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“Here I am, Lord. Use me” – Dr. Billy Tang, paraplegic farmer and innovator of the world’s first regenerative vegetable terrarium

Dr. Billy Tang has a deep interest in the world beneath our feet: healthy soil. 

“Out of nature’s gifts to mankind, none may be so utterly essential to human life as soil. It’s where our DNA comes from. Soil health is an answer to restoring our biodiversity and planetary health,” he said excitedly. 

The Malaysian research-preneur is known for his work in regenerative carbon farming and for innovating the world’s first self-sustainable vegetable terrarium, HOPE Box.  

The HOPE Box is essentially “a greenhouse in a box’. To maintain it, one does not need any farming experience or fertiliser. It only needs to be watered once in two days with ample sunlight for a complete photosynthesis cycle.

“A gift that keeps on giving! A harvest of organic, naturally-grown vegetables without a farmer,” Dr. Tang, founder of social enterprise PWD Smart Farmability, said with a chuckle.

The award-winning agriculturalist believes that through nature, God has provided all that humanity needs to thrive. 

Dr Billy in his element — innovating for good.

The HOPE Box, he said, is designed to address both food security (in Malaysia, one in five children below five years old are stunted) and environmental concerns simultaneously, tackling two of the world’s most pressing issues.

Regenerative organic vegetables such as Brazilian spinach, red watercress, New Zealand perpetual spinach and sayur manis (sweet leaf) are amongst twin varieties planted in the HOPE Box, which also sequesters carbon.

“Low income families can now forage 1-2 kg of vegetables every month without fertiliser for at least one year. This is without refrigeration, and it’s zero-energy, zero-miles diet and zero-waste. Our longest box has yielded a harvest for three years and counting,” he said. 

Discovering a love for the soil

With a background in forestry, biotechnology and sustainable agricultural practices, Dr. Tang could not have predicted how his life would unfold. 

In the 2000s, he was tasked to plant 100,000 teak trees along the country’s highways. It was during this project that Dr. Tang discovered his passion for soil biodiversity. 

In 2015, however, life as he knew it came to a grinding halt.

At 49 years old, the father of two met with a serious car accident that transected his spinal cord, broke six of his ribs and left him blinded in one eye for a year. He is now paralysed waist-down.

“Even as I speak, I am in excruciating pain 24/7,” he said simply. 

But it was at his lowest point that God showed him the way up. 

A second chance at life 

A strong believer, Dr. Tang wanted to express his gratitude to the Lord for preserving his life. 

“My rehab physician saw my credentials and encouraged me to use my skills to advance the disabled community in Malaysia, having become a PWD (person with disability) myself,” Dr. Tang said. 

After an accident changed his life forever, the forestry expert turned to agri-innovation.

With the zeal of a man reborn, Dr. Tang threw his energy into agri-innovation, seeking to arm the poorest with the ability to feed themselves continuously. 

Agriculture is no longer about farming but feeding for health and the social enterprise’s tagline, Nutrition Can Save A Nation, embodies the heart of his work. 

“Jesus went around feeding people and meeting needs first. Today, we tend to try and force our beliefs upon before instead of sowing seeds [showing God’s love through meeting practical needs],” Dr. Tang said. 

The innovator remains determined to follow Christ’s example to impact lives in practical ways.

With three ‘World’s First Regenerative Agri-Innovations’, Dr. Tang uses the P5 Sustainability Framework (Product, Process, People, Planet, Prosperity) as a guide in his work. 

Organic, nutritious food without breaking the bank

“You are what your food is eating. Today, the underprivileged (especially the urban poor) struggle to access healthy, natural foods,” Dr. Tang said. 

PWD Smart Farmability has distributed more than 7,000 HOPE Boxes to underserved communities, single mothers, government-led schools for children with special needs (PPKI), marginalised and indigent communities.  

Dr. Tang has also rolled out two other initiatives: ethically farmed freshwater fish (tilapia) and the Soil-U-Tion Satellite Farms System, a setup that merges soil and soil-less approaches into one symbiosis system. 

There are currently 20 dummy-proof Soil-U-tion satellite farms deployed across partner institutions such as welfare homes, orphanages, youth correction centres, homes for the disabled and elderly, and PPKI schools.

In a span of two years, over 7.5 tonnes of vegetables were harvested from the terrariums, while the 20 satellite farms produced 655kg of tilapia and 7.65 tonnes of fresh vegetables. 

“For example, one of our satellite farms in a home for seniors used to spend RM1,800 on vegetables. Now, they only spend RM400 with the rest harvested through 33 HOPE Boxes,” he said enthusiastically. 

On top of an organic harvest, the home’s residents also enjoy fresh tilapia weighing between 700g and 1.2kg every six months. 

Dr Tang with the Soil-U-Tion Satellite Farms System at a children’s home.

Tackling the global issues at ground level

As a research-preneur, Dr. Tang uses a socio-economic inclusion business model to maximise impact.

He upskills PWDs and trains UNHCR refugees in agricultural-based practices at his home-based smart farm in Subang Jaya.

“We train refugees so that when they are eventually resettled in other countries, they have skills and knowledge that can impact the community,” he said. 

Dr. Tang’s work has garnered international acclaim.

Aside from many local and regional recognitions, he is the recipient of the Regal British Award 2022 by the World Humanitarian Drive in conjunction with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee Celebrations in London as well as the National Scroll of Honor Award for Human Settlements 2022 in conjunction with UN World Habitat Day. 

The agriculturalist has also been invited to speak on sustainable practices and agriculture-based solutions to food insecurity at various universities, including Yale-NUS College. 

But for this paraplegic farmer, these accolades are simply an earthly nod to his higher purpose. 

Living out his faith daily

“How do I make my faith practical?” That’s what I’m always asking. Here I am, Lord. Use me,” Dr. Tang reflected. 

To him, the cross is a plus sign. It is a daily reminder that his life must ‘add’ to those around him. 

“As Christians, we have access to the One who holds solutions to all of our problems. But we are often distracted and disunited, seeking to build our own empires and putting others down. We need to stop being religious punks,” Dr. Tang said with a passion. 

The agriculturalist also hopes to inspire a more inclusive society that provides PWD with opportunities to thrive. 

“Why are we (PWD) still fighting for accessible toilets and parking spaces? If we give PWD equal opportunity, we can contribute to nation building. If there’s a wheel, there’s a way!” he said.

In Christ, tragedy can be turned into good. Dr. Billy’s life is a testament of God’s faithfulness.

Knowing our identity in Christ enables us to impact others

Busy days lie ahead for Dr. Tang and PWD Smart Farmability. 

Together with a state university in the Philippines and Vera Bella Enterprises, Dr. Tang hopes to provide ‘protein for sustainable living’ through tilapia ice-cream and cookies.

All of his efforts circle back to his passion to end malnutrition, especially among the poor. 

It is also clear that Dr. Tang knows he is called to entrepreneurship with social impact. 

“God has given all of us gifts and talents. We need to know what they are and multiply it. But if we don’t have a daily encounter with God that affirms our identity in Christ, we cannot be effective,” he said thoughtfully. 

He believes that we are called to be advocates of God’s creation and live in ways that promote creation care and human dignity. 

This includes taking care of our bodies by eating nutritious food, making choices that prioritise the earth’s health (such as saying no to highly processed food, plastic bags or plastic-wrapped foods) and serving the poor.

And he realises what he’s up against convenience, capitalism and complacency.

But he also knows that he can seek God for wisdom as he innovates new products and systems that create prosperity without harming people or the planet. 

“If you want people to say no to something, you just have to have a better ‘yes’,” he said. 

This article was first published in Salt&Light.

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