The Globe as you know it is changing.
Coming June 2019

  • More thought-provoking stories that inspire
  • Independent, free and member-supported
  • Vote for, pitch and commission stories
  • Member engagement with our journalists

To understand more about why you are so important to our member-supported initiative, we encourage you to read the following from our managing editor ~ Read more

The Globe as you know it is changing.

Since 2007, Southeast Asia Globe has been a space for some of the region’s best writers and photographers to take our readers behind the headlines into the stories that shape people’s lives. Every month, you could expect to pick up our latest print edition and find high-quality journalism, analysis and artwork waiting on every page. And since 2007, we’ve fought to uphold our promise of quality and independence to you, our readers.

But, like we said, the world is changing. Print publications just aren’t reaching the audiences they need to fulfil their promise of informing, educating and entertaining the public. Advertisers continue to invest in digital platforms while printing costs creep ever higher. Print may not be dead, but it’s fighting for its life. And we’re tired of waiting by a sickbed for its condition to improve. We want to be present at the birth of something new.

That’s why Southeast Asia Globe is relaunching as a member-driven platform featuring daily long-form features combining world-class journalism with enthralling art design and data-centered tech. Through our core pillars – Power, Money, Life and Earth – we are focusing in on the central issues that our readers have always engaged with most, with the same in-depth coverage of politics, business, social affairs and the environment that you’ve come to expect since 2007.

But leaving print behind us doesn’t just save our backs from lugging stacks of magazines across Southeast Asia. It opens up a global readership who don’t just want to read the news, but have a say in the stories that we tell and the way that we tell them. We’re not asking you to take out another magazine subscription – our stories are open to all. What we’re offering our members is a space where they can pitch and vote on the stories that they think deserve to be told. We want to inspire an engaged and active community of members who vote for, comment on and contribute to the stories that matter most to them. We want to work with our members to curate the way they engage with the news – not just as readers, but as an active extension of our editorial team.

That’s how we’re changing to bring you great stories. Here’s how we’re not.

We’re independent. Always have been, always will be. We’re not owned by any corporation or aligned with any state. We choose the stories that we tell, and the way that we tell them.

We’re creative. We’re not interested in churning out breaking news stories on the hour, every hour. We believe that the best stories are the ones that come alive on the page, digging deeper into the issues that shape Southeast Asia – and bringing you along for the ride. From our dedicated designers to our new software development team, our commitment is to constantly challenge ourselves to find new ways of reaching out to our readers.

We’re open. Challenging governments, NGOs and businesses to be transparent with the public means nothing if we keep our own readers in the dark. That’s why we will be completely open about why we tell the stories that we tell – and how we pay for them. Work with us to build something that endures where many media fail, and decide with us exactly where that money is going.

Above all, we’re optimistic. And yeah, we know what you’re thinking. Faced with impending climate collapse, the rise of right-wing authoritarian governments across the world, widening wealth and income inequality and deepening divisions rooted in race or gender or creed, it’s hard not to open the papers and feel the weight of the world pressing down. But we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t believe that when people work together, they can make their little corner of the world a more just, open and equal place.

And that’s why we can’t do this without you. We believe that across the globe is a community of people who care deeply about social justice, environmental action and press freedom – and who will join in to help make those ideals a reality. We’re not just holding our hand out – we need your voice to play a vital role in building Southeast Asia Globe into a leading space for progressive causes in the region. Tell us what stories the mainstream media is missing. Share with us the causes that matter most to you, and how we can champion those causes not just across Southeast Asia, but the world.

Our vision is clear. By 2025, we want to be recognised for building a great space for outstanding journalists from across the region to explore new ways of telling Southeast Asia’s most vital stories. Let’s bring together a community of engaged and loyal members who want to help reshape the media rather than just read it. And we want to reach a point where our readers, not advertisers, are the ones working to support our shared vision of an inclusive media.

We can’t do this without you. Let’s get together and build something that we all believe in.

If you’re interested in joining us, sign up to our newsletter, like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter. And watch this space.

Harvesting the food of the future on a Bangkok rooftop

By: Claire Knox - Posted on: October 28, 2016 | Business

Are Bangkok’s fledgling urban rooftop farms a hidden goldmine for hotels and hospitality businesses? Meet the hoteliers and entrepreneurs proving that environment-focused partnerships are the best marketing tool a business can have

A man working at EnerGaiaPhotography by Christian Hogue

At 8am, Bangkok’s Siam Square is heaving. Traffic slows to a crawl, commuters squeeze into the skytrain and the sweet, smoky smell of grilled street food wafts from the downtown district’s labyrinthine sois. But on the Novotel Bangkok’s sun-bleached rooftop, 20 floors up from the heady streets below, the still, almost serene atmosphere could not be any different. Most mornings here, a passionate group of hoteliers, microbiologists and engineers arrive to harvest one of the planet’s oldest life forms, an algae called spirulina that some are hailing the ‘kale or spinach of the future’. According to the hotel’s general manager Manuel Reymondin, the Novotel’s rooftop spirulina farm – conceptualised, set up and run by a small Thai startup called EnerGaia – is also showing that when it comes to marketing, partnering with sustainably minded entrepreneurs can be the best publicity manoeuvre of them all.

