‘Eco’ Status Quo? Why We’re Growing Our Own Food

31st October 2013 by

Our friends over at Ashoka have been supporting social entrepreneurs’ solutions to the toughest social and environmental challenges for the past 30 years.  Here, they share a series of some of their relevant learnings and top stories for our Otesha readership – the first installment is by guest blogger Julia Koskella. Enjoy!


The past few years have seen a massive increase in demand for locally-sourced food in countries around the world. Fed by well-rooted concerns that processed food transported globally and treated chemically is not best for the planet or people, consumers are driving a new localism in supply chains.

Most consumption decisions are made by individuals at the supermarket shelves. But behind this change in consumer habits is a global league of leading social entrepreneurs, innovating, creating new markets, and understanding the key drivers of human behaviour.

Michael Kelly says “Grow It Yourself”

GIY 3 - Otesha photoThe latest trend to hit the local food movement is to go straight to the source and grow your own.  Increasingly consumers are asking themselves where their food comes from and how they can be sure it is safe and healthy.  Five years ago, this prompted a real “aha” moment for Michael Kelly, Founder of Grow It Yourself (GIY) and now an Ashoka Fellow. Picking up a clove of garlic in Ireland, Kelly was bowled over to see a “fresh from China” sticker on as small and cheap an item as garlic – a product which grows naturally and abundantly in Ireland.

Digging deeper, Kelly found Ireland imports no less than €4 billion per year of produce, which could be grown locally, despite being a net exporter of food and drink. His solution was to plant garlic himself and convince thousands of others to grow some of their own food too.  Through GIY, Michael aims to make it easy and sociable for anybody to start growing food for the first time. He has created a GIY network with dozens of locally-run chapters and events and an online platform to share tips and resources.  

Five years on, the GIY network connects more than 50,000 people and 800 food-growing groups. In Ireland, GIY is not just a network but a new cultural movement cutting across age and class divides. Michael is now ready to take on other global markets. Last July saw GIY formally launch internationally, with Michael leading a day-long UK event mobilising food enthusiasts, community groups, and growing experts from across the country.

Key drivers behind the ‘Grow It Yourself’ movement

Four key insights have allowed social entrepreneurs like Michael to have real impact on human behaviour and food consumption patterns.

1. Sustainability just got personal:

Localism is having great impact on the environment, cutting down food miles and chemicals from agribusiness. But social entrepreneurs like Michael know you must tap into a range of personal motivations and interests to create a successful mass movement. In the case of GIY, foodies know that locally-grown food is more tasty and cost effective. Cutting out the commute means your food will be on your plate fresher and faster, without losing vitamins B, C, and E.  If that’s not enough motivation to get you growing, then experiencing the simple pleasures of being active outdoors might: gardening is regular exercise and a dose of sunshine. And any food grower will tell you about the glowing pride they feel at watching their crops sprout, fruit, and harvest. So whatever market you’re in, make sure to appeal to people with a range of interests.

2. Cultivate food empathy:

The first-hand experience of growing food, even if it’s just a few basil pots on your windowsill, leads to a wider mind-shift change that Michael calls “food empathy.” Growing your own cultivates a deeper understanding of the value of food, the time and effort invested, and even awareness of the seasonality of food crops. GIY impact studies have found people who grow their own food start making more sustainable and healthy food consumption decisions throughout the week, not just when they’re picking a home-grown carrot.

3. Collaborate to innovate:

When you’re in the business of changing behaviour, social entrepreneurs understand they must collaborate, not compete, to affect change. For GIY’s launch in the UK, Michael received the collaboration and support of Ashoka Fellow Rob Hopkins, co-founder of Transition Towns.  Many local Transition Town groups are also linked to the Slow Foods movement originally created by Carlo Petrini in Italy.  Petrini, originally elected an Ashoka Fellow in 2008, works through 1,300 local chapters worldwide to promote the greater enjoyment of food through a better understanding of its taste, quality, and production – again linking to the concept of food empathy.

4. Social networks on the ground, not the cloud:

Behind all of the leading local food initiatives is the act of bringing people together regularly on the ground.  Changing your behaviour away from the status quo – whether by putting up solar panels, biking to work, or growing lettuce on your windowsill – takes time, energy, and often money. To counterbalance these costs and shift behaviours on a large scale, social entrepreneurs know the power of bringing people together in a supportive community.


