The idea of farming, even just growing vegetables to feed your own family is seen as something that is done in the countryside by humble farmers and to some urbanites, embodies unrewarding physical labour.
This is the stigma that CityFarm team Jayden Koay, Johanson Chew and Looi Choon Beng are fighting to dispel in their startup journey.
Johanson was the first among the team to wet his toes in urban farming, but eventually all three of them were building their own farms in 2015.
“Initially, there was a challenge where it was difficult to find hydroponics equipment and supplies,” said Jayden. “This triggered us to form an entity to help all urban farming enthusiasts.”
“We soon realised that there is a bigger purpose behind urban farming. Soon there will be food source crisis due to rising population, pollution and climate change.”
Now aware of the environmental impact that urban farming could have in helping the populations in the future, the team were determined to take action. So over one casual teh tarik session between the three friends and urban farmers, they decided to join forces and form an urban farming business, which led to CityFarm’s launch in July last year.
Urban farming technology, especially Hydroponics (the process of growing plants without soil, usually in water) is not a new concept to Malaysia from an agricultural standpoint, but what sets CityFarm apart as an urban farming concept is that they are making it convenient for the individual layman to start growing their own crops indoors.
Rising Populations Pose A Starvation Danger
It is hard to imagine this now in an era where obesity is an issue inflicting more than just first world countries, but as the population continues to grow exponentially over the years, current agricultural practices might not be enough to supply food for everyone.
The world population is projected to grow to 9.7 billion by 2050, and in Malaysia, 60% of the population will be living in urban areas, and will continue to rise with growth and rapid urbanisation. Cities grow ever-packed with people, and space is becoming an ever valuable commodity.
According to Cityfarm, “80% of cultivated land is already in use. Moreover, extreme weather patterns and devastated crops create higher food prices, and consumers become more conscious on how their foods are produced now.”
This is where urban agriculture comes in, to utilise the ever-valuable space.
“We are seeing increasing interest of the market in this field.” said Johanson. “In light of a recently banned pesticide found in local vegetables and flooding, the public is getting more health and environmentally conscious. Urbanisation is inevitable and we estimate interest in urban farming will keep going up. We intend keep this trend going by studying strategies used other countries where urban farming is more mature like US and Japan.”
How CityFarm Works
“Urban farming is still considered as infant stage in Malaysia where market adoption rate will be relatively low due to low awareness. Hence, we have series of go-to-market strategies that focus on public awareness, e.g. classes for students and public and exhibitions.” said Looi Choon Beng.
For those who are interested in picking up urban farming, the listing of products available on the CityFarm website may seem daunting for the beginner. The team understands that this is a budding concept in Malaysia and offers classes to help Malaysians pick up the hobby.
Currently available is a hydroponics farming course with a free farm set for RM349.90, but for any corporates or even individuals who want to see how its done, CityFarm offers a tour of their farm, which, according to Johanson, “is where we give our customers tours and see our product in use”.
And while CityFarm is not yet a year into launch, they are currently into rapid expansion mode which, according to Johanson, refers to:
- Efforts on public awareness (classes and exhibitions)
- Enrichment of product catalog (new products)
- Partnership with developers on eco projects
- Build and operate farm with strategic partners
- Physical store expansion
So since urban farming, is as the team describes, “in its infancy in Malaysia,” how are they doing in terms of sales? To this, Looi Choon Beng says that “Our SEO and SEM has been very successful so far. The overwhelming majority of conversions are coming from these channels and we are seeing on average a 20% increase in revenue every month since we started.”
CityFarm is not an SME exactly, but the team has big ideas to help Malaysia catch up with first-world countries like Japan and USA. Getting Malaysians to pick up a new habit such as this might be tough for the team, so they’re expending a lot of effort into public education to increase the absorption rate of urban farming among the locals.