For four years now, the Novotel has been quietly renting its unused 80 square metres of rooftop space for a small fee to the innovative startup, and watching on as the greenish-blue, protein-rich edible microalgae grew and grew. This rooftop ‘superfood farm’ is one of three projects of EnerGaia: it runs a bigger spirulina farm in another of Bangkok’s ‘wasted spaces’ – a concrete parking lot on Bang Krachao, the jungle-covered island in the middle of the Chao Praya river. There is also a rooftop farm at the company’s headquarters further out in the eastern suburb of Suanluang, along with a research and development centre, offices and a fully equipped laboratory where the algae is both cultured and packaged after harvest.

Before us are two sets of 40 white barrels – closed tanks that hold 250 litres of liquid each and are connected via a closed loop system, with air and nutrients pumped through bioreactors to maximise growth. “Welcome to the farm,” says Minh Buu, an enthusiastic young marketing and business development whizz from Paris who started out as the startup’s intern but is now on staff. With us are two of EnerGaia’s technicians, who are busy scrutinising the thick, custard-like green substance that bubbles away inside each barrel. The hot Thai sun is already beating down on us; early mornings are the only time one can farm in Bangkok. “After 10am there’s no shade at all, and it’s just roasting. This is okay for the spirulina, but not for us,” Buu says with a laugh as rays of sunlight bounce off the shimmering Bangkok skyline.

Bangkok's hot climate is ideal for growing the green algae
Bangkok’s hot climate is ideal for growing the green algae

Growing spirulina is a quick process: the micro organisms are single-cell plants that can double their mass every 48 hours without any soil or fertilisers. They grow as fast as bacteria but can also photosynthesise.

The EnerGaia team are currently collecting about 50kg of spirulina a week, harvesting the product with a simple mesh cloth, although at full capacity they estimate they would be able to harvest 300kg a week. Back at the company’s laboratory, they test, dry and package the fresh algae into jars that are sold under the Skyline Spirulina brand. These are stocked in health food stores around Bangkok, but there is also a steady list of consumers who buy directly from the source.

The allure of spirulina is surely its nutritional value. In its dried form, it has a protein content of about 60-65%, while fresh spirulina has about 18% (most raw meats, by contrast, have a protein count of about 20-25%). It is a complete source of fatty amino acids and Omega-3, and packed with other goodies such as vitamins and essential minerals. The Food and Agriculture Organisation arm of the UN has hailed it as a superb food source, while Nasa has even studied it for use as a food source in space. It’s also about 3.5 billion years old and once formed part of the diet of the Aztecs and prehistoric populations in Africa. The algae grows naturally on a small number of natural lakes with very high alkaline levels, such as Lake Chad, and other lakes in Myanmar, New Mexico and China.

In terms of branding it’s been tremendous… We’ve been covered around the world in newspapers, magazines and documentaries

Just downstairs from us at the Novotel’s café and breakfast restaurant, the ‘green jam’ is spooned into fruit and vegetable shakes for curious guests. At the hotel’s spa, therapists are using it in luxurious face masks – the high alkaline levels have proven excellent for detoxification. General manager Reymondin, an enthusiastic Swiss man who has called Thailand home for nearly 30 years, says pushing the product had proved challenging – not many people know what spirulina is and it is not the most aesthetically pleasing produce – but that interest in the algae was growing. “It doesn’t have a sexy taste, but people are far more interested over the last few years in the whole idea of superfoods, and when our guests discover it’s growing right above their heads, they are intrigued. It’s a novelty. When I explain that one spoonful is their daily iron intake, they’re pretty impressed,” he says.

Yet the sale of the drinks and products using the rooftop spirulina was merely a bonus for the Novotel management team. The biggest boons of the partnership were the effortless press coverage the hotel received and the marketing of the property.

“In terms of branding it’s been tremendous. We’ve been covered around the world in newspapers, magazines and documentaries. It’s a very, very easy exercise… [EnerGaia technicians] come in the morning to harvest and are gone three hours later. They pay for water and electricity, and we charge a very minimal rental fee of around $10-20 to show the owners that we do collect something – but this isn’t about making money. It’s more of a friendship that has a positive impact on our brand,” he says.

Staff are onsite daily to maintain and check the bioreactors
Staff are onsite daily to maintain and check the bioreactors

Indeed, along with all of the brand’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) boxes being ticked, the project provided staff with an overall feel-good factor through utilising wasted space. Other than a handful of shiny sky bars, a bird’s eye view of Bangkok reveals a huge patchwork of flat and forgotten rooftops.

