How S’pore agtech startup Urban Tiller delivers freshly harvested products


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At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the panic shopping phenomenon highlighted the need for long-term food security in Singapore. As such, the Singapore government intends to produce 30 percent of the country’s food needs by 2030, as a shock absorber for supply disruptions.

This has resulted in more small farms in Singapore – out of 77 local leafy vegetable farms in 2019, 25 were closed and two were rooftop farms.

In my recent quest to procure locally grown vegetables in an attempt to further reduce my carbon footprint, I came across Urban Tiller.

This livestock-to-table agricultural technology launch (AgTech) delivers fresh produce from local farmers directly to urban consumers between just six and eight hours after harvest.

Food security and support for local farmers

The 24-year-old founder and CEO of Urban Tiller, Jolene Lum, left her corporate job in February 2020.

She joined an educational technology startup where she worked in food and agriculture in Singapore and began building a network in the industry. There she researched the history and landscape of local farming and hoped to eventually nurture a new part of it.

founder of urban milling machines
Jolene Lum, Founder and CEO of Urban Tiller (left) with Sumon, COO (right) / Image Credit: Urban Tiller

Jolene then explored the idea of ​​food safety with the concept of food security. Research by the Urban Tiller team found that leafy greens like baby spinach will lose up to 90 percent of their nutritional value just 24 hours after harvest.

Therefore, Urban Tiller sought to make nutritious crops affordable and provide freshness to city residents on demand.

They continued to create a new business model for local small farmers running small to medium-sized farms, as their traditional supply chains in city supermarkets may fail.

The complex procurement process requires large quantities and consistency, which only works for the shipment model. However, this means that farmers do not pay for all the products that are sent to supermarkets.

For example, farmers may have to send 10 kilograms of produce, but will only be paid for two kilograms if so much is sold. Unsold products are no longer fresh or can be sold and are wasteful.

90 percent of our products are imported, and up to 40 to 70 percent actually break the supply chain. Farms abroad can deliver large quantities at a lower price, but food waste and packaging create a highly wasteful system.

– Jolene Lum, founder and CEO of Urban Tiller

The costs of loss and waste are eventually passed on to consumers, leading to discussions about appropriate aggregation of demand – or matching demand and supply for farmers to grow what Singaporeans need.

Through Urban Tiller’s more sustainable market entry strategy, local farmers can also gain financial security with stable investments that they can meet. Similarly, customers can get the freshest experience from the farm to the table before the breakdown of nutrients occurs.

Overall, this value of structure adds to the supply chain as agricultural products are handled carefully and farmers and consumers can enjoy maximum quality.

Solving sustainability issues with AgTech

urban milling machine
Image credit: Urban Tiller

Urban Tiller was born with a vision of using AgTech to grow quality fresh produce in and around cities, eliminating imports and long supply chains.

By moving production closer to consumption centers, traditional tillage methods can be reserved for crops such as cereals and tubers, which do not depend on time when it comes to value.

AgTech can also be used so that cash crops in goods can also be grown in sustainable next-generation agricultural plants to better meet consumer demands.

Avocados, for example, are a crop of intense water that has dried up much of the Amazon basin. By transitioning from intensive industrial farming, these crops can be grown on hydroponic or smart farming systems, reducing dependence on agriculture and intensity on the land.

The transition from soil to cultivation in a closed and controlled environment with the help of well-designed vertical and hydroponic systems can save up to 90 percent of water. With better control of pests and diseases, the products can be consistently grown without pesticides and chemicals.

However, Jolene warns that AgTech’s progress cannot be isolated from its economy. Production costs on new city farms will remain high from the start. To truly achieve Singapore’s “30 to 30” goal, food safety regulators must take into account consumer willingness to pay for local products.

urban milling machine
Urban Tiller delivers fresh vegetables within 8 hours of harvest / Image Credit: Urban Tiller

Approaching economic issues from a freshness perspective, Urban Tiller eliminates intermediaries by connecting local farmers directly with consumers, keeping prices significantly competitive.

In the two-touch model, they pick up farm products in the morning, pack them into orders, and deliver them the same day.

Being a boss at 24 years old

According to Jolene, financing and raising capital remains the biggest challenge in both launching and launching Urban Tiller.

Unlike other startups, the company’s end-to-end business model cannot guarantee quick returns and exits for investors. Boarding farmers takes years, as does creating strong relationships in this industry that takes years to grow and evolve.

“There is always financial stress in running a business and ensuring that they can meet their obligations to farmers,” she added.

The issue of labor shortage also burdens the young entrepreneur, especially in such an operationally intensive field of work.

The team works hard to address product price parity, logistics costs, industry expertise, agricultural talent, and find new ways to round out marketing strategies and consumer education.

Urban Tiller delivery team
Urban Tiller Delivery Team / Image Credit: Urban Tiller

Low prices of supermarket products hide the real costs of local and sustainable cultivation. Although these new age farms require much less water and do not use chemical pesticides, their costs are high due to infrastructure and labor intensity.

Moreover, what makes an industry truly sustainable is its ability to create sustainable jobs that are attractive and progressive for young and middle-aged professionals.

“When these problems are slowly being solved – and require a great deal of political will and time – the industry can increase and subsequently solve other problems,” Jolene explained.

At just 24, Jolene had to learn the ropes quickly. However, her great energy, curiosity and hunger to build something new make up for her lack of experience and business results.

Today, Urban Tiller survived the first year of business and is still moving fast.

Plans to further support Urban Tiller and local farmers are growing

There is a lot of room for growth between platforms and services that can enable and empower the AgTech industry to become more sustainable.

For example, Urban Tiller identifies distribution and quality control as huge factors in consumer behavior and understanding how to add value to every stock.

New players are needed to map these stakeholders and processes that are otherwise difficult to disrupt. There is a lot of potential for career development outside of manufacturing and agriculture, in areas like packaging, consumer education, creating appropriate and sustainable technology solutions for existing players.

Jolene pushes the boundaries of what sustainability can be, beyond plastic bags and straws. It wants to raise awareness of the financial sustainability of manufacturers, distributors and everyone in the supply chain, coming down to creating real value.

After all, how can Singapore realize its “30 on 30” vision if no one wants a career in agriculture?

Urban milling machine
Image credit: Urban Tiller

The team hopes to expand its product offering soon to include a wider range of vegetables. They will also start to encourage the growth of various new products in Singapore and other cities where they work.

Regional expansion is also underway, with the hope of bringing fresh produce to new markets and bringing more urban farmers closer to consumers.

Jolene is excited to offer AgTech services to farmers in a truly sustainable model, with solid partnerships and strong relationships to optimize agriculture and food production in any city in which they operate. With technology and e-commerce, Urban Tiller hopes to enable a more sustainable return for farmers to build a new generation of farmers. In the future, there are also plans to increase the supply of services to existing farmers.

With the trend of shared workspaces, Urban Tiller explores the ideas of a revolutionary space for shared farming. The team hopes to subsidize costs for farmers and provide additional support through direct supply, without worrying about the amount.

These new farmers can then decide if they want to move forward with creating their own farm. I can also form a team within the community that Urban Tiller has built. This community can help mitigate some costs and maintain quality control over the growing environment, making it generally good business for future urban farmers.

Highlight Credit: Urban Tiller

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