

De Punt has a programme in support of entrepreneurs starting up with a sustainable social or economic vision. “I was really lucky to find this great partner because there are a lot of synergies between us.”

While awaiting the rooftop, the catering business can get started. After a rigorous search, Windels has hired Nine Van Belle as a cook; she has been working in restaurants around Ghent for nine years. “I was looking for someone to cook but also to really be a partner in the venture and have a vision for the project,” says Windels. “That got a lot of reaction, which was nice; 40 people applied for the job, even though it wasn’t exactly a typical job vacancy. It’s a bit of an adventure.”

Cultivation plan

The two will start up later this month, working from a temporary location in Ghent, serving fresh lunches to customers at a different business centre every day, which allows them to work with a weekly menu without restricting the choices. 

When the rooftop garden does come along, it will be about 500 square metres. For advice on how to get the best out of the soil, Windels will have the support of Velt, the association for ecological living and gardening.

“We’re working together on a cultivation plan,” says Windels. “I want to promote the ecological aspect of the enterprise. Roof Food will be a co-operative society, which means anyone can become a member. I’m aiming mainly at people from the area.” 

It's the perfect solution to supplying vegetarian foods sustainably – growing the ingredients on top of a social enterprise centre.

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