At the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the panic buying phenomenon had highlighted the need for long-term food security in Singapore. As such, the Singapore government aims to produce 30 per cent of the country’s nutritional needs by 2030, as a buffer from supply disruptions.
This resulted in the emergence of more small farms in Singapore — out of 77 local leafy vegetable farms in 2019, 25 were indoor, and two were rooftop farms.
In my recent quest to source locally farmed vegetables in a bid to further reduce my carbon footprint, I came across Urban Tiller.
This farm-to-table agricultural technology (AgTech) startup delivers fresh produce from local farmers directly to urban consumers between just six and eight hours from harvest.
Nutritional security and supporting local farmers
The 24-year-old founder and CEO of Urban Tiller, Jolene Lum, left her corporate job in February 2020.
She joined an education technology startup where she worked on food and agriculture in Singapore, and started building a network in the industry. There, she explored the history and landscape of local farming, and hoped to eventually cultivate a new part of it.
Jolene then explored the idea of food security with the concept of nutritional security. Through research, the Urban Tiller team found that leafy greens like baby spinach would lose up to 90 per cent of nutritional value just 24 hours from harvest.
Therefore, Urban Tiller set out to make nutritious crops accessible, and provide city dwellers with on-demand freshness.
They went on to create a new business model for local smallholder farmers running small to mid-sized farms, since traditional supply chains in urban supermarkets might not work for them.
The complex procurement process requires large volumes and consistency, which only works for a consignment model. However, this means that farmers do not get paid for all the produce sent to supermarkets.
For example, farmers might need to send 10 kilograms of produce, but only get paid for two kilograms, if that’s how much gets sold. Unsold produce is no longer fresh or sellable, and constitutes to wastage.
90 per cent of our produce is imported, and up to 40 to 70 per cent actually spoils on the supply chain. Farms overseas can supply large volumes at a lower cost, but the food waste and packaging involved create a highly wasteful system.
– Jolene Lum, founder and CEO of Urban Tiller
Costs of loss and wastage are eventually transferred to consumers, giving rise to the conversation of proper demand aggregation — or matching demand and supply for farmers to grow what Singaporeans need.
Through Urban Tiller’s more viable go-to-market strategy, local farmers can also receive financial security with stable offtakes that they can meet. Likewise, customers can also receive the freshest farm-to-table experience before nutrient degradation takes place.
On a whole, this structure value adds to the supply chain since farm produce is handled with care, and farmers and consumers alike can enjoy maximised quality.
Solving sustainability issues with AgTech
Urban Tiller was born with a vision of using AgTech to grow quality fresh produce in and around cities, doing away with importation and long supply chains.
By moving production closer to consumption centres, traditional soil farming methods can be reserved for crops like grains and tubers, which are not time-dependent when it comes to value.
AgTech can also be harnessed so commodified cash crops can also be grown in next-generation sustainable farming setups to better meet consumer demands.
Avocados, for example, is a water-intensive crop that has drained much of the Amazon basin. Switching over from intensive industrial-scale farming, these crops can be grown on hydroponic or smart-farming systems, reducing agricultural reliance and intensity on soil.
The transition from soil to indoor and controlled-environment growing practices using well-designed vertical and hydroponic systems can save up to 90 per cent of water. With better control over pests and diseases, produce can be grown consistently without pesticides and chemicals.
However, Jolene cautions that AgTech advancements cannot be isolated from its economics. Cost of production in new urban farms will remain high from the very beginning. To really achieve Singapore’s “30 by 30” goal, food security regulators must consider consumers’ willingness to pay for local produce.
Approaching the economic issues from a freshness perspective, Urban Tiller does away with middlemen by connecting local farmers directly to consumers, thereby keeping prices significantly competitive.
In a “two-touch” model, they pick up produce from farms in the morning, pack them into orders, and deliver them on the same day.
Being a boss at 24
According to Jolene, funding and raising capital remain the biggest challenge in both starting and running Urban Tiller.
Unlike other startups, the company’s end-to-end business model cannot guarantee quick returns and exits for investors. Onboarding farmers takes years, as does forging strong relationships in this industry that takes years to grow and evolve.
“There is always financial stress in running the business and ensuring that I’m able to keep up my commitments to the farmers,” she added.
The issue of manpower shortage also weighs on the young entrepreneur, especially so in such an operationally-intense field of work.
The team works hard to deal with price parity of produce, logistics cost, industry expertise, agricultural talent, and finding new ways around marketing strategies and consumer education.
The low prices of supermarket produce conceal the true cost of farming locally and sustainably. Although these new-age farms require much less water and don’t use chemical pesticides, their costs are high due to the infrastructure and operational intensivity.
Moreover, what makes an industry truly sustainable is its ability to create viable jobs that are attractive and progressive to young people and mid-career professionals.
“When these problems are slowly solved – and they require great political will and time – the industry can scale and subsequently solve other problems,” explained Jolene.
At just 24, Jolene had to learn the ropes fast. However, her high energy, curiosity and hunger to build something new more than make up for her lack of experience and business track record.
Today, Urban Tiller has survived its first year of business, and they’re still moving fast.
Plans to further support Urban Tiller’s growth and local farmers
There’s plenty of room for growth in-between platforms and services that can enable and empower the AgTech industry to become more sustainable.
For example, Urban Tiller identifies distribution and quality control to be huge factors of consumer behaviour and understanding how to value-add to each stakeholder.
New players are needed to map out these stakeholders and processes that are otherwise difficult to disrupt. There’s lots of career potential beyond production and farming, in areas like packaging, consumer education, creating scale-appropriate and viable technological solutions for existing players.
Jolene pushes the boundaries of what sustainability can be, beyond plastic bags and straws. She wants to bring about more awareness of financial sustainability of producers, distributors, and everyone along the supply chain, boiling down to real value creation.
After all, how can Singapore realise its “30 by 30” vision if nobody wants a career in agriculture?
The team hopes to expand its product offering soon, to include a wider assortment of vegetables. They will also begin incentivising the growth of various new produce in Singapore and other cities they work in.
Regional expansion is also in the works, with hopes of bringing fresh product to new markets, and bringing more urban farmers closer to consumers.
Jolene is excited to bring AgTech services to farmers in a truly sustainable model, with solid offtake partnerships and strong relationships to optimise farming and food production in any city they operate in. Through tech and e-commerce, Urban Tiller hopes to enable more sustainable returns for farmers to build a new generation of farmers. There are also future plans to increase their service offerings to existing farmers.
Alongside the trend of co-working spaces, Urban Tiller is exploring ideas of a revolutionary co-farming space. The team hopes to subsidise costs for budding farmers, and provide additional support with direct supply, without worrying about offtakes.
These new farmers can then decide if they want to move forward with really starting their own farm. They can also start a team within the community Urban Tiller has built. This community can help to mitigate some costs and maintain quality control over growing environments, making for good business overall for future urban farmers.
Featured Image Credit: Urban Tiller