Stare out into the distance when you are at Tampines and you might just see a strange plot of green on top of a multi-storey carpark.
Those vegetables that you consume on a daily basis — xiao bai cai, kailan, bayam — might just be grown from that carpark too.
About four tonnes or 4,000kg of vegetables, which equates to almost 16,000 packets of greens, is harvested from this “makeshift” farm every month.
It’s grown and managed by 35-year-old Singaporean entrepreneur Nicholas Goh and his team at Nature’s International Commodity (NIC).
Nicholas supplies his vegetables to local distributors in Singapore. They are sold slightly cheaper than market price and NTUC FairPrice, he claims.
Since the farm started eight months ago, business has been good, having sold most of the vegetables they harvest.
Nicholas was one of the few who won the tender bid in May 2020 to create rooftop farms on public housing carparks. The move to find alternative farming space in land-constrained Singapore is part of the country’s strategy to meet its 30 by 30 goal, which is to produce 30 per cent of its nutritional needs locally by 2030.
He was a mango farmer in Cambodia
Unknown to many, Nicholas is actually an accomplished entrepreneur in Cambodia. He runs a 72-hectare farm land in Cambodia, which is almost the size of 140 football fields, that sells mainly mangoes.
“I also have a waste management factory that converts food waste into organic fertiliser. Covid-19 has affected almost every sector of business in the world. Although we are an essential service, we still faced issues like logistics, border closures, and raw material supplies shortage due to distribution channels blocked,” said Nicholas, explaining why he is currently based in Singapore.
The border controls impacted Nicholas from managing his Cambodian business last year, which prompted him to start the urban farming business NIC and pivot to serve local customers.
“We grew these vegetables due to the local consumption habits and requirements that Singapore Food Agency (SFA) laid out for all food producing farms. We harvest our vegetables on a weekly basis,” he said.
School dropout turned entrepreneur
Nicholas was a student from the Express stream, but quit his studies at 16.
He reasoned that he had a strong desire to help the disadvantaged and delinquents, while serving the youth ministry in church during mission trips to Cambodia.
“Even at that age, I had an innate passion for the disadvantaged and entrepreneurship continued to stir in my heart with the desire to search out solutions to make this world a better place through business.”
“But I soon realised that I had to return to school to finish my education if I want to have a better grasp of the business world.”
At the age of 18, Nicholas returned to Singapore to serve National Service and subsequently decided to continue his studies. He graduated with a Diploma in Electrical Engineering at Nanyang Polytechnic and dived back into his life’s mission soon after.
“Through the many school trips to Cambodia as a volunteer, my compassion for this land and the poor farmers grew. Eventually, I relocated to the country as a humble farmer at 26 years old. I lived and worked as a Khmer farmer, just like everyone else there.”
It was through the long hours of ploughing dirt and waste with his hands that Nicholas discovered a successful formula to create eco-friendly organic fertilisers — a key ingredient that gave him traction to develop his Cambodian TWIN Agritech business.
TWIN Agri is the largest supplier of organic fertilisers in Cambodia, serving up to 800 to 900 tonnes of fertilisers per month. It posted a 10-fold growth in the last four years.
He also claimed that this fertiliser acted as a “magic formula” to grow his crops in Tampines.
Farming in Singapore
The Tampines carpark farm grows vegetables like xiao bai cai, kailan and bayam to cater to the consumption habits of locals.
It also follows the requirements laid out by the SFA for all food-producing farms, such as maintaining the farm in clean and sanitary conditions at all times.
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.
When asked how he deals with the unexpected rains or flash floods in Singapore, Nicholas said that the rain in the country is actually relatively consistent.
“Rain and shine is part of the farming process. We grow crawlers and creepers to block against the harsh sun and rain.”
Local expansion plans
Nicholas has plans to work on both his Singapore and Cambodia businesses once borders reopen, though it’s unlikely that this will happen anytime soon, given the resurgence of Covid-19 cases worldwide.
The farmer said that sales of local vegetables in Singapore have been good, with almost all being sold every month.
Spurred by the strong sales, he plans to gradually expand within the country, as the vegetables offer a competitive pricing to the local produce market.
“We do plan to expand, but there are constraints — mainly (in finding) people who are willing to toil under the sun. We will be expanding soon once we have tightened our model and business strategy.”
In fact, it has not been a bed of roses being an urban farmer in Singapore, due to rooftop farming being a new concept.
“The issues are always about complaints which lead to actions by various government bodies. It’s hard to have the best of both worlds where on one hand, you have food security and food supply, but on the other hand, you are afraid of insects, smell, and dirt,” said Nicholas.
“Farming is not a clean business, and it is also not for the elderly because it is very strenuous.”
When asked if he would be interested in opening the farm to the public for viewing and as a public attraction, the proud farmer shakes his head as he is protective of his crops and also follows SFA guidelines strictly.
“We generally control the visitation of the public due to a few reasons — for biosecurity reasons, where we don’t want the public to carry in viruses that may lead to problems on our plants and also due to the recent Covid-19 restrictions.”
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Featured Image Credit: Nicholas Goh