An Interview with
Botildenborg's Lena Friblick
July 21, 2020
The 19th century farmhouse has been renovated to an exceptionally high standard
Lena Friblick is a Swedish journalist and social entrepreneur with a Master's degree in Political Science from Lund University. She is the founder of Xenofilia, and more recently the Botildenborg Foundation, whose projects include Farming without Borders, Growing Buddies, City Farming (Stadsbruk), Rosengård Work, #myfuture (#minframtid) and Rosengård Cooking.
Lena Friblick was named one of the world's 50 most influential innovators in the World CSR Day Awards (Corporate Social Responsibility) and as a top 50 social entrepreneur globally by CSR Today Magazine. In 2017, she was chosen as the Model of the Year for the Diversity Index.
Tell us a little about Botildenborg and how you got started.
So Botildenborg is a sustainable farm and meeting place, and I started it because I saw we had a couple of issues and challenges in our society today. And those issues came down to issues of economical, ecological and social sustainability. Back in 2011, after seven years working in Stockholm as a journalist, I went back to the city of Malmö. And Malmö is a city that… I don't want to speak badly of it, but it has challenges. I had been very focused on the Middle East, migration, globalisation, and those kinds of issues. But I just thought that now, I wanted to do something practical about the situation in Malmö.
As journalists, you describe the world, but I was keen on doing something about it instead. The first thing I did was to write a cookbook and produce a cooking show from an area in the city called Rosengård. This area is famous throughout Sweden, as around 90% of its people were born in other countries. Unfortunately, it also has over 70% of unemployment and a very young population. So the area had a very bad reputation and this wasn’t helped by the riots there in 2011. But I was very tired of that public image of the area, so I was thinking about what could I do that was different and how to find something that could solve the problem rather than just re-describing it. I started to talk with people about what could we do. And I found that two things were of genuine interest there: one was the football and the other was the food.
Famous football player Zlatan Ibrahimović was born in this area and I was thinking: “Okay, Zlatan can do the football and I can do the food.” So I started to do the cooking show for national TV and I wrote a cook book. At first, I was just thinking that this was as far as it would go. But suddenly it became this huge success and mamas were sharing their best recipes and the best of their cultures. People started to call me, asking “Hey, can we come and meet these wonderful women and do some cooking together?”
And so I started to explore cooking together. Suddenly I just felt that this is what we needed: people from all over the whole city coming to this area and cooking together with these ladies. And afterwards, I saw that people actually had a changed mentality. When they left, they said: “Wow! This is the first time I have been to this area; this is the first time I’ve spent a whole evening talking to women born in other countries. I have changed my view of this area, I have changed my view of competence…” and so on.
With that project, I felt I had found a method to create a community based on the most basic thing we have in life: food. That started me down a journey of exploring how you could use food (and later on, even farming) to be able to create this culture of sustainability with a community based on friendship.
So what we do here, now, is to use food and farming as a tool for creating sustainability. And we're not only talking about the social sustainability I started with the cooking, but also how food and farming can create ecological sustainability and economical sustainability.
When it comes to ecological sustainability, we have developed a whole strategy of city farming. Our goal is to increase the local and ecologically produced food within the city, because we’ve noticed there are a lot of places that you can use to grow food. In the last 100 years, we took away all of the farming in the city, but now we have to reinvent it. We built an ecosystem with different kinds of activities that a city can use to increase its number of urban commercial farmers.
To date, we have started an incubator, an education farm, a farming hub and a testbed. I did this because if you really want to increase farming in the city, you have to find good business models. Everybody in Europe nowadays wants to farm in the city—it’s very popular—but I realised we lacked the economical point of view. And if you don't make your business economically sustainable, you will maybe do it for one or two years and then lose all your money, your friends and your family!
So you have to make it economically sustainable; it has to be your work. It’s this realisation that’s made us leaders in Europe with our method of providing an ecosystem for urban farmers to start, grow and maintain their business within the city. Today we have that ecosystem in Malmö, we have it Gothenburg, and now we have been provided with a big grant to share our knowledge in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Norway.
Of course, entrepreneurship is also part of economic and social sustainability and we have a work training programme for people who are far away from the labour market. We see that food and farming is a very good sector for training for work, but also a sector that lack people.
Of course, right now all restaurants are closed due to COVID-19, so we have an extreme problem right now. But I’m optismistic this will be solved in a few months. In general, we can provide work in the restaurant business or the farming industry. We are collaborating with the city to do a wonderful work training programme. We also work with youth and children and have school gardens where small kids come, aged 5 years old, to learn more about ecological sustainability. But we also have our youth programmes: ‘Dare to Dream’—as in, dare to act on your dreams to get into work.
IMAGE: Jens Nordström
What can you tell us about the farm?
