Editor—Lau Pui Lam
Dora Cheng Shuk Ching is a social worker and also one of the founders of Ground Works, a social enterprise under St. James’ Settlement in Wan Chai selling organic food and green household items. It works with farmers in Hong Kong and China in direct procurement to provide fresh organic vegetables and fruits to consumers. The store is operated based on the Community Economic Development (CED) model — make use of the knowledge and resources local communities have to improve their social and economic conditions.
Ground Works was not established in one single step, Dora did not plan to open a grocery store which include direct sourcing and food processing. She noticed that from her casual conversation with the Wai Chai residents that some could not afford vegetables and fruits in their diets, and they had to pick rotten vegetables and fruits in markets. Feeling sad for the poor, she set up a collective purchase group for buying organic produce directly from farmers. She has also introduced the usage of alternative currency “time dollars” in transactions. Residents can buy organic food by paying partly real cash and partly time dollars”, which they earn by laboring. For example, they would receive 60 “time dollars” by harvesting and making compost for an hour. “The farmers probably thought I was crazy when I invited them to be my working partners.” Dora thought in retrospect. She visited the farms one by one and so far around 10 farms provide organic food for Ground Works. She respects farmers and values their hard work. Farming depends very much on weather, there can be poor harvest despite their efforts. Realizing that farmers have been oppressed as they usually end up with just 10-20 per cent of the profit margin, she gives half of Ground Works’s profits to them.
Unlike typical city people, Dora had a connection to land. Farmers’ work has always been fun for her. She had a farmer as neighbor when she was in F.1. She helped her neighbor collect chicken eggs and she received a few eggs in return. At college, she joined activities organized by Nature Association. As a social worker, she brought kids to volunteer in farm, hoping that they would gain satisfaction from farm work as she did. Personally, she has participated in the project Nam Chung Land Nurturers for 10 years. The project aims to preserve and nurture the natural site in Nam Chung through sustainable farming practices. Instead of crop production, Dora has more concerns on the sustainability and balance of ecosystem, becuse after all, in the long term, biodiversity, soil fertility and thus its productivity.
Among various tasks in farmland, Dora likes making compost the most. Nothing should be wasted. She sees value in waste, she sees value in every person. “Women were portrayed as caregivers of their families but very rarely they were appreciated at home,” she sighed and said. She is a social worker who mainly serve single parents, CSSA recipients and new arrivals. She provides job opportunities to these underprivileged in the hope of boosting their self-worth and self-esteem. Some are responsible for calling customers, some for store management and some for cooking. They are the leaders in food processing. Dora recalled times when she and the ladies work together in the kitchen all day long to taste the food, she appreciated the ladies’ cooking talent and efforts very much. The ladies apply their home recipes and sometimes design new ones on making snacks, jam or sauce. Moreover, they cook seasonal food using the organic farm products. For example, their mooncakes are made from organic farmed lotus in Nam Chung. Up til now there are about 20 products processed by them on the online shop website.
Dora considers the ladies to be her partners or friends, rather than employees. Individuals have very flexible work schedule so that they can balance both work and family. She also care for their health. They could buy the goods at lower price by using the “time dollars”. Furthermore in food processing, healthy camellia oil is used for making food and mild camellia seed powder for washing dishes. Staff in Ground Works have regular meetings to discuss operation issues, products, and even the salary. Mutual respect and trust are what Dora cherishes most, for she thinks that they are the key components to build up employees’ sense of belonging to an organization. It would result in a lower turnover rate.
This CED model with the “time dollars” system has been replicated in Sheung Shui as well. Residents there can buy organic food, handmade bags, handicrafts, and swap stuff with others in this second branch of Ground Works. If one is interested in community economy in his own district, he is always welcomed to drop in and talk to the ladies in Ground Works in Wan Chai, or just visit the monthly market. In fact, according to research report in 2015, about 50 per cent of the visitors in Ground Works in Wan Chai come from Kowloon and the New Territories. Dora is pleased to see the idea of green and healthy lifestyle spread, as well as inspiring more people to rethink social relationships in their neighborhoods.