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18 Jan 2019 Updated 18 Apr 2022


Singapore – The Next Great Place for Urban Agriculture

Kee Ai Nah, Executive Director, Lifestyle & Consumer Cluster, Enterprise Singapore

This article was first published on Indoor Ag-Con on 3 January 2019.

A hub is a fertile ground where great ideas can cross-pollinate, and technology matching, transfer and development can happen. Silicon Valley, for example, has established itself as a global centre for high-tech innovation and scientific development. It is home to many technology companies, pulling together the technical and creative brainpower needed to fuel growth.

Similar hubs, exist for agriculture too. California’s Salinas Valley is the hub for traditional veggie growers, while Holland’s Westland Region and Malaysia’s Genting Highlands are flagbearers for greenhouses. But what about the new generation of farmers who are growing in technology-enabled warehouses, plant factories and containers?

Singapore is well-positioned to be the next great place for urban agriculture, given our deep research and development expertise in engineering and manufacturing, pro-business environment and global connectivity.

Planting the seeds of technology

Singapore has never quite been an agricultural nation by virtue of our limited arable land. Today, only 8% of the vegetables we consume are produced in local farms, making us highly dependent on food imports. Modern technology in indoor agriculture has opened new opportunities for small countries like ours to scale up our food production capabilities, thereby improving food security and traceability.

Indoor agriculture is the young offspring of an age-old industry. It is the growing of plants in cleanroom-like conditions, with growers controlling every aspect of the cultivation environment; from lighting and nutrients to temperature and humidity.

Singapore The Next Great Place for Urban Agriculture 1

LED lights, used in replacement of natural sunlight, have to be carefully calibrated to stimulate maximum plant photosynthesis. Sensors, another technology advancement, provide growers with real time insights on farming conditions, enabling smart data on irrigation, fertiliser application and harvest. Combining intelligent sensors with machine learning and artificial intelligence, today’s growers are better able to tackle problems before they imperil a harvest, and to identify environmental conditions that improve yields.

Harvesting agri-tech opportunities in Singapore

Singapore’s strong innovation climate makes it a conducive place for agriculture technologies to take root. Together with a reliable intellectual property and standards framework, and a pro-business environment, these attributes create a solid foundation for technology transfer and product development in the agri-tech sector.

Today, our very own agri-tech sector is buzzing with exciting developments. From six indoor vertical farms in 2016, there are now over 30. Examples are:

  • Artisan Green is a young company deploying pesticide-free hydroponics technology;

  • Singapore The Next Great Place for Urban Agriculture 2
    Source: Artisan Green

  • Sustenir Agriculture, which began life experimenting with crops in its basement, has recently cracked the code to growing strawberries commercially indoors. Its strawberries are now sold to local supermarkets and online delivery services;

  • Singapore The Next Great Place for Urban Agriculture 3
    Source: Sustenir Agriculture

  • VertiVegies and China’s SananBio who met at Indoor Ag-Con Asia in 2018, will build a 20,000m2 plant factory that will require 90% less water and is projected to be 75 times more productive than conventional soil-based farms.

  • Singapore The Next Great Place for Urban Agriculture 4
    Source: VertiVegies

Singapore is also facilitating the growth of agri-tech startups by enhancing access to financing and the right expertise. In September 2018, SEEDS Capital (the investment arm of Enterprise Singapore) called for partners to co-invest in Singapore-based startups with disruptive agriculture and food technologies and solutions. Response was overwhelming, alluding to the growth potential of this sector.

As we continue to groom our local enterprises, more is also being done to uncover a range of promising agri-tech gems through startup pitching platforms, like the Indoor Ag-Ignite competition, supported by Enterprise Singapore. Agri-tech related events such as Indoor Ag-Con Asia play an important role in creating innovation, financing and internationalisation opportunities, and connecting companies with industry stakeholders like global agriculture experts, researchers and investors. Upgrown Farming, a technology distributor and local farming consultant that has helped to develop indoor farms across the region, will be bringing wisdom to Indoor Ag-Con Asia in the form of practical workshops on 15th-16th January 2019 at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore.

Growing the agriculture ecosystem of tomorrow

The sector’s promising outlook is drawing multinationals to Singapore. Japanese conglomerate, Panasonic, set up its indoor vegetable farm in 2014 to provide seasonal greens like mizuna and rainbow chard to locals at a lower carbon footprint. US firm, Crop One Holdings, recently announced a US$40 million joint venture with Emirates Flight Catering to build a large plant factory in Dubai and is looking at additional locations for its vision of ‘digitally distributed farming’. Crop One Holdings Chief Executive Officer, Sonia Lo, revealed that the company in active discussions to develop a Singapore farm, having selected the island over other locations for several reasons. “We have found great support from regulators and a good understanding of the needs of distributed agriculture in Singapore,” she commented, noting that Singapore’s strong logistics supply chain and ease of doing business played a part in the decision making.

Indoor agriculture is expected to continue expanding at nearly 20% annually through 20231, and growers are looking to see improvements in access to capital and to play a more prominent role in agri-tech policymaking. Singapore is riding the agri-tech wave to develop a clearer regulatory framework and build an invigorating business environment to not just grow local agri-tech companies but also attract established global players, venture capitalists and accelerators to anchor here.

These progressive moves go towards cultivating the landscape for urban agriculture in our tropical city state.

Find out about other opportunities in Singapore’s food manufacturing industry. Want to be part of Asia’s leading startup hub? Here’s why you should start up in Singapore.

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1 KD Market Insights figures