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  • By: Catherine Yang
  • Nov 16, 2020

From Local to Global: An Urban Farm’s Tale in Singapore

There are farms in Singapore. But they are squeezed into just one per cent of the total land area in urban Singapore.

And there are farmers. Like David Tan, who used to be an electrical engineer, and his partner, Daniel Wong, who used to be a software engineer. The pair are part of a rare species on this island which is sometimes called the Little Red Dot after how it appears on world maps.

Tan and Wong gave up their corporate lives as engineers to become farmers, but with the help of technology.

The adventure began more than a decade ago when Tan visited Singapore’s HortPark, which advertises itself as the first one-stop gardening lifestyle hub in Asia. He noticed how the plants there were watered by drip irrigation to get them acclimatised to the local weather before they were moved to Gardens by The Bay, which was then coming up on Marina Bay.

He was fascinated – that led to the founding of Red Dot Farm in 2008. He also met Wong, a software engineer, and other like-minded people with a keen interest in urban farming and how advancement in agriculture technology can help Singapore tackle food security concerns.

Now we need to plant some essential background here.  Singapore imports more than 90 per cent of what it needs to feed the more than 5.6 million people who live on this island.  When the coronavirus pandemic triggered a tsunami of lockdown measures, global food supply chains were thrown into disarray. The Singapore Food Agency needed to ensure the resilience of the country’s food supply. Barely a year old then, the agency set a “30 by 30” goal in March 2020, to produce 30 per cent of Singapore’s nutritional needs by 2030.

Around the same time, RedMart, Lazada’s online grocery arm, announced a partnership with 20 local farms, to sell their vegetables, eggs and seafood online, and help them to reach a nationwide market.

Red Dot Farm was RedMart’s first urban farm partner, when it joined the platform in 2017 as part of the farm’s expansion strategy. Both brands believe in disruption through technology and automation. So Red Dot Farm was more than ready to start selling its produce via RedMart, and experienced the efficiency and transparency in managing their business on the platform.

Once they launched on RedMart, their sales doubled. RedMart’s data enables the farm to determine what is popular product so that it can adapt its output to match local demand. Red Dot Farm spent the next few years increasing its local produce offerings, expanding the variety of vegetables offered, which now include water spinach, milk cabbage, Chinese kale and more.

Due to the pandemic, a nationwide Circuit Breaker in Singapore in early April forced many food and beverage establishments to close shop temporarily. That hit local farmers hard. They were oversupplied and couldn’t sell enough to make ends meet. Red Dot Farms quickly scaled up to supply RedMart and benefited from a spurt in demand from families cooking at home.

Tan said: “The partnership with RedMart has been instrumental to developing a sustainable distribution strategy for Red Dot’s business. Our sales doubled when we joined RedMart in 2017 and jumped by three times when Singapore entered the Circuit Breaker period. With RedMart, our business has more agility to meet both consumers’ demands and local produce surplus. We are fortunate to work with a supportive team in RedMart and look forward to taking on new challenges together.”

Red Dot Farm nurtures, grows, and harvests crops including such favourites as red spinach and bok choy without using pesticides. At its base in north-western Singapore, it uses smart solutions such as the Internet of Things for farms and vertical spaces to grow high-quality vegetables. To ensure that plants receive the proper nutrients, Red Dot waters crops using a cost-efficient and smart system of drip irrigation. It harvests rainwater and storm water runoff in tanks that deliver water to the vegetables slowly but efficiently.

In addition, Red Dot Farm is cultivating a new generation of young urban farmers in Singapore and the region. Currently they operate farms in Singapore and Thailand, with plans to expand into Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Philippines, China and even the Middle East. With the expansion of the farms, the founders intend to increase job opportunities, especially for youths looking to provide for their families.

“Even though these farms are overseas, they are Singapore-owned,” Wong said. “The idea is to set up many Red Dot farms in the region. We share our know-how and technology with the farmers so that they can grow high quality safe food for Singapore. The produce is sent back to Singapore to contribute to our food security.”

The farmers, some of them from poverty-stricken areas, also learn to better manage their cultivation and supply their villages with fresh produce that is safe for consumption.

Red Dot Farm has successfully shown how taking on a “glocal” strategy, with its business in different markets across Southeast Asia, has contributed to meeting Singapore’s food security target. They have expanded their offerings to include temperate fruit such as avocados, pomegranates and strawberries. These are grown regionally using the same planting protocols and stringent controls and then imported to Singapore. The business also continues its mission to assist local farmers in the region to improve their livelihoods.

Catherine Yang is a manager in the Lazada Singapore’s public relations team.

Featured photo above shows Daniel Wong (on the left) and David Tan (on the right), founders of Red Dot Farm, an urban farm that was the first to onboard RedMart, Singapore’s largest online grocer. PHOTO CREDIT: Red Dot Farm

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