Last month, Malaysia announced a chicken export ban in an effort to control prices of domestically sold chicken. Singaporeans were justifiably unsettled — Malaysian chicken is one of the three major sources of imported chicken in Singapore, with the other two being American and Brazilian imported chicken.
While many of us who have grown up in this small city-state have likely heard, the ongoing narrative is Singapore is reliant on foreign trade to survive, but few of us have probably seen what the problem looks like up close; and this recent move has been a rude wake-up call to many.
Not all have been caught off guard though. Singapore’s government has actually been aware of the need to diversify our food supply, and local production is part of that plan.
The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) has its own targets as part of Singapore’s Green Plan 2030, which is their version of ‘30 by 30’. This will mean that 30 per cent of our consumed food will be produced locally by 2030. So how is this plan coming along?
Farming hits the roof in Singapore
Many of us might be surprised to hear that Singapore actually has farmers — and these are not farmers from the kampung that many of us may imagine when we think of the agriculture industry in Southeast Asia.
Instead, the agritech and agrifood industry in Singapore is quintessentially Singaporean, incorporating technology in their processes in order to achieve better outcomes.
The clearest example of this is in urban farming. In contrast to using large, open tracts of land for crops, buildings become the key location for agriculture instead. Building rooftops, or even custom-built high-tech buildings can be used to produce food and alleviate Singapore’s dependence on foreign imports.
SFA and the Housing Development Board (HDB) have launched a tender in May 2020 for rooftop farms on public housing car parks.
For one, Citiponics operates a 1,800 square metre farm atop a multi-storey carpark in Ang Mo Kio, growing between three and four tonnes of pesticide-free vegetables a month.
Founded in 2016, Citiponics aims to grow safe produce through its zero-waste farming process. It has a proprietary vertical farming technology called Aqua-Organic System (AOS) — this falls under a solid-based soilless culture, which is different from the likes of traditional farming and hydroponic farming system.
It was created specifically for farming in close proximities to households and neighbourhoods.
Some of the advantages include it being a zero-waste farming system where every component is recyclable and reusable, compared to traditional farming where you might generate wastage from soil and water use.
– Danielle Chan, co-founder of Citiponics
All of Citiponic’s farmed produce are segmented to home deliveries, nearby residents, and selected NTUC FairPrice outlets.
Citiponics is not the only startup that engages in urban farming on rooftops. Nicholas Goh and his team at Nature’s International Commodity are doing something similar in Tampines. He was one of the few who won the tender bid in May 2020 to create rooftop farms on public housing carparks.
The Tampines carpark farm grows vegetables like xiao bai cai, kailan and bayam to cater to the consumption habits of locals.
According to Nicholas, urban farming methods differ from traditional farming. His business uses its soil technology — eco-friendly organic fertilisers — to grow the vegetables. Nicholas also uses sensors to help identify potential crop problems, which he says helps him save time and money.
“I believe in a strategic farming solution, which is to do small, manage well and be strategically located. Urban farming defines that as a farm, as it supplies and supplements the needs of the residents,” he said.
From farming on buildings to farming in buildings
The idea of urban farming can be taken even further. What happens if instead of having urban farming just on rooftops, entire buildings are custom made in order to cater to the needs of urban farming?
One company that is doing this is Archisen — it’s an agritech startup in Singapore that is focused on producing greens such for local consumption.
According to co-founders Sven Yeo and Vincent Wei, “Food security is an extension of Singapore’s five pillars of defence, and innovation and tech can keep local produce cheap in the long run.”
Urban farming is important for Singapore because of food security. We saw the effects of COVID-19 on the supply chain with empty supermarket shelves, and most recently, with the supply issues relating to Malaysian poultry. It clearly demonstrates the vulnerability of the supply chain to disruptions, and there are limited options to build resilience without urban farming in Singapore.
– Sven Yeo and Vincent Wei, co-founders of Archisen
In an attempt to increase local production, Archisen uses a high tech urban farm that is able to imitate the environment where plants are naturally grown, and have already developed their own urban farming operating system known as Cropdom.
