Last month, Malaysia announced a chicken export ban in a bid to control the prices of chicken sold domestically. Singaporeans were rightly unstable – Malaysian chicken is one of the top three sources of imported chicken in Singapore, the other two being American and Brazilian imported chicken.
While many of us who grew up in this small city-state have probably heard, the ongoing narrative is that Singapore depends on foreign trade to survive, but few of us have probably seen what the problem looks like up close. ; and this recent decision was a harsh wake-up call for many.
Not all were caught off guard, however. The Singapore 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 under Singapore’s Green Plan 2030, which is their version of “30 by 30”. This means that 30% of our food consumed will be produced locally by 2030. So where does this plan stand?
Agriculture booms in Singapore
Many of us might be surprised to learn that Singapore does in fact have farmers – and they are not farmers from kampung than many of us can imagine when we think of the agricultural industry in Southeast Asia.
Instead, Singapore’s agri-tech and agri-food industry is essentially Singaporean, integrating technology into its processes to achieve better results.
The clearest example is urban agriculture. Unlike using large tracts of open land for crops, buildings instead become the key location for farming. Construction rooftops, or even custom-built high-tech buildings, can be used to produce food and reduce Singapore’s dependence on foreign imports.
The SFA and the Housing Development Board (HDB) launched a tender in May 2020 for trusses on the roofs of public housing car parks.
For one thing, Citiponics operates an 1,800 square meter farm atop a multi-storey parking lot in Ang Mo Kio, growing between three and four tons of pesticide-free vegetables per month.
Founded in 2016, Citiponics aims to grow safe products through its zero waste agriculture process. It has an exclusive vertical farming technology called Aqua-Organic System (AOS) – it comes under solid base soilless cultivation, which is different from traditional farming and hydroponic farming system.
It was created specifically for farming near households and neighborhoods.
Some of the advantages include that it is a zero waste farming system where every component is recyclable and reusable, compared to traditional farming where you might generate waste from land and water use .
– Danielle Chan, co-founder of Citiponics
All of Citiponic’s agricultural products are segmented for home delivery, nearby residents, and select NTUC FairPrice outlets.
Citiponics isn’t the only startup to engage in urban rooftop farming. Nicholas Goh and his team at Nature’s International Commodity are doing something similar in Tampines. He was one of the few to have won the call for tenders in May 2020 to create farms on the roofs of HLM car parks.
The Tampines parking lot farm grows vegetables like xiao bai cai, kailan, and bayam to meet local eating habits.
According to Nicholas, urban farming methods differ from traditional farming. His company uses its soil technology – environmentally friendly organic fertilizers – to grow the vegetables. Nicholas also uses sensors to help identify potential crop problems, which he says saves him time and money.
“I believe in a strategic agricultural solution, which is to be small, to manage well and to be strategically located. Urban agriculture defines this as a farm, as it provides and supplements the needs of residents,” he said.
From farming on buildings to farming in buildings
The idea of urban agriculture can be taken even further. What if instead of having urban agriculture only on rooftops, entire buildings are custom-made to meet the needs of urban agriculture?
One company that does this is Archisen – it’s an agritech startup in Singapore that focuses on producing green vegetables for local consumption.
According to co-founders Sven Yeo and Vincent Wei, “food safety is an extension of Singapore’s five pillars of defence, and innovation and technology can keep local produce cheap in the long run.”
Urban agriculture is important to Singapore because of food security. We have seen the effects of COVID-19 on the supply chain with empty supermarket shelves and, more recently, with supply issues related to Malaysian poultry. This clearly demonstrates the vulnerability of the supply chain to disruptions, and options for building resilience without urban agriculture in Singapore are limited.
– Sven Yeo and Vincent Wei, co-founders of Archisen
In an effort to increase local production, Archisen uses a high-tech urban farm capable of mimicking the environment in which plants naturally grow, and has already developed its own urban farming operating system known as from Cropdom.
They also plan to incorporate automation into their city farm and expand the business with more city farms.
Obviously, startups like these start with one end in mind: to help Singapore achieve some degree of self-sufficiency in food security, at least for vegetables.
But our local nutritional needs are not limited to green vegetables. What about meat and fish?
Aquaculture in Singapore
Singapore consumes 120,000 tons of seafood every year, or about 16 kg of fish per person. Worse still, many of the species we consume are unsustainable due to overfishing. So where can you find an alternative source of fish?
For Singapore, aquaculture can play a role. The process involves keeping and rearing fish, before supplying it to the local market for consumption.
Similar to urban agriculture, technology plays a key role here. Atlas Aquaculture, a land-based aquaculture start-up in Singapore, is using technology to ensure that the seafood Singaporeans eat can be produced locally.
Located in Sungei Tengah, they have a wide variety of experts on hand to ensure their fish is of high quality.
The system used by Atlas allows them to recycle and reuse more than 95% of their water, which is another commodity with a limited supply in Singapore.
However, using technology is not always easy.
Maintaining healthy water quality requires a great deal 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 were many improvements needed.
We have since manufactured new custom filtration components for our systems and will soon be developing AI and machine learning. With true AI-monitored and controlled automation, we can eliminate human error and increase efficiency.
– Kane McGuinn, Founder and CEO of Atlas Aquaculture
Their tenacity and ingenuity also mean that it’s not just fish that aquaculture can produce – fish and related marine products can be produced too. Atlas has already managed to produce mussels and oysters that help filter water, as well as plants like seaweed and sea grapes.
“We are working towards Singapore’s target of 30% by 2030, but it is a monumental task. It will take a lot of investment and cooperation to get closer to this goal,” he adds.
Investment in agrifood and agritech industries
Of course, urban agriculture and aquaculture have their own problems. Given their high technology intensity, careful consideration is needed for the further development of these systems.
This is an area where startups would appreciate support, but how is the investment landscape for these industries?
A venture capital firm investment partner whom Vulcan Post spoke to said quite candidly that the outlook was not very positive – the coming recession is expected to hit all sectors hard, and the agritech is no different.
“The sectors are still small, and VCs don’t have a very strong appetite for agritech and agribusiness startups right now,” he continued.
But these venture capitalists have reason to doubt. On the one hand, the capital-intensive nature of these startups could be an obstacle for some investors.
Another issue concerns the viability of agritech products. High production costs often translate into higher prices for consumers when these products finally hit the shelves, and venture capitalists see this as a significant hurdle for startups to overcome.
Asian consumers are mainly concerned about the price rather than the origin of the product. Why should I pay extra if it gives me the same nutritional value as conventional choices? Prices may be lowered, but we don’t see that.
– Investment partner in a venture capital company
Of course, this does not mean that the agritech and agribusiness sectors cannot expect any help in raising capital. The investment partner mentioned that there are several changes VCs would like to see in these startups.
First, he hopes these startups properly study their audience to see if their business strategies are still ideal. Another point is for these startups to reduce operating costs to reduce cash consumption.
“These changes would really make VCs rethink their assumptions about the industry and likely look more favorably on funding these startups.”
As Singapore moves towards improving food self-sufficiency, many startups seem eager to support this trend. But as you can see, it’s not easy for them.
High tech costs seem to be a barrier for them on many levels – it makes it difficult to scale and provides a “catch 22” when seeking funding. Investors are reluctant to invest due to the amount of capital required to be successful, but without funding growth is difficult.
There is hope, however. These startups also report that sales have been encouraging and that prices for these products are slowly matching consumer expectations; and one day we may see a case where these startups will help Singaporeans deal with supply chain disruptions.
Featured Image Credit: Archisen