Social entrepreneurs are creating online communities that are just as smart, and often more vibrant, than their GIY 2 - Otesha photocorporate counterparts. But crucially, the Grow It Yourself movement is also bringing social ties back to basics at the local level, meeting a deep human need that can’t be satisfied on Twitter – especially when the sun comes out.  People are coming together in community gardens, local garden allotments, or starting their own “GIY Groups” – a structure Michael created so that any member of the public can facilitate new and deep conversations focused on lifestyle, food, and the joys and frustrations of food growing.

If you or a local group are already involved in food-growing, make sure to sign up to the GIY network and strengthen the movement world-wide. If you’d like to try growing even a small amount of food for the first time, or even set up a local GIY group, then check out the website for full, free tips and support. Happy GIY-ing!


This is part of a series of articles on Ashoka’s network of social entrepreneurs transforming environmental systems, originally posted on Forbes.com.  Ashoka is building a movement of leading social entrepreneurs innovating for sustainability. If you know of anyone whose work will truly change the system, please consider nominating them. Find them online, or follow the conversation on Twitter and Facebook.

Phoning home

22nd October 2013 by

It was that time. To upgrade or not to upgrade. That was my predicament.  And I admit this with a heavy heart – I did it. I upgraded.  It’s a pressurised and tricky world out there.  Even before I was eligible for an upgrade, my phone provider was texting (badgering) me everyday telling me what I could ‘get’!  Enough I thought.  And then my existing phone would cut out on me again.  It seemed like a never-ending cycle.

Pausing to reflect on it now, the mobile phone and all its bells and whistles has definitely sucked me in. I knew this deep down, it’s something I grapple with.  A few years ago, I was all about using older non-smart mobile phones to make phone calls.  Remember those days of batteries lasting a week?  Or how about our very own challenge to readers to downgrade your phone?  In my opinion I haven’t fared well with the dilemma between the internet as a tool and how too much choice makes a simple life impossible most of the time.  (See part I and II of our Mobiles, Social Media and Mindbending Technology blogs).

I digress.

So having upgraded thereby locking me into another contract with an unnamed large corporate mobile provider, I’ve got myself a new phone, and a bit of guilt. I’m already hatching a plan to wait it out and switch as soon as I can.  Having searched for alternatives, I’m pleased to report that there are a few options out there.

Most intriguing is The People’s Operator, a seemingly independent mobile operator which directs 10% of what you spend to a cause of your choice – at no cost to you. They also make the commitment to share 25% of their profits to help make things better.

Having done a quick survey around the office, another alternative is Giff Gaff which was built around the single principle of mutuality and is run by its members (ie those who use their service).  Members get rewarded for running parts of the business like answering questions in the community, getting new members or helping spread the word.

Both of the above work with SIM only which assumes you already have a phone.

For those looking for a phone, an intriguing concept is the Fairphone.  The story behind it is to change the way phones are made.  The Fairphone team sell their smart phone based on identifying where every part and mineral comes from so the consumer is aware of where each piece comes from. The phone is currently being sold online at €325.00.  One comment from our team here was that perhaps they could consider also producing a non-smart phone for those who have downgraded their technical lifestyle but we haven’t quite written to them about this yet.

Which leads me into the Apple debate and the constant hype of when the next phone is coming out.  I found this article “Apple offers 21st Century technology – with 19th Century ethics” entertaining.  Needless to say, although I’m a smart phone user I haven’t been sucked into the void just quite yet.

And finally, in my research I was very pleased to see that Friends of the Earth have a Make It Better Campaign all about improving the way our products are made.  They’re calling for tough new rules to make companies come clean about the full impact of their products – whether they are smartphones, chocolates or tea.

All in all, I wonder if the next time your phone breaks or your contract’s up, will you re-think the way you phone home?

We challenge you to address your windows

18th October 2013 by

Windows waste plenty of energy and money.  And we know that not everyone can simply swap out their old windows with new double glazed ones.  Instead, we challenge you to address your windows and make a few simple changes in your home.

