It was a hot, hot morning when we drove up to Presint 19 in Putrajaya. We weren’t enthused by the heat, but it was this same heat that the premium Arus muskmelons growing at Mono Premium Melon (Mono) thrived on.
In our weather, up to 3-4 cycles of this melon can be grown, a much larger yield than what Japanese farmers can get with their single season of summer.
But weather alone can’t grow a melon, so the 3 experienced co-founders behind Mono—Yeo Chen Swee, Seh Cheng Siang, and Mohd Sofian bin Ali—put their heads together to come up with a smart farming system.
We were there for a farm tour and to harvest our own RM168 melon.
200 slots were opened for Mono’s first public batch harvesting, so it could be assumed that for this harvest, they’ve already made just over RM33k in revenue.
However, this only touches the surface of Mono’s actual mission and revenue strategy.
Precision farming with Japanese techniques
For consumers, of course these Japanese melons are the star of the show. But few get to understand and appreciate the care and technology that goes into growing each one.
Mono’s IoT (Internet of Things) enabled farm allows them to conduct precision farming, which these Arus muskmelons need. “No more agak-agak,” Seh commented, referring to more relaxed farming methods used to grow regular melons.
With the IoT setup, the team can remotely monitor the status of every growing melon on their smartphones. They can adjust the amount of nutrients or water a plant needs, change the fertiliser composition, and even monitor the greenhouse’s temperature.
Mono also calls it a plant-driven system, whereby the plants decide for themselves when they require feeding, and smart valves in the Autopots they grow in will facilitate the flow from a large tank.
On top of nutrition, there’s relaxing music played at the greenhouse for the plants’ growth (Japanese farmers use this technique too). Growing melons are polished and massaged weekly with a Nexcare facial glove to stimulate sweetness and to result in a more “3D” netting on the surface.
We take care of [the melons’] health, and they will take care of our pocket.Yeo Chen Swee, co-founder of Mono.
Even with the details that go into precision farming, the outcome can be still unpredictable and there is no 100% guarantee for the crops. Due to weather conditions, sudden rotting, and other uncontrollable factors, the melons are at risk up to the moment they are harvested.
The advantage that Mono has is that the groundwork to reduce these risks have been done with their 15+ years of melon-farming experience.
With the IoT app, monitoring and making adjustments once a day is enough. Yeo added, “Actually, we can pre-set for the whole month or week, even up to one cycle. This cuts down on a lot of human error, because once the damage is done, it’s very difficult to recover.”
With little room for error, why grow this particular melon?
“[We chose this seed] because this is the most difficult to plant, but we want to challenge it. We have the confidence, the tools, that’s why we chose the hardest just to prove that it’s possible,” Seh said.
More than proving it to themselves, they wanted to set an example for other Malaysian farmers.
Sharing the fruits of their labour
In the big picture, Mono wants to equip interested farmers with the right knowledge and technology to grow these premium and rare melons in Malaysia.
“This is the main objective of Mono farms: we have a platform where we are setting up our Mono farms concept, and recently, we actually launched an investment startup programme for small farmers,” Seh revealed.
What this means is that interested farmers with 1,200 sq ft of land can hire Mono to set up their own IoT enabled farm and grow 400 premium melons in a cycle.
The type of land doesn’t matter either, as the melons are grown in Autopots with a soilless medium. You can have them on your front porch or even your roof.
A setup costs about RM68k, with the same monitoring system that Mono is using. “We can set up in one week’s time, after that, you can start planting the next day. In 3 months, you’ll produce the first batch of Japanese melons,” Seh said.
Seeds and fertiliser come at a separate cost, with the seeds costing RM3 each and sold exclusively by Mono. Mono’s assistance doesn’t stop there though, as they can also help monitor the wellness of your plants through the IoT system and CCTVS.
If Mono’s strategy works as planned, we’ll be seeing more farms replicating the Mono farm concept. The team has already put in the hard work of finding solutions that bring results, and are giving others a chance to achieve the same quality without all the challenges that come with it.
“Mono farm [provides] a platform and opportunity for the younger generation or newcomers in this industry. So they join the Mono community [to know the] setup for the farm, planting, technical know-how, up to marketing. It’s a one-stop solution for farming,” Seh said.
This is why the melon is simply a starting product in Mono’s plans, the real business model here is to cultivate more farms utilising the Mono farm concept, starting with Arus muskmelons.
However, Mono won’t work as a middleman. The farms are encouraged to sell their own fruits with their own branding in order to cut the supply chain shorter, which is another one of Mono’s goals.
With a shorter supply chain, they can better educate end consumers on the work that went into growing the fruit and how to properly consume and appreciate it.
For example, we learnt during the farm tour about how the melon changes in texture, sweetness, juiciness, and aroma from the first to the sixth day after harvest.
Unlike the common perception that bigger is better, there’s no grading system for Mono’s melons. Mono has standardised their harvest size to 1.4-1.8kg per melon, but even with some smaller or bigger melons, they are meant to taste the same.
Being sustainable and scalable
To be in this industry long-term, the Mono team believes that sustainable farming starts from the farmers first making a profit. Then only can farmers think about sustainability in other forms to protect the environment, reduce wastage, and more.
Seh shared some examples for how farmers can market their melons:
- Doing a pick-and-harvest open day, like the farm tour we experienced.
- Selling them through e-commerce.
- Allowing families to “adopt” a melon plant from the start all the way until it’s harvested for their consumption.
In terms of scalability, when new farmers are more confident after the success of their small melon farm, Mono can assist in expanding the farm to increase melon crop production.
Mono plans to scale by eventually bringing in other premium melon species that are not common in Malaysia. By teaching existing or new farmers in their Mono community to also grow these new melons, they too can increase their revenue source.
We brought up that one of our parents has a farm in Bukit Beruntung with their own vegetables and fruits. In line with their mission of growing more local farmers for this Japanese melon, they quipped, “We [have brought] Japan to Putrajaya, we can bring Putrajaya to Bukit Beruntung.”
All Image Credits: Vulcan Post