Kamal Alhmoud

Gardens in the Sky

With scant few green spaces in our increasingly crowded cities, a new company is using cutting edge horticulture to create gardens on our roof tops.

By Camilla Caraccio

Jordan is not well known for its lush nature, and the rapid urbanization unfolding in the country has often made the need for parks and other green spaces less of a priority for city planners.

But enterprising individuals like Kamal Alhmoud are pushing back against this unfortunate trend. He’s offering up a centuries-old solution to the lack of greenery in the concrete jungles most of us now call home: Roof gardens.

Alhmoud was still pursuing a computer science degree at the University of Jordan when he first realized his passion for making a difference in his community. Aiming to make living standards more sustainable while improving the aesthetic of urban areas, he founded Aster, a company that creates rooftop gardens for residential and commercial buildings.

Spreading such an innovative concept throughout the Kingdom wasn’t easy, but joint efforts with fresh graduate and business partner Abdelrahman Abu Roumi enabled Alhmoud to quickly make significant advances. Together they created a company that not only grew, but also made a difference in some parts of society.

Why a Rooftop Garden?

The concept of rooftop gardens dates back to ancient times, when exceptional engineering techniques coupled with ethical purposes produced a plethora of greenery in Mesopotamia—known as the hanging gardens of Babylon—as well as in the Roman Empire.

Aster’s projects bring life to urban spaces that would otherwise be left starkly blank and underutilized. Roof gardens are also cost-effective solutions that combine aesthetic and recreational value with a wide array of environmental benefits and competitive advantages. In doing so, they lead to significant energy, water, and resource conservation while enhancing the overall property value. “As urbanization looms large, we have to seize on newly-created outdoor areas to engage in eco-friendly practices,” Alhmoud said. “Due to  urbanization’s impact, Jordan—and most of the Middle East—has plenty of flat roofs which are largely unoccupied … A viable solution for greener cities is just around the corner. What we need to do is just look up and make the most of the space we already have.”

Aster company's landscaping

With roof gardens, innovative irrigation techniques can save on water and energy. Storing up to 70 percent of rainfall, they also dramatically reduce the runoff and lower the risk of floods to which some areas of Jordan are prone. In addition to this, roof gardens make significant contributions to improving air quality by helping to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. “Building greener cities is key to addressing the issue of climate change … and roof gardens can create a breeding ground for the upcoming low-carbon revolution,” Alhmoud explained.

Waste is another concern stemming from urbanization. This is why Aster has incorporated upcycling into its work. “We make old materials functional again by creating garden decor out of them; furnishings from car wheels and lighting from Coke bottles, for instance,” Alhmoud said.

Aster has recently developed synergies with Jordan’s leading supplier of heating and cooling systems Izzat Marji Group, something that Alhmoud is particularly proud of. The solar sector is gaining significant momentum in Jordan, he said, and the recent partnership is a perfect marriage that will give further boost to the green roof productivity by fitting solar panels into some of their designs.

Growing and Growing

Despite humble beginnings, by the time the two founders embarked on their first project the name of their products had already come out on top. They started off with only JD400 but seed funds pushed their efforts forward. Aster won the second place at the INJAZ Fellowship Program in 2012 and was recognized as Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the year in 2014. Besides cash prizes, a wide array of mentorship sessions and cross-cultural trainings powered by technology incubators Enpact and Badir helped accelerate growth and forge new business connections.

Since its inception the company has undertaken a total of 30 projects, boasting among its customers telecommunication giant Zain and healthcare company ACDIMA. The vast majority of the rooftop garden planting services are provided to hotels, restaurants, and other commercial buildings as well as private homes, spanning Amman, Jerash, and Salt.

Over  time, though, Aster has managed to offer a number of products for all tastes and prices without being confined to a luxurious experience that can be afforded only by few.

Late last year, a community garden project was implemented in downtown Amman by Aster with the help of a group of young volunteers. It involved transforming the roof of a residential building into a communal outdoor area, where people can grow their own produce to sell if they wish, while developing greater collaborative skills and interactions. The project has helped provide some less-privileged Jordanians with a much-needed source of income and resilience.

Given the success of the initiative, Alhmoud hopes that Jordanians will soon start setting up their own gardens to grow vegetables. “The concept of self-sufficiency farming is already widespread across Europe,” he said. “As well as creating awareness about what they eat, it would enable Jordanians to save money on over-priced produce imported from other countries.”

Aster company's landscaping

Alongside further improvements in the operational side, they also plan to invest in a comprehensive PR and marketing strategy, on which little money has been spent so far. “Not everyone has space enough for a garden, nor the knowledge and competencies to be in charge of the upkeep needed to maintain a roof garden,” he said. “That’s why, along with a preliminary 3D planning design and the building [process], we supply aftercare service to keep track of our products and guarantee optimal conditions over the long-term.” The company is also planning a crowdfunding campaign soon to expand their team and eventually take on more projects.

As for the issue of space, Jordan’s main cities are packed with shared multi-storey buildings, which makes it necessary for residents living under the same roof to come to an agreement before getting the system installed on their own property.

Finding adequate financial support to develop a business model may be the biggest hurdle many up-and-coming companies face. Yet convincing people to share an outdoor space with their neighbour sets a major challenge for Aster company and the roofing industry in Jordan as a whole.

But despite this inevitable obstacle, Alhmoud is confident that it won’t take long until roof gardens take root all over the Kingdom. “The quest for social cohesion, the urgent need to find a balance between urban life and interaction with nature, the renewed appetite for home-grown food, the increasing interest in green homes and clean energy solutions, and the reiterated commitment of the government to achieve city sustainability goals, are all elements that suggest Jordan is on the right track,” he said.