  • Install draught-proofing products on drafty doors and windows. Block cracks, seal your skirting board with sealant and fit a chimney draught excluder
  • Use stretch-seal, heat-shrink plastic sheeting kits for windows (found an example of this double glazing film here) as an inexpensive and easy way to seal warped or single-glazed windows.
  • Use window quilts or heavy curtains over your windows to keep the cold out in the winter and the heat out in the summer. An uninsulated drape can cut window heat loss by one-third. An insulated drape can reduce it by hal

And if you are in the market to re-do your windows, check out Energy Savings Trust’s Windows Guide.

How apropos to know that Energy Saving Week is also taking place on 21-25 October, 2013.  Find more energy tips here and get addressing your windows!


One summer, 120 campaigns

14th October 2013 by

This summer we have been cycling back and forth across London, working with thousands of young people in Hackney, Haringey, Tower Hamlets, Enfield, Waltham Forest, Newham and Redbridge (I think that was all!). The young people have all been participating in The Challenge – three weeks of summer fun, ranging from exciting outdoor activities, to learning practical skills, and best of all designing and running their own campaigns.

We gave them an intensive workshop on setting up a project or campaign – how to make it relevant, effective, and how to ensure it has a positive impact on people and planet. We worked with 120 teams of young people, and a couple of them also came to visit our offices and do a bit of volunteering for us. While they were here they fixed loads of inner tubes for us to use at our free Dr Bike sessions for the local community of Regents Estate, Hackney (they’re most Tuesdays 5-6pm if you need a helping hand getting your bike in shape).

wild bikes

Designed and created some beautiful Otesha handbook covers so we can send them out to schools visited on cycle tours. And… the activity they seemed to enjoy the most: stickering flyers for our Branch Out programme with up to date info about our next training programme!

A big thanks to them all for their hard work. They ran their campaigns a couple of weekends ago, and we received some lovely pre-campaign updates from a couple of groups ready and raring to change the world!


We challenge you to make something out of that plastic bottle

29th August 2013 by

greenhouseWe generate about 228 million tonnes of waste every year in England alone.  It is in our opinion that every little bit counts.  So instead of tossing that plastic bottle into the recycling bin, ask yourself: can you create something else?

There are brilliant and crafty sites which have this idea in mind. Check them out below.

And take inspiration from Columbia, who have the incredibly large amount of 15,000,000 plastic bottles dumped every day! The Centre for Science and Environmental Awareness tries to tackle the problem here.


Don’t forget to contact us and tell us what you’ve been creating with your bottles.

Wild Food Cycle 2013!

8th August 2013 by

Eco Furniture for the Future

6th August 2013 by

picLast year we met a very inspiring Tristan Titeux and spoke to him about his Where’s Milo project.  Nowadays he’s busy  working on what he calls, the most important thing he’s ever done.  He’s finished his book titled “Furniture for the Future”. The book is about using sustainable eco-friendly materials to build great furniture, but it is also a book about much more than just furniture. It gives a real insight into our current way of living and just how you can make a difference to your health, to your home and to the planet, the health of the planet and our own health is totally linked.  It addresses many of the crucial questions and topics about our wonderful environment and our role in it.

It’s a comprehensive 175 page full colour hardback book that explains how one could use sustainable materials to make furniture. The book will hopefully inspire you to make more ethical choices, think about what you buy, how it affects you, your health and the world. It also explains how we could learn from older civilisations and what the real costs are of not caring for our environment.

Tristan has now launched his crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for printing and in particular, to print 500 copies with a hemp hard cover.  Check it out here and see for yourself.