The farmhouse was built in 1886. After I did my cooking show, I just felt that it was such a good thing and I wanted to make it bigger. I wanted us to make a new landmark for Malmö. So I went around the city looking for a good place and I found this house dating from 1886, which was completely abandoned. The house was perfect and it also had access to farming land in the middle of the city; it couldn't be better. I went to the city and the director of the real estate agency said: “Oh, that house is so run down, we're going to tear it down. We are not able to take care of it for you.”
I said, “OK, if we can agree on an affordable price and commit to renovating it, can we buy it from you?” So I did the deal and we bought this house, and I think that was actually the most stupid thing I've ever done in my whole life but also the most fun thing! 900m2 of complete ruin, but it's an amazing house. From the beginning I saw the potential, but it was a very long and winding road to realise that potential! Over the last few years, aside from all of our activities, we’ve also been renovating this house and fundraising to take care of it. We were ready last fall to open up the doors. We now have a magical place in Malmö where we can offer all those activities; where we can offer farming and have restaurants. We can have conferences, we can have meetings, the house has helped create many positive opportunities!
Can you tell us about your MICE services and some of the ways in which Botildenborg is providing value for the meetings industry?
What I want to do is work with different target groups in society—not only kids, not only people who are far away from the labour market, not only the entrepreneurs in the food and farming sector—I want to work with all those groups and businesses and the public. I wanted to be able to open this house so that, for example, businesses can hold conferences here, because if they come they get inspired by our work. They can enjoy food from our own gardens, and all the money goes directly to support all of our sustainability work; it is a win/win situation for everyone. Looking to the fall, I hope that we are able to open a public cafe so everyone can come and visit on the weekends. We will be open to companies Monday to Friday, and the public on the weekends, while all our project activities are going on as well.
IMAGE: Jens Nordström
Botildenborg employs the Stadsbruk method of organic farming. Can you please tell us more about this?
When I was researching urban farming in Europe, I saw that so many wanted to do urban farming within the cities, but the common issue was always economic viability. For a couple of years, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and the cities of Malmö and Gothenburg tried to develop methods for urban farming that were economically sustainable. A lot of people who want to do urban farming have so much knowledge about the farming part, but some lack knowledge about the entrepreneurial part. So the idea behind employing Stadsbruk was to recognise effective business models which will enable the city and farmers to collaborate in creating long-lasting, sustainable businesses.
We have created an incubator that we run in the wintertime. In Malmö, for example, we have 10 entrepreneurs coming to us and in winter we talk about all things related to the business side of things: planning, marketing, clients and everything like that.
The next step is our testbed, which allows new entrepreneurs to test their business ideas for one year—because we’ve seen that not everyone fully understands how much work it is. You want to test the idea on a small scale and then make it bigger. Using our testbed for one season allows them to try their business idea and to see if this is something they really want to do. We also provide an educational farm, where you can join our staff as a trainee for 3 months, learning from our highly-skilled staff and using their experience to help you plan your own farming project.
The last step—but a first for us—is the farming hub we run in collaboration with the city, allowing urban farmers to get a long term lease for land within the city. So today the entrepreneurs who go into our incubator, through our testbed and become part of the staff on our educational farm then have the opportunity to get a contract with the city.
If you want to have urban farmers in your city, you also have to provide a method to get them there and steps for that method. What we have created is a kind of carrier where you can start from nothing but at the end, be a city farmer. We also see that some of those city farmers, in the end, will want to go to the countryside and one of our farmers has already bought a farm in the countryside. We have also been trying to develop a different kind of distribution and selling system, so, for example, we have started something called ‘Reko-ring’, which uses Facebook to sell vegetables, and it has become very, very popular. It allows the farmers to sell directly to customers. And because the farmers are much more urban-based, they are doing much more collaboration with restaurants and job creation. So it's a new way of marketing and selling the produce.
We’ve seen two women who bought a farm in the countryside and it's fun to see they’ve brought new thinking with them. They started a Facebook group in their small town and they have revitalised the countryside with new ideas. I think this is the way to find the next generation of farmers, whether they are in the city or outside the city.
One of Botildenborg's main aims is to contribute towards a sustainable and inclusive society through innovation. How has being located in Malmö contributed to your innovation goals and priorities?
I think that Malmö is a very interesting city because it poses a lot of challenges right from the start. However, what we have seen in Malmö, and I've not seen it any other city, is a very strong collaboration between everyone to find the solution. We're not just sitting here saying, "the politicians should do this, the politicians should do that". I think since we have quite high poverty, unemployment and a lot of immigrants, politicians are certainly playing their part, but also businesses are doing a lot. We have so many wonderful organisations and private initiatives in the city, with a strong spirit of collaboration and a determination that we will solve this.
So to work in Malmö is very inspiring. I think everyone is well aware that we are facing problems and we have to deal with them. And we can't have groups in our society that are left behind in this process because that ends up affecting the whole society.
