Entrepreneur

Farm To Fork: This Millennial Urban Farmer Grows Vegetables On Carpark Rooftops In S'pore

The ongoing battle against the Covid-19 outbreak and the resultant lockdowns imposed in many countries worldwide have put the spotlight on Singapore’s dependence on food imports and its vulnerability to global supply shocks.

The government has repeatedly assured its citizens that Singapore has sufficient food supplies, amid bouts of panic buying that gripped the country when Singapore raised the DORSCON level to Orange.

Although the panic buying has now eased, another cause for concern is that Singapore has a population of about 5.7 million people but it only produces about 10 per cent of its food needs.

To tackle this food crisis, Singapore announced new measures in April aimed at speeding up local food production over the next six months to two years.

This includes providing a S$30 million grant to support production of eggs, leafy vegetables, and fish in the shortest time possible, and identifying alternative farming spaces, such as industrial areas and vacant sites.

As part of that project, the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) and the Housing Development Board (HDB) have launched a tender in May for rooftop farms on public housing car parks.

This means that the rooftops of a handful of multi-storey carparks in Singapore will be converted for use to farm vegetables and other food crops from the later part of this year.

Farming Hits The Roof

The move to find alternative farming space in land-constrained Singapore is part of their strategy to meet the country’s 30 by 30 goal, which is to produce 30 per cent of its nutritional needs locally by 2030.

Local agri-tech startup Citiponics did not take part in the tender this time round, though it piloted SFA’s multi-storey carpark rooftop farm project in Ang Mo Kio last year.

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Rooftop farm at Ang Mo Kio / Image Credit: Citiponics

According to Danielle Chan, co-founder of Citiponics, its 1,800 square metres farm atop the carpark at Block 700 in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 6 can grow between three and four tonnes of vegetables a month.

They grow up to 25 different types of vegetables naturally without the use of pesticides.

“We currently specialise in growing our own crossbreed of lettuces — Georgina Lettuces — and have also been growing other varieties such as nai bai, Italian basil and Thai basil based on customers’ requests,” said Danielle.

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Georgina Lettuce / Image Credit: Citiponics

Sharing more about the Ang Mo Kio site, she said they have been steadily producing pesticide-free vegetables on a monthly basis, supplying to nearby residents and consumers islandwide.

Beyond contributing to local food production, this pilot project has also generated “positivity”, which stems from community involvement when visitors get to know and see their food source.

“It brings us great joy to see the senior citizens enjoying their time as they work on farming activities as well as the support we have received from visitors who come to our community markets to self-harvest their produce,” said Danielle.

She added that they hire senior citizens from AWWA Community Home as well as part-time workers to help with farm maintenance.

“We believe that even if one does not have the technical agriculture know-how, they should be able to contribute to food production as well.”

Meet This 26-Year-Old Urban Farmer

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Danielle Chan, co-founder of Citiponics / Image Credit: Citiponics

Citiponics is a Singapore-grown urban farming company that started in 2016, which aims to grow safe produce through its zero-waste farming process.

It is co-founded by Danielle and her family friend Teo Hwa Kok, who has a “rich experience in agriculture.”

We started out wanting to understand how food production could be reimagined in Singapore (since almost 90% of the food is still dependent on imports) and how we could tap on under-utilised spaces to contribute to food security and food safety, in a sustainable and efficient manner.

[This is why] we looked at spaces such as carpark rooftop areas, and explored how our farming technology can be designed to be suitable for farming within neighbourhood areas. 

– Danielle Chan, co-founder of Citiponics

The 26-year-old is a National University of Singapore (NUS) graduate, who has worked in technology startups across Singapore and New York, as well as technology consulting companies such as IBM.

But with her tech background, why did she choose to be a ‘farmer’?

“I grew up in an agricultural environment and as such, the farm was always my playground. Growing up, I never had to worry about buying vegetables from the supermarket or doubting my food source — I had the blessing of getting all my vegetables supplies directly from the farm,” explained Danielle.