6th August 2013 by
Our penultimate official Tour Cycling Day took us from Namayasai Japanese salad farm over rolling Sussex hills to Kent, and CommonWork educational organic farm. Embarking on our longest – and most undulating – cycling day yet, we left behind the early morning salad pickers. and sailing through Cooksbridge, we saluted Hamsey School who had received our workshops the previous day. Tristan, Thomas and I were gifted with orange squash in a church in the very posh Nutley, before crawling up some fearsome hills, on through beautiful Fletching – apparently the best kept village in Sussex! – and upto Ashdown Forest. Some roadies from Sussex Nomads wished us well and congratulated our sweating efforts as we laboured over our panniers – and Tristan’s trailer – and they whizzed up another treacherous hill en route to Ashdown Forest. This area is moorland and woods, with ubiquitous sheep nestling in their shadows from the sun we couldn’t escape from, our iron steeds strong before our glistening brows.
After the longest downhill I have ever had the freewheelin’ (I have been an avid fixed-wheel cyclist for 6 months) joy to descend, Hartfield village received us with a short stop off at Pooh Corner, and the cheeriest, most delightfully friendly waitress ever took our picture outside this slice of British literary history – the birthplace of A.A. Milne’s Winnie The Pooh. Apparently we’d whizzed past 100 Acre Wood and the location of the original Pooh sticks! Winding undulating folds of countryside and villages took us through rabbit-warrens of roads under shafts of light filtering through lime green leaves, swollen from the last night’s rain shower. Our tranquility was unfortunately all too often momentarily ruined by a cement mixer or too-large land cruiser. We dinged our bells in celebration when we were alone on the road!
Making good time (certainly up on our 6 miles per 2 hours on the Chichester cycling day), we decided to detour to Hever Castle, but were denied free or even discounted entry so instead settled for a pleasant luncheon under another generous oak tree. Another churchyard bequeathed unto us water-based sustenance, and a quick wee stop in the bushes led to me find some piglets sleeping in their woodland pen.
Arriving before the other cycling groups, we pounced with gay abandon on CommonWork’s phenomenally clean – and warm! – showers. After hosing down in a corner of Tupenny Barn’s vegetable bed and no showers for several days it felt like having new skin! No longer olfactorially offensive, we were given a mini guided tour by the lovely Jacquelyn, director of CommonWork, who explained the founders’ vision of interconnectedness and harmonised working, theorised before the term sustainability came into frequent use. CommonWork unites the head, heart and hands in experiential learning in the fields with horticulture, in the kitchen and seeing the organic dairy farm at work. Otesha Totally Tasty tour 2k13 loves this holistic view of education and learning!
After lentils (Turkish) stew and pasta (italian) dinner, Imogen, Amy, Jessie and I had a singsong to lull the over tour members to sleep, we really need to make a Tour songbook!
A restful sleep is cut short by a 6am alarm heralding time to milk the organic herd with the lovely Martin, who instructs us how to iodine dip the cows udders, operate the suction equipment and avoid being drenched in poo and milk! He explains the dry period cycles of the cows and how the suction apparatus emulates a calf’s sucking on the teat. Many litres of milk later, we wash our poo-y clothes and gobble organic eggs, before weeding fat hen from in between the raspberries in the kitchen garden. Cooking the communal dinner for the tour + 8 guests requires all hands on deck! Jessie, Amy, Thomas and I go on the Bore Place woodland walk to take in some of this beautiful 500 acre estate, Jessie barefoot for authenticity, telling stories of Grandpa tree, posing as trees on tree stumps, playing blind trust games, seeing a baby fawn, discussing our personal triumphs and visions and actual tree hugging!

River hippos, summery siestas and Totally Tasty food.. notes from the Training week!

26th July 2013 by

It’s two weeks today since Sam, Iona, Catherine and Andy left us to fend for ourselves after training week, so really past time to post a blog about those five rich days.

From beginning as a group of almost total strangers on the Friday night (with Ana joining us midday Saturday following timely bike drama) we had come together with much laughter, shared food, and learning.


We were inspired by Highbridge Community Farm, their model of community growing, friendliness and the productivity of their fields. We were also glad of the chance to help out with weeding – a great accompaniment to interesting conversation.

Games were a key part of training week, to get to know each other, energise, break out of our comfort zones – and to add to our toolkits for working with young people. Hug Tag, Monsters and Lovers, Hug Murder and the Vegetable Name Game were particularly remembered. We also sang many songs together, with one particular night of rounds to set the tone for singing to come.

A lot of time was given to practical tour prep – learning workshops, consensus decision making and bike maintenance as well immersing ourselves in why we were there, our stories, motivations and tour goals. Putting together small sketches as part of the workshop learning share process was hilarious and ultimately very useful, as from these we created a play for school assemblies whilst on tour. We decided on our food mandate, a long process that put the group’s consensus skills to work. We only finished it in Southampton – To shop from within Europe, organically if possible, with minimal packaging. We would be vegan, except sometimes would buy eggs if they were from very local and happy hens.