The UN body SDSN Northern Europe named Botildenborg as one of the Nordic region's top 20 companies focused on sustainability and diversity. What are some of the ways your company differentiates itself and continues to set the bar in terms of sustainability and providing opportunity to minority individuals and their communities?
We try to prioritise sustainability in everything that we do and we always try to create activities that lead to inclusion. And when it comes to sustainability, you can have a lot of angles. For me, using food and farming, we work in economical sustainability to try to help people get work. If you are from another country, you lack the network and the references that people who are born in the country have when they try to find work, so we help there.
But we also see that society lacks friendship and community, so we use food and farming to create this bond. For example, our ‘Growing Buddies’ project matches families from different backgrounds, so that whether the family has their origin in Sweden or a background in Syria or Somalia, they can meet, and through farming together they become friends and network. So that's a way of creating social sustainability, and so are our cooking projects. We do cooking classes as well where people from different backgrounds will come and meet each other.
I think that making food and farming together is a very good method to create happiness—to create a safe environment where you can meet and actually just get to know each other.
IMAGE: Jens Nordström
Botildenborg is the Nordic hub for the Social Gastronomy Movement. Can you tell us a little more about the movement and its principles?
I’ve been working with food and farming as a change-making tool for many years, but honestly, I felt a bit alone because I thought I was the only crazy person working on it! And then two years ago I was invited to the World Food Summit in Copenhagen and I heard a speech by a wonderful person from Zurich, talking about the importance of social gastronomy in society and I went up to him and said, “You know what, for the first time you have managed to put into words the very thing I am involved with. We are also doing social gastronomy. Can I be a part of this?”
So there were a couple of organisations getting together around the world working with food for change. They decided to start a movement, because there are a lot of challenges today in providing food. For example, food and climate change: one third of global emissions are a direct result of how we produce and consume our food. Also food is a wonderful tool to create work, to create friendship and to create sustainability. This organisation came together and said we have to find a word for what we're doing and they came up with social gastronomy, which I thought was brilliant. And then we started what we call the social gastronomy movement. Our goal is to start a movement around the world. Today we have 11 hubs, from Santiago in Chile to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, From the State of Amazonas to the United States: from Minneapolis, New York, Miami to London, Berlin, Paris, Cambodia, and so on.
Botildenborg has been selected to be the Nordic hub for the social gastronomy movement, so I have been working over the past year on connecting organisations in the Nordic countries that work in some way with social gastronomy. We have created a Nordic network to help and encourage each other, and this October we have our very first Nordic meeting in Botildenborg. We had planned the new Nordic summit in Copenhagen in April, but we have had to postpone it due to the coronavirus crisis.
The network provides a way of connecting organisations and also shines a light on food and farming as great change-making tools.
What is on the horizon for Botildenborg?
Since we started last fall, we have opened up for business conferences and of course, we have all our activities for our different participants. But after the summer we will also open up for more public events and open at the weekend so that people can come and see our activities, our food and our farming. We will also hold our food and farming dinners with some of the best chefs in the city and if the weather allows it, we will dine outside on our farming land, so that will be wonderful. We will have cooking classes. We will have a cafe. And we will continue to be a place where you can come for a study visit or to see our surroundings, and host conferences and meetings as well.
We will also start providing vegetable baskets this summer as a reaction to the coronavirus crisis. We are still doing a lot of farming, but since our kitchen is closed due to coronavirus, we were sitting there with so many wonderful vegetables and we said, "Okay, we can't sell it to restaurants or use it in our own restaurant, but people are really eager to get their hands on locally produced food.”
So instead of selling our produce to restaurants, during the summer and fall, we will be selling baskets to feed families. We also do a collaboration with one of our chefs called Frida Nilsson where she will provide a recipe each week with the vegetables that we deliver, so that you can use her best ideas and advice to be a star chef in the kitchen!
Excellent. Lena, is there anything you would like to add?
I think and hope that we do not stop travel, in spite of recent events, because travelling and seeing other cities and other people are an important part of life and there is always an option to travel in an environmentally friendly way. I hope that what we can contribute in Malmö is to demonstrate new ideas, new methods and new solutions. We want to be able to show that urban farming can work within cities. Using food and farming to promote sustainability can be wonderful, fun and tasty, and that is the way of contributing towards a sustainable world!
I really love what you've just said there, Lena. And after talking with you, I get a strong sense that you not only know a great deal about your craft, but you’re genuinely passionate about helping to bring people together and tackle the climate crisis, too. I wish you the best of luck with your work and I’m really grateful to you for taking the time to talk with us. Thank you!
Thank you, too!
To find out more about how Botildenborg is using social gastronomy to address social inequality and increase people's access to healthy and environmentally-friendly food please visit:
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