A unique social and environmental project known as the Wallflower Initiative looks set to make its mark on Galway and further afield, allowing city dwellers to have their own gardens, and providing training and employment opportunities for vulnerable members of the community.
Director Aaron Molloy, a fourth year student at NUI Galway, explains that the ‘vertical garden’ project, which sees gardens developed on walls, grew from the Entrepreneurship Society at the university.
The student-led initiative has three main aims, “The first thing is that we promote urban agriculture, secondly we employ and train people in our community who need our help, so this year it’s members of the homeless community through COPE Galway and the Simon Community, and thirdly we want to have a sustainable revenue model or an independent revenue model so we can sell our products and ultimately be independent of sponsorship or state funding.”
The project was first launched in December 2014, when the Wallflower team empowered the patients of the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) Unit with six ‘vertical gardening’ sessions at NUI Galway, and another session held at the unit in Merlin Park Hospital.
Building on this success, the project was re-launched earlier this year to work with the homeless community through the Galway Simon Community and COPE Galway. Working with community members, the ‘Wallflower Pocket’ was launched – an easily assembled, transported, and maintained vertical gardening prototype which uses recycled materials.
“The Wallflower Pocket enables an urban dweller – so if you’re living in the city with very little space or no space at all – to have their own garden. So as opposed to growing it on the ground, they grow it off the wall,” says Mr Molloy.
Members of the homeless community have also been taught how to make the vertical garden product, potentially providing them with further training and employment opportunities in the future.
“This year we had a training programme with both COPE and Simon and we trained their clients how to make the pockets, then once they’d made them we showed them how they were planted, so they’ve seen the whole process from start to finish – how to make the product, how to plant the product, how to assemble the product and how to maintain the product,” he adds.
The idea for the Wallflower Pocket itself grew from the very real need for so-called urban agriculture into the future, Mr Molloy explains.
“The Social Innovation Society encourages people to look and find a problem, an environmental problem, so you know we saw that there are food shortages in the world, we don’t have enough food, we need to increase how much we produce without increasing the land use, without increasing fertiliser and without increasing water use.
“So we saw a potential for urban agriculture and the importance of growing your food up the wall as opposed to growing your food on the ground and it’s going to become ever more prevalent in the future with cities having populations exceeding 10 million, 20 million, 30 million. How are they going to feed those people?”
Mr Molloy says at the moment urban agriculture is a “luxury” but in the future it’s “going to be a necessity”.
“Our key environmental focus is promoting the need for urban agriculture so we can get ahead of the problem as opposed to waiting for the problem to come and then trying to solve it. We’re trying to get ahead of the curve on this and so are many other people in the world, but we also recognise the power our business has on the homeless community.”
Mr Molloy, who works on the project with three other final-year NUI Galway students, Danielly Ferreira Oliveira de Paula, Ben Kenny and Orlagh Reynolds, says the support from the university has been “fantastic”.
“We have three or four faculty advisors in the university including Ann Walsh, Michael Campion and others and they’re just constantly helping us at every opportunity. Even outside the university we’ve had huge support from our advisors in KPMG and advisors in BOI and they’ve just been fantastic and then in addition to that we have other community partners like SCCUL Enterprises who have been fantastic too.”
The project claimed third place in the recent SCCUL Enterprise Awards 2016 in the Student Enterprise category. “We were just delighted! We didn’t think we had any chance but obviously the economic potential for the project and the social and environmental impact is what the judges saw and hopefully if we were to go back again next year we’d do even better,” says Mr Molloy.
All four members of the team are working on a voluntary, part-time basis at the moment but Mr Molloy is hoping to kick things up a notch come summer.
“It is all voluntary at the moment but we recognise that for anything to be sustainable we’re going to have to start taking in money so we can employ members of the homeless community on a part-time basis,” he says, adding the team is working with Simon and COPE Galway on assisting members of the homeless community and developing a sustainable and transparent revenue model for the social enterprise.