Updated: Oct 24, 2020
At the island gardens, the sweet peas, striking indigo with a contrasting yellow central splash, are swaying in a light ocean breeze. Justin, Soneva’s “Waste to Wealth” Manager, is waiting for me under the colourful vine and plucks a flower from it, handing it to me as I approach. I take the flower and breathe in the wonderful smell. Justin smiles. “You’re supposed to eat it.”, he says. An unexpected floral sweetness charms my tastebuds.
This is Justin’s turf. His patch includes these gardens where the food served in delicious, fresh and healthy dishes for guests and hosts is produced, and also incorporates ‘eco-centro’, the island’s recycling centre. Justin is passionate about permaculture, a phenomenon I had never heard of before I came to Soneva Fushi. ‘Permaculture is a design based on the flow of nature,’ he tells me. ‘It’s about harnessing the natural energy of the world around us.’
Before I go any further, I must state that I know very little about gardening; the extent of my gardening knowledge is that plants need soil, light, and water to varying degrees to thrive. As he takes me around the garden, I learn that soil must have a careful balance of nitrogen and carbon to produce good results. Plants with opposite qualities – heating and cooling – complement one another in the bed. In the Ayurvadic tradition with which Justin is aligned tomatoes lie next to mint, the mint’s natural cooling properties softening the heat from the tomatoes. ‘Plants that eat well together, often grow well together,’ Justin tells me. ‘Nature is clever like that.’
The whole area is a verdant paradise. Bees and butterflies flutter from flower to flower as we wander the narrow pathways separating the plots. We pass flourishing beds of moringa plants, aubergine, lettuce, rocket, and what we believe is the first ever asparagus to be grown in the Maldives. It’s all thriving here in the sunlight.
‘The first rule of permaculture is to observe and interact with nature. If you can create the right conditions, then you can grow anything,’ Justin tells me enthusiastically. Permaculture allows Justin and his team to introduce completely new vegetables to the beds; all the materials needed for the garden are produced by recycling what came out of it. Justin’s approach feels so wonderfully radical to me, both ancient and thoroughly modern. It's based on the basic principles of permaculture: working with the natural environment.
The incredible thing is that the Waste to Wealth enterprise is profitable: what is grown and made is sold back to the resort, for a fraction of the price that the kitchens would be paying external suppliers. Not only does the programme reduce costs across the whole resort, but it reduces its carbon footprint, and supplies the restaurants with the freshest produce. In an isolated oceanic country like the Maldives, this is huge. Anything that can’t be grown has to be shipped thousands of miles in artificial conditions. Most resorts solely rely on this method of supply, but Soneva is not like other resorts. Approximately 90% of our waste is recycled through the eco-centro.
We head over to Soneva’s mushroom huts, where three species of fungi are grown for the kitchens. Kobir, who looks after this area, talks us through the three-stage process. Mushroom cultures are initially made on site, where sacks of soil and sawdust in small, tight cylinders are inoculated with a small spoon of mushroom spawn. After being left to develop for a month, they move to a second room, where they are grow fruit in a carefully cultivated humidity for another month, before the first batch is harvested. Finally, the tops of the bags are opened, and a new growth of mushrooms develops over the following month. Around two-hundred new bags of mushroom culture are made a week, each producing about a kilogram of mushrooms over a three-month period. As the aim is to grow as much of our food on the island as we can, Justin is always looking at ways to increase this production to meet the demand of Soneva’s kitchens.
We grab our bikes and head further up the island to the adjoining eco-centro, where all our waste is recycled and turned into abundance. Glass is broken down and mixed with polystyrene particles from food transport containers and cement to create bricks that make some of the island’s buildings. Glass is also transformed into beautiful pieces of art made and sold in the island's Glass Cycle. Food waste (cooked and raw) is turned into fertiliser that goes back into the gardens in the epic 'Compost Palace'; coconut shells are made into garden mulch, which keeps the soil moist, while the uneaten flesh becomes coconut oil that is sold back to the kitchens for cooking.
Soneva are doing this on an even larger scale. On Monday 3rd February I was lucky enough to witness a moment of Maldivian history. In partnership with the local councils and UK-based NGO Common Seas, Soneva opened the very first ‘eco-centro’ on a local island, Maalhos. Up until just a few weeks ago, the site had been used to burn waste. Now it’s been restored to a beautiful beach, where the President of the Maldives played cricket with local people. Just around the corner is the new recycling centre, much like the one I visited with Justin. This will be followed by two more eco-centro openings this year, with the ambition that this becomes the prototype for managing waste across the whole of the Maldives.
It’s this blue-sky thinking that the world needs at the moment, and if the Maldives can do it, can the rest of the world?