At the height 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 meet 30 percent of the country’s food needs by 2030 in order to cushion supply bottlenecks.
This led to the emergence of more small farms in Singapore – out of 77 local leafy vegetable farms in 2019, 25 were indoor and two rooftop farms.
In my last search for locally grown vegetables to further reduce my carbon footprint, I came across Urban Tiller.
This farm-to-table agricultural technology startup (AgTech) delivers fresh produce from local farmers directly to urban consumers between just six and eight hours after harvest.
Food security and support for local farmers
The 24-year-old founder and CEO of Urban Tiller, Jolene Lum, left her company job in February 2020.
She joined an educational technology start-up where she worked in food and agriculture in Singapore and began building a network in the industry. There she researched the history and landscape of local agriculture and hoped to be able to cultivate a new part of it at some point.
Jolene Lum, founder and CEO of Urban Tiller (left) with Sumona, COO (right) / Image source: Urban Tiller
Jolene then explored the idea of food security with the concept of food security. Through research, the Urban Tiller team found that leafy vegetables like baby spinach would lose up to 90 percent of their nutritional value just 24 hours after being harvested.
That is why Urban Tiller has set itself the goal of making nutritious plants accessible and providing city dwellers with freshness that meets their needs.
They developed a new business model for local smallholder farmers who run small to medium-sized farms as traditional supply chains in urban supermarkets may 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 are not paid for all products that are delivered to supermarkets.
For example, farmers may have to ship 10 kilograms of product but are only paid for two kilograms when that much is sold. Unsold products are no longer fresh or salable and are wasteful.
90 percent of our products are imported and up to 40 to 70 percent actually spoil in the supply chain. Overseas farms can supply large quantities at a lower cost, but the associated food waste and packaging creates a very wasteful system.
– Jolene Lum, founder and CEO of Urban Tiller
Loss and waste costs are eventually passed on to consumers, leading to a discussion of how to properly aggregate demand – or matching demand and supply for farmers to grow what Singaporeans need.
Urban Tiller’s more viable go-to-market strategy also allows local farmers to get financial security with stable take-offs that they can meet. Likewise, customers can get the freshest farm-to-table experience before the nutrient breakdown takes place.
Overall, this structural value contributes to the value chain, as the agricultural products are treated gently and farmers and consumers alike can enjoy maximum quality.
Solving sustainability problems with AgTech
Image source: Urban Tiller
Urban Tiller was born with the vision to use AgTech to grow high quality fresh produce in and around cities, without imports and long supply chains.
By moving production to the centers of consumption, traditional land management methods can be reserved for crops such as grain and tubers, the value of which is not time-dependent.
AgTech can also be used so that industrially produced crops can also be grown in sustainable next-generation farming concepts in order to better meet consumer demands.
Avocados, for example, are a water-intensive plant that has drained much of the Amazon basin. By moving from intensive industrial agriculture, these crops can be grown on hydroponic or smart farming systems, reducing the dependence and intensity of agriculture on the soil.
Moving from soil to indoor and controlled growing methods using well-designed vertical and hydroponic systems can save up to 90 percent water. With better control over pests and diseases, products can be grown consistently without pesticides and chemicals.
However, Jolene cautions that AgTech’s advances cannot be isolated from its economics. Production costs in new urban farms will remain high from the start. To truly achieve Singapore’s 30 by 30 target, food safety regulators need to consider consumers’ willingness to pay for local products.
Urban Tiller delivers fresh vegetables within 8 hours of harvest / Image source: Urban Tiller
Urban Tiller approaches economic issues from a freshness perspective and eliminates middlemen by connecting local farmers directly with consumers, keeping prices significantly competitive.
With the “two-touch” model, they pick up the products from the farms in the morning, pack them into orders and deliver them on the same day.
Be the boss at 24
According to Jolene, funding and raising capital remain the biggest challenges in both founding and operating Urban Tiller.
Unlike other startups, the company’s end-to-end business model cannot guarantee quick returns and exits for investors. Farmers onboarding takes years, as does building strong relationships in this industry that takes years to grow and develop.
“There is always a financial burden to run the business and make sure I can meet my commitments to farmers,” she added.
The topic of staff shortages is also a burden for the young entrepreneur, especially in such a business-intensive field of work.
The team works hard to deal with product price parity, logistics costs, industry expertise, agricultural talent and finding new avenues in terms of marketing strategies and consumer education.
The Urban Tiller delivery team / Image source: Urban Tiller
The low prices of supermarket products hide the real cost of local and sustainable agriculture. Although these new age farms require much less water and do not use chemical pesticides, their cost is high due to the infrastructure and the intensity of operations.
Additionally, what makes an industry truly sustainable is its ability to create viable jobs that are attractive and progressive to young people and middle-aged professionals.
“If these problems are resolved slowly – and they take a lot of political will and time – the industry can scale and then solve other problems,” said Jolene.
At just 24, Jolene had to learn quickly. However, their high levels of energy, curiosity, and hunger to build something new more than make up for their lack of experience and business track record.
Today Urban Tiller has survived his first business year and is still moving fast.
Plans to further support the growth of Urban Tiller and local farmers
There is plenty of room for growth between platforms and services that enable and enable the AgTech industry to become more sustainable.
Urban Tiller, for example, identifies sales and quality control as important factors in consumer behavior and understanding how to add value to each stakeholder.
New actors are needed to map these otherwise difficult to disrupt stakeholders and processes. There is a lot of career potential beyond manufacturing and agriculture, in areas such as packaging, consumer education, and developing scaled and workable technological solutions for existing players.
Jolene pushes the boundaries of what sustainability can be beyond plastic bags and straws. She wants to create more awareness of financial sustainability among producers, retailers and everyone along the supply chain, right through to real added value.
How can Singapore achieve its “30 by 30” vision if no one is aiming for a career in agriculture?
Image source: Urban Tiller
The team hopes to soon add a wider range of vegetables to its product range. They will also incentivize the growth of various new products in Singapore and other cities where they operate.
Regional expansion is also in the works with the hope of bringing fresh produce to new markets and bringing more urban farmers closer to consumers.
Jolene is proud to offer AgTech services to farmers in a truly sustainable model, with solid purchasing partnerships and strong relationships to optimize agriculture and food production in every city they operate in. Urban Tiller hopes to use technology and e-commerce to enable more sustainable returns for farmers in order to build a new generation of farmers. There are also future plans to expand their service offering to existing farmers.
In addition to the trend towards co-working spaces, Urban Tiller is researching ideas for a revolutionary co-farming space. The team hopes to subsidize the cost of aspiring farmers and provide additional support through direct deliveries without having to worry about purchasing.
These new farmers can then decide whether they really want to start their own business. You can also create a team within the community that Urban Tiller has built. This community can help cut some costs and maintain quality control of the growing environments, which is all good business for future urban farmers.
Highlighted image source: Urban Tiller
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