Yerrabingin grow world’s first Indigenous rooftop farm
Four storeys up and nestled amongst business buildings, there’s an urban oasis brimming with edible native plants.
The foundation of the farm
The permaculture-style farm is filled with everything from famous finger limes and saltbush to the little-known muntrie, and contains gathering spaces that are perfect for events and quiet reflection alike.
It was created and planted by Yerrabingin, a startup founded by Christian Hampson and Clarence Slockee. The pair, who first met in 1997, were two of the first students to enrol in UTS’s Bachelor of Business Administration (Indigenous). It was here that Yerrabingin was born.
Christian describes the farm, the duo’s plunge into the world of startups, and what’s on the horizon for their rapidly growing business.
[A modern concrete building on a city street is labelled 'Yerrabingin House'. The camera cuts to lift doors opening onto a foyer with plants, and a logo on the wall that reads 'Yerrabingin, Indigenous design thinking and collaborative solutions'. Two smiling men walk in, and text appears onscreen, 'Christian Hampson & Clarence Slockee, founders and directors of Yerrabingin'.]
Clarence: Good afternoon. My name's Clarence, this is Christian. Welcome to Yerrabingin.
[The camera pans across a rooftop garden. We see low plant beds filled with greenery, a frame with a vine climbing on it, and pathways through the garden beds. Close behind the rooftop there are taller business buildings.]
Clarence: Here we are at the Yerrabingin native rooftop farm.
[Close-ups of different native plants.]
Christian: So what we've got up here is over 2000 plants, over 35 species, all native food plants.
[Close-up of a bush with spiky grey-green foliage and small red and orange berries.]
Christian: This is what's known as a ruby saltbush, you can see the small fruit on them, that's why they're called the ruby saltbush.
[Christian picks a berry and eats it].
Christian: It's quite sweet, but also almost like a capsicum.
[Christian points across the garden. Cut to a close-up of a taller bush, with bigger and softer-looking leaves of a similar grey-green colour.]
Christian: And then the other type of saltbush we've got is the one over here, which is the one that's pretty well-known across Australia, it's old man saltbush. That is the one that's also used to control salt, but is also now being used a lot in Asian cooking.
[Close-up of a small tree with bright green leaves and long thorns.]
Clarence: Finger limes are a native species. They're covered in thorns. They're a great habitat for some of our native birds and insects, but more importantly, the beautiful native finger lime will produce a lot of fruit once they mature.
Christian: Another species that we're really proud of is the murnong, or the munyang in my language, which is also known as the daisy yam. You can see it's got that little yellow flower head.
[A small, dandelion-like plant with long grassy leaves. In the centre a flower stalk has the bud of a small yellow flower bud.]
Christian: Underneath it gets a tuber that's really rich in nutrients, and it's amazing that it's coming back, it's actually a threatened species.
[Camera pans across garden, showing a variety of different plants, some with flowers. It cuts to Clarence and Christian crouching in one of the garden beds.]
Clarence: This farm in its entirety is a bit of a prototype, where we can show other Aboriginal communities how they can grow some of these plants, and have some economic sustainability. But also a bit more of an environmental message in that it doesn't have to be wild sourced. We can actually manage the landscape, manage the environment the way that our ancestors did.
[Text on screen: Learn more about the garden, plan a visit or sign up for an event at yerrabingin.com.au]
Q: What is a native rooftop farm?
A: Essentially, it’s a garden of edible native plants. We hope it will teach developers, chefs and the wider community about the range of native plants in Australia, create a social community space that celebrates Indigenous knowledge and culture, and inspire urban agriculture.
All up, we have over 2000 plants, which we planted ourselves, in a 550 square metre planter box. We use a permaculture approach (that’s regenerative, self-sufficient agriculture based on wild ecosystems), for example companion planting rather than lining up all the crops across the rooftop, in an effort to create biodiversity in an urban rooftop space.
Permaculture nods its head very much to Indigenous land management. We want to use this space to show people that Indigenous knowledge, and the stories we pass on, are very much about how you manage your landscape, observe it and be part of it. The way we look at it, environmental consciousness is part of our spirituality. We see it as fundamental to whatever we do.
Q: What’s growing in your farm at the moment?
A: In the garden, we have lilies and orchids, finger limes and native raspberries – they grow in the mountains where my family comes from. They’re amazing!
We’re also trialling rare species. We have a plant called a muntrie, which doesn’t normally grow in Sydney. It doesn’t like the humidity, even nurseries can't grow them, but there’s something about the height of our garden, the soil we’re using, and the companion planting that they seem to like. Muntries have this amazing little fruit that's like a tart, strong little apple. They can be used in salads or pickled.