They are also planning to integrate automation into their urban farm, and expand the business with more urban farms.
Clearly, startups such as these begin with an end in mind — to help Singapore achieve some degree of self-sustainability when it comes to food security, at least for vegetables.
But our local nutritional needs do not just consist of greens. What about meat and fish?
Aquaculture in Singapore
Singapore consumes 120,000 tonnes of seafood every year — this amounts to about 16kg of fish per person. What’s worse, many of the species that we consume are unsustainable due to overfishing. So where can an alternative source of fish be found?
For Singapore, aquaculture can play a role. The process involves keeping and raising fish, before having them supplied to the local market for consumption.
Similar to urban agriculture, technology here plays a key role. Atlas Aquaculture, a land-based aquaculture startup in Singapore, uses technology to ensure that the seafood that Singaporeans consume can be produced locally.
Located in Sungei Tengah, they have a wide variety of experts on site to ensure that their fish are of high quality.
The system that Atlas uses allows them to recycle and reuse over 95 per cent of their water, which is another commodity with limited supply in Singapore.
However, the use of technology is not always easy.
Maintaining healthy water quality takes a large amount of scientific knowledge and can be daunting for the common operator to approach. Our first version of Recirculating Aquaculture Systems used existing components from similar industries, only to learn that there was much improvement needed.
We have since custom made new filtration components for our systems, and will be developing AI and machine learning soon. With real automation being monitored and controlled by AI, we can remove human error and increase efficiency.
– Kane McGuinn, founder and CEO of Atlas Aquaculture
Their tenacity and ingenuity also means that it’s not only fish that aquaculture can produce — related fish and marine products can also be produced. Atlas has already successfully managed to produce mussels and oysters that help filter the water, as well as plants such as seaweed and sea grapes.
“We are working towards Singapore’s goal of 30 per cent by 2030, but it is a monumental task. It will take a huge amount of investment and cooperation to even get close to this goal,” he adds.
Investment in the agrifood and agritech industries
Of course, both urban agriculture and aquaculture have their own issues. Given how technologically intensive they are, careful consideration is required for the further development of these systems.
This area is one where startups would appreciate support in, but how is the investment landscape like for these industries?
An investment partner at a venture capital firm that Vulcan Post spoke to stated quite frankly that the outlook was not very positive — the upcoming recession is expected to hit every sector hard, and the agritech sector is no different.
“The sectors are still small, and VCs do not have a very strong appetite for agritech and agrifood startups for the time being,” he reasoned further.
But these venture firms have reasons for their doubts. For one, the capital-intensive nature of these startups could be a barrier to some investors.
Another issue relates to the viability of agritech products. High costs of production often translate into higher price points for consumers when these products finally hit the shelves, and venture firms view this as a significant barrier for startups to overcome.
Consumers in Asia are primarily concerned with price rather than the origin of the product. Why would I pay extra if it brings me the same nutritional value as conventional choices? Prices can be brought down, but we are not seeing that.
– Investment partner at a venture capital firm
Of course, this does not mean that the agritech and agrifood sectors cannot expect any assistance when it comes to raising capital. The investment partner mentioned that there are several changes that VCs would like to see in these startups.
Firstly, he hopes that these startups properly studies their audience to see if their business strategies are still ideal. Another point is for these startups to cut down on operation costs to reduce cash burn.
“These changes would really incentivise VCs to rethink their assumptions about the industry, and probably look more favourably upon funding these startups.”
As Singapore moves towards improving self-sufficiency for food consumption, many startups seem eager to support this trend. But as we can see, it’s not easy for them.
High tech costs seem to be a hindrance for them on many levels — it makes scaling difficult, and provides a ‘Catch 22’ when searching for funding. Investors are reluctant to invest because of the amount of capital required to make them successful, but without funding, growth is difficult.
There is hope though. These startups are also reporting that sales have been encouraging, and prices for these products are slowly matching up to consumer expectations; and one day, we may see a case where these startups help Singaporeans deal with supply chain disruptions.
Featured Image Credit: Archisen