Imagine a world where high-tech “plant factories” grow fresh produce for every neighbourhood – this is the vision of Comcrop, the company behind Singapore’s first rooftop farm at *SCAPE. It is now looking to build Asia’s largest commercial rooftop farm. Made up of six greenhouses on the rooftops of JTC’s Woodlands developments, the 36,000 square feet farm aims to use automated systems to grow pesticide-free greens for the local community. Comcrop’s Chairman and Founder, Mr Allan Lim, and CEO, Mr Peter Barber, shares their vision for the future of agriculture in our land-scarce nation.
How and why was Comcrop started?
Allan: Initially, we wanted a project for people to come together and farm. When we started our first community farm in Bukit Panjang in 2011, we realised that the food security issue is real – Singapore relies on an inordinate proportion of imports. We saw an opportunity to contribute, so we evolved from that first open patch to a rooftop farm at *SCAPE, and now rooftop greenhouses at Woodlands.
Our mission is to feed our community. We have three key principles: first, to use marginalised land to grow food; second, to employ technology that enable our communities, especially those who are marginalised in employment; and third, to do it as sustainably as possible.
Why did you choose to focus on marginalised land and rooftops?
Peter: Cost is a factor. Our business plan works from the supermarket backwards to the farms. We have to build farms that can produce vegetables affordably, which is why we're not building expensive indoor farms. It's important that we use unutilised space that we are getting affordably.
Allan: While there are other marginalised spaces, rooftops are the most obvious answer today, especially rooftop carparks since Singapore is going car-lite. Our new farm at 15 Woodlands Loop used to be a rooftop carpark. The building is a food manufacturing hub and the vegetables we produce can be used by other companies within the building to cook or make salads. Adding primary produce to an industrial building transforms it to include more interweaving of activities. If this becomes a norm, JTC factories in the future could be designed with rooftop farms, to include the entire value chain.
How can the new Woodlands farm contribute to food security?
Peter: Our farm at *SCAPE mainly grows herbs outdoors. The Woodlands farm is our first enclosed greenhouse, which will give us higher productivity because we can have pest control, light and shade control and automated growing systems. It will allow us to produce leafy vegetables such as pak choy, lettuce and mizuna in high volume. In the first greenhouse, we should be producing between 40 to 50kgs a day.
The mainstay must be affordable Asian vegetables that everybody will eat. We're not growing something like square watermelons that aunties aren't going to buy at NTUC. We need to grow vegetables so we don't have to buy them from other countries, otherwise we're not resolving the food security problem.
Allan: Let's say one of our major vegetable import countries has a pesticide issue and their vegetables can’t be imported. When this happens, Comcrop has the capacity to switch to producing the vegetable that is going to be severely short in the market within 30 days. Everybody will have to eat less, but we would have enough to share.
In the past, whoever has land and cheap labour will be food secure. The paradigm has shifted – whoever owns the skillset and technology can be food secure. So we need to change our mindset that farming is a sunset industry. I think we should have the same mindset as the Japanese – they call their farms plant factories, with a high level of automation, highly skilled workforce and energy efficiency, which are things that Singaporeans are good at. Our Woodlands plant factory can be a solution for the future.
What technology drives a plant factory and what are the implications on your workforce?
Allan: We have two major hydroponic systems, which are very precise and process-driven. We have this tool called Intellidose, which presets all the nutrients and gives them automatically to the plants. The greenhouse also has climate control, to manage humidity.
Peter: The system has to run like clockwork – raw materials go in one end and vegetables come out the other, on a tight schedule.
Allan: When people work in the plant factory, they follow a standard factory-like routine. Our hope is that they become more accustomed and productive. We estimate that we will be able to grow 15 times more vegetables per square metre than traditional soil-based farming.
We talk about using technology to enable employment. Our system is so automated that we can work with people with special needs and senior citizens. We originally thought we needed only high-skilled workers, but we realised that the more we adopt technology, the more we are able to employ seniors for packing and harvesting because the hard part is handled by the technology. Our job is not just to buy the machines, but also to ensure the system benefits the community.
What are some challenges of developing the farm?
Peter: We're not only trying to build a farm, we actually have to build an industry that doesn't exist here. We’ve had to become a construction company and design and build our own greenhouse. We're working with American, Dutch and Japanese partners, but we've had to create our own hydroponic technologies and workflows that work in Singapore.
Allan: Having the government's buy-in was one of the toughest parts. We understand the paramount concern is public safety, so to allow us free play is to the detriment of the public. There is no precedent for Comcrop’s proposal for a rooftop farm in Singapore, and therefore many regulations came into play. That started the pushbacks and questions on public health and safety. Eventually, I think both sides did the right thing and came to a compromise.
For JTC, we were lucky that we have champions within JTC who helped to explain our goal and influence others within the organisation. These voices of reason are starting to appear in many other agencies too.
What about the community – how welcoming have they been to Comcrop’s work?
Allan: When we first started, we thought only retirees or people with a lot of time would want to work on our farms. But I find it very heartening that the people who are running our farms daily are mostly in their thirties. And the people who are applying for jobs and internships are in their twenties.
It's surprising to me, but it shows how people are more willing to take up work that doesn't pay that well but is immensely meaningful. People who are qualified to work for Google are working for us because they believe in our cause.
Peter: We see a huge amount of interest from the community. Our monthly free tours are always oversubscribed. There's also a groundswell of people who want to volunteer. Literally right now, I've got an email saying, “I'd like to volunteer at the farm.” I get around 20 a day, from people in various stages of their lives. There are young people in their 20s or 30s and there are more senior people too. They might not know how they can contribute yet, but they just want to help.
What’s next for Comcrop after the Woodlands project? What’s your vision for agriculture here?
Peter: The goal is to have farms in every single neighbourhood around Singapore, which employ local people and grow and deliver produce to supermarkets within the area. We want to be fresher in every neighbourhood, so the community can buy high quality and fresh vegetables affordably. They'll notice that ours may be a bit more expensive but they're getting it pesticide-free and fresher – it's going to last longer than something that's come on a truck from somewhere else.
Allan: But I think Singapore must be humble. We have made very little progress in agriculture for the last 50 years, so we need to depend on our friends overseas to support us to build our agriculture abilities. We need to cast our net wide and deep. I'm trying this through overseas trips to other countries to study their modern agriculture systems.
In Japan, I saw that they have a lot of pride in their farm produce. In their supermarkets, they have a section for "Made in Japan" products. People choose to buy those even if they’re more expensive because they have immense pride in their farms and know that the quality is good.
To replicate that here will take us years. So we are developing good relationships with the Japanese suppliers. We are bringing back some of their seeds for premium vegetables and testing if they can grow in Singapore, in the hope that if these are successful, we will have a better variety of crops for Singaporeans – highly nutritious, pesticide-free and at a reasonable price. If we are successful, I think the rest of Singapore's farms would have a good model to look at.
Peter: For food security, we have to have our own seed bank here over time, so we can continue to supply ourselves in the years ahead. I'm sure there are some clever people in technology who can get the best out of these seeds and engineer them the right way.
Allan: But right now, we don’t have deep agriculture research capabilities in Singapore. This is something we need to work on.