It was the start of the heatwave, hot enough to burst one of our trailer tyres (unladen!) and making swimming in the nearby river during our mid-day breaks/siesta an enduring highlight. This included mud bathing /exfoliation. To quote Jessie “I’m a hippo!”

Our last day worked around a visit by The Media Trust who were making a short film about Otesha. They occasionally pinched people for interviews and gave us a great chance to ride our bikes around the field ringing our bells. We finished that day though with great jubilation, completing a treasure hunt, that invited us to banquet and demanded we dress to impress… We feasted on samosas, two curries and a banana dessert before closing our eyes to receive our little envelopes, full of warm fuzzies, our Otesha T-shirts and our bells – ready to ‘Saddle up and change the world!’

Thanks Sam and Iona for all the enthusiasm, support and hard work guiding us through those days, and Catherine and Andy for keeping us full of delicious food. Also thanks to Peter Hansford Cycles in Eastleigh for their support with Ana’s bike!


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On the road from Tuppenny Barn to Poachers Roost

24th July 2013 by


After deciding to wake up at 5.30am in order to get the most out of the cool morning, the first cycling group managed to set of at 7am (aided by our organisation of packing the trailers the night before). However due to some faff and also some mechanical problems it was almost an hour later that me, Lyndsay, Joy and Jessie managed to get ourselves properly going. NB, since Thomas had been feeling pretty unwell for a few days, him and Amy had stayed behind and were going to meet us by train later for lunch, so we were cycling in two groups

After taking over an hour to cycle little more than 6 miles, we arrived in Chichester. After our kerfuffle to get started we were pretty surprised to bump into the others whilst looking for a bike shop, and it turned out that Tristan had a hole in his tyre which meant that they had waited for the bike shop to open in order to get a new one. So by 9am, our total number of mechanical problems was at around 4: Tristan’s tyre, my clicky bottom bracket, Lyndsay’s gears and Lyndsay’s saddle! After many of us becoming acquainted with Chichester bike shop where things were tightened and tweaked we finally managed to get in the road again!

The next stretch of the journey – in complete opposite to the first – was speedy and free of errors and in no time we had reached Littlehampton station where we met Thomas and Amy off the train. Thomas said later that one of his highlights of the day was seeing us all waiting there am that it looked like we were glowing, which put smiles on all our faces at the evening circle! So in high-vis AND glowing style, we rode off to meet the others on the beach where it seemed like all the drama had been kicking off –
on the opposite side of the river, some grass had set alight and of course, to keep things  more interesting, there were loads of parked cars in the area, one of which was also on fire! There had been people running into the madness to rescue their cars from the burning scene, though for those unaware of the inferno, they were not quite so lucky. Imagine coming back from a gorgeous day on the beach to find your car a burnt out wreck – yet another reason to promote the bicycle!

Here my day separated from the majority of the team who went swimming, whilst Tristan and I went to find a bike shop to take another look at my bottom bracket which still seems to be playing up. The lovely Glyn of Blazing Saddles in Rustington took in my bike and took pity on me for having to walk to the campsite and very kindly lent me his ‘pub bike’. With one pannier in the front basket and one on my back, we set off. The pub bike and arrangement of my things caused much hilarity on our ride to Poachers Roost as the bike was so crankety and crotchety and I just felt so silly riding it. Handlebars in the air, granny basket up in front and head held high! Thankfully, the pub bike didn’t fall apart and we made it in one piece.

Poachers Roost was absolutely beautiful, loads of woodland which provided plenty of shade from the heat, a blissful rest from many of our others which had been in full sun. There was also what can only be described as a ‘winter wonderland’, where loads of fluffy seeds like dandelion had gathered on the ground in such vast quantities that they looked like snow! Another highlight of the campsite was that there was a fire pit and that evening, Rowan and Thomas treated us to a fabulous meal of chargrilled vegetables – the leeks were absolutely magical, definitely trying that one at home – and potato scones (one of my favourites). Mmm. With the addition of ale and ciders thanks to Jessie and Amy’s trip to the shop, and a wee sing-song, it was the perfect end to a long day.

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