Look far into the distance when in Tampines and you may see a strange patch of green on top of a multi-story parking lot.
Those vegetables that you consume on a daily basis (xiao bai cai, kailan, bayam) could also be grown in that parking lot.
Approximately four tons or 4,000 kg of vegetables, which is equivalent to almost 16,000 packages of vegetables, are harvested on this “makeshift” farm each month.
It is cultivated and managed by 35-year-old businessman Nicholas Goh and his team at Nature’s International Commodity (NIC).
Nicholas supplies his vegetables to local distributors in Singapore. They are sold a little cheaper than the market price and NTUC FairPrice, he claims.
Since the farm started eight months ago, the business has been good, having sold most of the vegetables they harvest.
Nicholas was one of the few who won the tender in May 2020 to create rooftop farms in public housing parking lots. The movement to find alternative agricultural spaces in land-constrained Singapore is part of the country’s strategy to meet its 30 by 30 target, which is to produce 30% of its nutritional needs locally by 2030.
He was a mango farmer in Cambodia.
Unknown to many, Nicholas is actually an accomplished Cambodian businessman. He runs a 72-hectare agricultural land in Cambodia, which is almost the size of 140 football fields, selling mainly mangoes.
“I also have a waste management factory that converts food waste into organic fertilizer. Covid-19 has affected almost every business sector in the world. Although we are an essential service, we still face problems such as logistics, border closures and shortages of raw material supplies due to blocked distribution channels, ”said Nicholas, explaining why he is currently based in Singapore.
Border controls prevented Nicholas from running his Cambodia business last year, prompting him to start the NIC urban agriculture business and turn to serve local customers.
“We grow these vegetables due to local consumption habits and the requirements that the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) set for all food producing farms. We harvest our vegetables weekly, ”he said.
School dropout turned entrepreneur
Nicholas was a student of the Express stream, but dropped out at age 16.
He reasoned that he had a strong desire to help the underprivileged and criminals, while serving in the youth ministry in the church during mission trips to Cambodia.
“Even at that age, I had an innate passion for the underprivileged and the entrepreneurial spirit kept stirring in my heart with the desire to seek solutions to make this world a better place through business.”
“But I soon realized that I had to go back to school to finish my education if I wanted to have a better understanding of the business world.”
At the age of 18, Nicholas returned to Singapore to serve in the National Service and subsequently decided to continue his studies. He graduated with a Diploma in Electrical Engineering from Nanyang Polytechnic and plunged back into his life’s mission shortly after.
“Through the many school trips to Cambodia as a volunteer, my compassion for this land and poor farmers grew. Finally, I moved to the country as a humble farmer at the age of 26. I lived and worked as a Khmer farmer, like everyone else there. “
It was through long hours of tilling soil and debris with his hands that Nicholas discovered a successful formula for creating eco-friendly organic fertilizers, a key ingredient that gave him the impetus to develop his TWIN Agritech business in Cambodia.
TWIN Agri is the largest supplier of organic fertilizers in Cambodia, offering 800-900 tons of fertilizers per month. It posted a 10-fold growth in the last four years.
He also claimed that this fertilizer acted as a “magic formula” to grow his crops in Tampines.
Agriculture in Singapore
The Tampines parking lot farm grows vegetables such as xiao bai cai, kailan and bayam to satisfy the consumption habits of the locals.
It also follows the requirements set by the SFA for all food producing farms, such as keeping the farm in a clean and sanitary condition at all times.
According to Nicholas, urban farming methods differ from traditional farming. His business uses its soil technology, eco-friendly organic fertilizers, to grow vegetables.
Nicholas also uses sensors to help identify potential problems in crops, which he says helps him save time and money.
“I believe in a strategic agricultural solution, which is to do small things, manage well and be strategically located. Urban agriculture defines it as a farm, since it supplies and complements the residents’ needs, ”he said.
When asked how he deals with unexpected rains or flash floods in Singapore, Nicholas said that rainfall in the country is relatively constant.
“Rain and sun are part of the growing process. We grow creepers and vines to block out the sun and rain.”
Local expansion plans
Nicholas has plans to work on his Singapore and Cambodia businesses once the borders are reopened, although this is unlikely to happen anytime soon, given the resurgence of Covid-19 cases around the world.
The farmer said that local vegetable sales in Singapore have been good and almost all of them are sold every month.
Spurred by strong sales, it plans to gradually expand within the country, as vegetables are competitively priced for the local produce market.
“We plan to expand, but there are limitations, mainly (to find) people who are willing to succeed in the sun. We will expand soon once we have strengthened our business model and strategy. “
In fact, being an urban farmer in Singapore has not been an easy ride, as rooftop farming is a new concept.
“The issues are always about complaints that lead to actions by various government agencies. It’s hard to have the best of both worlds where, on the one hand, you have food security and food supply, but on the other hand, you are afraid of insects, smell and dirt, ”said Nicholas.
“Agriculture is not a clean business and it is not for the elderly because it is very strict.”
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 protects his crops and also strictly follows SFA guidelines.
“We generally control public visits for a few reasons: for biosecurity reasons, where we don’t want the public to carry viruses that can cause problems in our plants, and also due to recent Covid-19 restrictions. “
Startup Feature Stories is a key content pillar for Vulcan Post. You can follow our coverage on startups here.
Starting July 1, 2021, Vulcan Post premium items will be hidden behind a paywall. Subscribers will be able to enjoy exclusive articles with a deeper level of coverage and knowledge on verticals including government technology, electric vehicles, cryptocurrencies and e-commerce. You can check our premium articles here and subscribe to us here.
Featured Image Credit: Nicholas Goh