What comes to mind when thinking about groceries, especially when shopping for vegetables? The price, perhaps? Or the nutrition that they bring to our diets?
For some, concerns like whether the plants have been genetically engineered take centrestage, and these shoppers can be found heading to the organic section in many supermarkets.
What about locally produced vegetables though? Singapore is not particularly known for agriculture or vegetable production, and for good reason — in land-scarce countries like ours, large areas being set aside for farming would simply be an inefficient use of resources.
But where there is a will, there is a way. For Archisen founders Sven Yeo and Vincent Wei, they have come up with a tech-enabled solution.
Bringing the green revolution to Singapore
Nanyang Technological University (NTU) graduate Sven met co-founder Vincent, who was from the National University of Singapore (NUS), when they took part in Small World Group, a sustainable technology incubator, back in 2011.
They hit it off and went on to start up BioMachines together, which developed off-grid sensing infrastructure with applications for smart cities and agriculture.
Later on in 2015, they gained keen insights into the inefficiencies that the agriculture industry faced and came up with a new mission: to modernise the agriculture industry in Singapore, by doing more than just providing a technology platform this time.
According to Sven, he came up with this idea when he was visiting local supermarkets.
While visiting these supermarkets, we noticed that there was an absence of sections for local produce. That drove us to think about how to better apply technology to farming to provide the freshest, most nutritious, and flavourful produce to everyone.
– Sven Yeo, co-founder of Archisen
Together, the pair decided to design and build their own indoor farming system from scratch under a new company they built called Archisen.
Getting their hands dirty
Starting their own high-tech farm isn’t as easy as selecting what crops to grow.
“Not all leaves are good. Archisen wants to produce leaves of high quality, and that means bringing out the best in the plants that we grow — be it in the flavour, nutrition or texture,” said Sven.
Their high-tech urban farming solution is able to imitate the environment in which these plants are naturally grown, as well as new methods of growing that take into account Singapore’s resource limitations.
Different leaves have different flavours, hence Archisen always strives to grow it in a way that brings out a leaf’s natural goodness.
For instance, we simulate an ice plant’s natural saline environment by growing it in Himalayan pink salt. Another example is our mustard leaf that tastes like wasabi. It belongs to the same family as wasabi but many variations in the market are not spicy due to its growing method. Without genetically modified organism (GMO), Archisen can bring out the best even in plants.
– Sven Yeo, co-founder of Archisen
Archisen’s urban farm taps on Controlled Environment Agriculture, which makes use of sensors and instruments on the farm to send data to a central operating system. Farmers can use the interface to track, analyse and improve farm management processes.
In addition, the vegetables are grown using hydroponics, which reduces water consumption by up to 90 per cent when compared to traditional farming.
However, the drawback is that their investment in technology is very expensive.
“While agritech attracts a lot of interest, it’s also difficult to get investors to commit as many agritech projects have not proven to be profitable. We had to be tenacious and keep reaching out to investors, to find enough of them to believe in us and collectively deploy sufficient capital to invest in our farms,” shared Sven.
The ‘vegetables’ of their labour
Today, Archisen has several different products to offer. Just Produce is their flagship brand, which offers vegetables such as spinach and lettuce, and it’s currently sold in local supermarkets.
The founders also noted that the common misconception of locally-produced food being expensive could be an issue. However, given the recent scare on food security, Vincent is confident in Archisen’s future role in Singapore.
What many fail to see is that many local business owners are also Singaporeans. We have the innate desire to keep prices low for our own people, but we need sufficient scale to be able to achieve that.
Manpower and land cost in Singapore is definitely higher when compared to Malaysia, but our team works to improve efficiency and push new frontiers in the automation front. It is only through innovation and tech that we can keep prices low in the long run.
– Vincent Wei, co-founder of Archisen
Support for Archisen’s products has been encouraging so far. The company is looking to expand with two new upcoming farms, driven by the goal of increasing the supply of local vegetables.
In addition, Archisen has also developed its own urban farming operating system — known as Cropdom — and plans to make it available to other companies that are hoping to enter the urban farming space.
Our city’s success is practically built on high-tech innovation, but thus far, it seems that the agritech industry has been largely untouched.
Archisen is looking to change this, and it seems to be working. With their blend of technology and expertise, local produce has started to appear in stores and with time, will increasingly become the norm.
Featured Image Credit: Archisen