The relationship between the hotel giant and the small environmental startup started serendipitously – a former member of the Novotel entertainment team had left the company to start his own CSR-focused consultancy and had met someone from EnerGaia who had expressed a desire for more space. “It piqued my interest immediately. We soon made some calculations and looked into insurance [EnerGaia pay for it] and technology and it all moved swiftly from there, literally within a few months we had the system installed,” Reymondin says.

But for Saumil Shah, EnerGaia’s founder and director, the partnership with the Novotel has meant so much more than  press coverage and CSR. The articulate  42-year-old engineer from Atlanta in the US has a grander vision to take spirulina “to the masses”. As the world’s demand for protein-rich food increases and our meat supplies dwindle, he believes spirulina could be the answer. Fostering a relationship with a big brand such as the Novotel had not only helped spread his message, but also saved EnerGaia when the startup was on the verge of going bust.

It doesn’t have a sexy taste, but people are far more interested in the whole idea of superfoods. When our guests discover it’s growing above their heads, they are intrigued

The idea for EnerGaia was formed in 2007, when Shah read an article about how carbon dioxide emissions from a power plant could grow algae in a closed environment. He had graduated with an aerospace engineering degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology, later moving to GE, who in 2006 posted him to Bangkok. He quickly became besotted with Thai culture, the “nice and friendly everyday folk you interact with”, and in 2008 decided it was the place to invest in and base his startup. By 2011 he had built a test system of “edible algae-producing, CO2-eating bioreactors” in the temple-studded old capital of Ayutthaya. Things were looking great for EnerGaia – they had secured a big grant with a European organisation and were in the process of scaling up the project. Shah poured his savings into a big facility in a former Ayutthaya rice mill.

Then disaster struck. The catastrophic floods of late 2011 washed away the entire project. “Everything was covered in two metres of water for a month. So we lost everything and had to restart and re-grow all the cultures and algae,” he says.

“I then had this idea that we needed to be in an urban setting. I thought if we grew a tasty product, and found all these rooftops, there would be great exposure. I had this naïve mentality of ‘if you build it they will come’. But I soon learnt that familiarity was a big problem – people didn’t know what spirulina was,” he adds.

Two of energaia’s ‘harvesters’ at the bang krachao farm
Two of energaia’s ‘harvesters’ at the bang krachao farm

Shah and his team switched their focus from technology and production to product development and marketing. They did the rounds of farmers markets, hotels and organic food stores, and slowly it paid off.

Shah says the secret to their superior product could be a combination of factors, but he is certain a major reason is the closed-tank system they use. EnerGaia’s tanks use potable water and filtered air – there is no chance that anything can fall into it. No preservatives are added, with the spirulina simply rinsed and spin-dried using modified washing machines.

Shah says he was surprised, that while marketing spirulina had proven a challenge, there had been many benefits to basing his startup in Bangkok. Capital investment was lower – the rents were lower than cities such as Singapore or Hong Kong – and Thailand has a number of highly regarded microbiology departments at universities, meaning the talent pool was wide.

Perhaps most exciting, though, is the fact the EnerGaia system can be installed anywhere, as long as the temperatures are above 32°C and below 38°C. EnerGaia was recently asked to work with Antenna Technologies, a Swiss research organisation with a focus on technological, health and economic solutions for marginalised populations in developing countries.

Shah and his team are now busy organising the shipment of their system to France for testing to prove their contamination-preventing techniques. If successful, they will be able to partner with NGOs and multi-governmental agencies including the UN and the World Health Organisation to deploy their urban farming system in Africa and India on a trial basis.

“For us, this is really our dream and our vision. The main lesson I’ve learnt is to have a lot of grit and passion. My plan has always been a long-term one. In 20 years’ time I want spirulina to be known like spinach or kale is. In the future there will be heavy constraints on our meat supplies. I think this is a solution, and I want it to be consumed by a lot of people.”

Other hotels and businesses seem to have taken note of the EnerGaia-Novotel rooftop farming success. Just next door to the hotel, atop the shiny shopping mall Siam One, a rooftop garden has recently been built. Concrete has been carpeted in soil and grass, and planter boxes are full of chillies, herbs, fruits and vegetables.

On the banks of the Chao Praya river, the Anantara Riverside Resort has just unveiled a sprawling, 2,800-square-metre commercial hydroponic farm in partnership with the Bangsai Agricultural Centre with aims to supply the resort kitchens and those of its sister properties with organic produce.

Reymondin says he has noticed Bangkokians being more environmentally aware, but admits there is still a long way to go: “There are many sad spaces in the city that are screaming out for a bit of green.”

“The most important advice I’d give businesses wanting to take on something like this is that it’s not about making money,” he adds. “Your role is  about helping the startup succeed – their success will be your success too. CSR is not a business.”