“Having personally witnessed the wastage as well as the inefficiencies in the traditional farming industry, I knew I wanted to go back to the farming industry to change the way farming is done traditionally as well as to share the blessing of the farm-to-table experience with others.”

When Agriculture Meets Tech

Her tech background didn’t go to waste though. She made it a point to integrate technology into Citiponic’s farming processes.

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Image Credit: Citiponics

They have a proprietary vertical farming technology called Aqua-Organic System (AOS). It 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

As every drop of water is kept in a close loop within the growing system, it helps to minimise water consumption, using one-tenth of hydroponics water consumption and one-hundredth of traditional farming water consumption.

Due to its vertical nature, it is also able to be seven times more productive than traditional farming.

As it is specially designed to provide a natural farming environment in order to preserve the nutrients value and natural taste of the vegetables, the technology is also pollutant-free and pesticide-free. It’s also anti-mosquito breeding, which makes it very suitable for farming within community and neighbourhood areas.

“The AOS farming technology removes the complex technicalities of farming and we wanted to keep it that way to allow people of all ages and backgrounds to have a great experience when they get to farm with our systems,” said Danielle.

COVID-19 Does Not Pose A Huge Business Challenge

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Citiponics at NTUC FairPrice / Image Credit: Ministry of Trade and Industry

All of Citiponic’s farmed produce are segmented to home deliveries, nearby residents, and selected NTUC FairPrice outlets.

Since the start of the COVID-19 situation, we have been supplying our vegetables directly to consumers and nearby residents, providing delivery for them to enjoy our fresh farm harvest at the comforts of their own homes and the option of self pick-ups for residents staying nearby.

I think this is meaningful as it allows us to be able to connect directly with our consumers on a personal level, understand their preferences and share more about the value of locally-grown farm fresh produce. As urban farmers,  it feels really heartening to see produce we grow at our farm getting turned into delicious meals that are prepared for families and their loved ones.

– Danielle Chan, co-founder of Citiponics
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Citiponics’ Georgina lettuce sold at NTUC FairPrice / Image Credit: Citiponics

Despite their limited farming space, Danielle said that they see a constant stream of supply and sales.

It’s not so much a business challenge, she added, but the need to adapt to the new normal, hence the introduction of home deliveries and engaged logistics channel.

Although COVID-19 does not greatly impact its business, it serves as a timely reminder on the importance of accelerating our local food production.

Singapore Steps Up To Be More Food Resilient

This pandemic serves a time for us to reflect on how we can enhance our food resilience strategies.

As Singapore is still largely dependent on food imports, the rooftop farming tender and local food production grants are definitely the right steps forward.

There is value in enhancing our local food resilience, especially when we look at situations where supply disruptions might take place such as that of COVID-19.

More diversified sources of local food production will be beneficial in maintaining Singapore’s position at the forefront of the global food security index.

– Danielle Chan, co-founder of Citiponics

According to SFA, Singapore currently secures food supply from about 170 countries.

For instance, Singapore now imports oranges from Egypt, milk powder from Uruguay, eggs from Poland and shrimps from Saudi Arabia as part of its efforts to broaden food supplies. 

Danielle is well-aware that food security, food sustainability and food safety are global issues, so she hopes to bring Citiponics’ farming solution to more countries.

“We are not only focused on food production, but also becoming a agri-tech solution provider. We have developed agriculture technology and designed farming solutions that are suitable for tropical countries, and hope to extend the applicability of our expertise and farming technology to temperate countries as well,” she added.

Citiponics is also looking at scaling its operations to enhance its contribution to local food resilience and grow more communities through the introduction of hyperlocal Citiponics urban vertical farms in various neighbourhoods of Singapore.

“We envision Citiponics as a supportive environment that is able to cultivate the next generation of urban farmers and agri-tech innovators.”

Featured Image Credit: Citiponics

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