Then there’s a South Australian succulent that has adapted very well to the rooftop, it's sometimes called karkalla but we call it dune banana. It’s very sought after by chefs and gets used a lot in stir fries, it's got a nice strong salty flavour. One of the chefs is even experimenting with pickling it with different spices at the moment.
We want to use this space to show people that Indigenous knowledge, and the stories we pass on, are very much about how you manage your landscape, observe it and be part of it.
Q: How did Yerrabingin come about?
A: Yerrabingin, which Clarence and I launched in 2018, has changed over time. But from the start we knew we wanted to take our social capital as Indigenous people – our experience, our networks – and utilise them to find new opportunities in the business market.
I used to work as a Cultural Heritage Manager in National Parks (now the Department of Environment and Heritage). I started there almost 23 years ago. Clarence's background was working in the Royal Botanic Gardens and Barangaroo as a Cultural Educator. We’ve known each other for a long time.
One day, I was reading an article in the Koori Mail and I rang Clarence and said, “Hey, look at this!” It was about the Bachelor of Business Administration (Indigenous) – it’s an executive-style program specifically designed for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people wanting to gain a business degree qualification.
For a while, Clarence and I had been talking about wanting to undertake some of our ideas and thought that the degree would be the best platform to start designing our business. We were two of the first students to be interviewed for the degree.
Q: So, how did you go from uni students to startup founders?
A: The degree was this amazing three-year business incubator. We’d been spending 10- to 15-hours a week on the degree, so once we graduated we thought, why not put that energy into the project?
I’d already been working with Mirvac in my old job, and they asked if we’d be interested in designing a cultural landscape garden at South Eveleigh. That was our first project with them.
One opportunity led to another, and we realised our little side hustle had turned full-time. Our relationship has grown stronger with the design of the rooftop farm, and we're now also landscape managers of the entire 12-hectare landscape of Mirvac’s South Eveleigh business precinct, which allows us to employ young Aboriginal people. We’re working on a number of future projects with them as well.
We work with the developers and other partners (like Junglefy, UTS research partner and creators of the UTS Building 10 laneway green wall) to come up with the solutions for these spaces – taking their knowledge and our knowledge and putting it together. What we're doing is Indigenous collaborative solution design. We put together a community co-design model that combines green space with an educational space, that allows the promotion of Indigenous knowledge.
Q: How do you want people to use your rooftop space?
A: Sometimes a green roof can be just ‘plant it and leave it’, but we think that there's a real opportunity to create social spaces.
We think the rooftop’s got so many opportunities as a teaching place for people to interact with and learn about native foods. It's not just about selling native foods off the garden either, it's about interaction with green spaces in urban environments.
We’re running a range of events, like native permaculture and food workshops. But we also want to run nice things in the space – de-stress weaving events with a native cocktail, traditional dance-off Fridays, or hosting Indigenous music acts in the intimate natural surroundings of the garden.
It's sort of like a new model community garden – we want to inspire people to take some of this and put it in their own backyards or in their own communities. We had a young girl from a Lebanese background who saw our river mint and was like, "Wouldn't it be cool to use it in my own recipes; fuse that with the use of native ingredients?" And seeing Europeans, Greeks and Italians who are famous for their own gardens being quite excited about the opportunity of taking a cutting and putting it in their own gardens, that’s really exciting.
It’s a great way to allow people to engage with Indigenous culture at their own speed and pace.
Q: Why do you think you’ve been so successful?
A: People are talking about our business as a visionary startup – but we’re just working in a space we identified no-one else is operating in. In fact, we’re not a startup at all as we put our own money into the venture.
For Clarence and I, our success isn’t just about what we deliver and what is needed in the market. A large part of our success is about our experience, identity and our connections. There are many, many companies that want to have meaningful engagements around Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous communities.
Q: What do you hope to achieve next?
A: We’ve had a lot of interest from chefs wanting to understand what types of ingredients and opportunities we have for them. We’re looking to collaborate with Indigenous and non-Indigenous chefs around food demonstrations and getting people interested in new tastes from native foods.
Our business model is also about intergenerational investment. In the long term, we hope to become a bit like an ‘Indigenous business angel’, investing in and supporting new, young Indigenous entrepreneurs. Ultimately, Clarence and I have the goal to become the first Australian Indigenous company to be publicly listed on the stock market, so we are reaching for the sky.