How a home-grown company is helping Singapore meet its nutritional goals and provide sustainable farming solutions for Asia’s densely-populated cities
In just seven years, Sustenir Agriculture has gone from a vertical farming pioneer to a local success story. Since 2013, it has been using cutting-edge technology to grow a variety of non-native plants indoors, from strawberries to kale. And with the substantial demand for its products from local supermarkets and online grocers, Sustenir is launching a new facility in Hong Kong.
Co-founder and CEO Benjamin Swan says the reason for Sustenir’s success is simple: “I believe we’re answering a growing consumer need for produce that is 100 per cent clean, traceable and local.”
Indoor growing means plants can ripen without exposure to pesticides, air pollution and heavy-metal contamination. But that’s not the only appeal. Vertical farming produces more on less land and can maximise yields by as much as 127 times per square foot, compared to traditional farming techniques.
“With climate change and population growth threatening global food supplies, we’ve proudly built our business around driving change in the way we produce and consume food,” says Mr Swan. “And as awareness around environmental sustainability grows, our brand values are striking more of a chord.”
Planting the first seeds
Until just a few years ago, becoming an urban farmer was the last thing on Mr Swan’s mind. With a background in engineering, the Australian project manager was working his way up the corporate ladder, designing software for a leading bank. His decision to switch tracks stems from a lightbulb moment he had one day as he took the train home from work.
With climate change and population growth threatening global food supplies, we’ve proudly built our business around driving change in the way we produce and consume food.
“I was idly scrolling through Facebook when I saw an article on vertical farming,” he says. “I was instantly intrigued. Singapore is a highly space-constrained nation, so applying the concept here seemed to have so much potential.”
Inspired, Mr Swan spent the next 18 months researching cutting-edge controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) techniques and the practicalities of applying these at scale. “My agriculture know-how was zilch. All I had was a hunch that this could work, and a determination to fight the good fight for the planet and find a more sustainable way of producing food,” he laughs. “I met with academics and greenhouse operators from all over the world to learn more. I read and planned, eventually quitting my day job to experiment full-time with light wavelengths, nutrient solutions and many other variables to find the optimum conditions for different species of plants to grow.”
Changing food for good
In 2015, the fledgling company set up its first purpose-built commercial farm, in an industrial building in the north of Singapore.
Today, the 10,000-square-foot facility is producing at top capacity, its shelves packed with two types of kale, curly and tuscan as well as arugula and new products like spinach and lettuce, all growing under artificial lights.
The fact that HSBC has a huge global network we can tap into is clearly another benefit.
“The controlled environment allows us to grow such varieties,” says Mr Swan. “By eliminating any dependence on imports, we aim to reduce our ecological footprint from transport to the point where ours becomes a carbon-negative business.”
Because the CEA approach enables lighting, nutrients, temperature and air to be precisely calibrated, crops can be grown in half the time required in traditional farming – and with 95 per cent less water.
Yet it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the Sustenir team. A shortage of off-the-shelf solutions saw Mr Swan and team stepping into the breach to custom-design the firm’s entire technology stack.
A second major challenge came with the launch of its kale. Suppliers initially refused to stock the crop on the grounds that the peppery taste and texture would not appeal to Singaporean consumers. Undeterred, Sustenir went back to its ‘grow room’ to try to produce a less bitter product.
Over the years, HSBC has had the privilege of working with companies and industry experts to explore innovative ways in which finance can play its part in sustainability.
“It was somewhat nerve-wracking,” confesses Mr Swan. “It meant launching into a long series of controlled experiments with no guarantee of success, but we knew it was an essential process if we wanted to get consumers interested. So, keeping in mind our ultimate goal of changing food for good, we rededicated ourselves to pushing on with our tests and trials until we came up with a new kale variety that consumers loved.”
Dedicated support from an experienced partner
HSBC’s support was a major reason the Sustenir team was confident about leaping into the unknown.
“We work closely with a dedicated HSBC Relationship Manager, who understands what we’re trying to do and believes in our vision,” says Mr Swan. “Having such supportive champions as business advisers has been great for us – especially as other potential partners and investors struggled to understand our model and green approach.”
As well as personal service and a sophisticated understanding of Sustenir’s evolving banking needs, HSBC has brought what Mr Swan calls “an entrepreneurial spirit” to the partnership.
“HSBC has been instrumental in helping us develop our plans for future growth and funding,” he says. “Drawing on its deep experience in helping small businesses flourish has been invaluable as we refine our expansion agenda. The fact that HSBC has a huge global network we can tap into is clearly another benefit.”
We know we’d never have got this far without the great team of highly experienced people at HSBC, who have believed in our green vision since day one.
Succeeding with a high-growth agenda
HSBC is drawing on deep expertise with green businesses as it supports Sustenir’s growth agenda, says Alan Turner, Head of Commercial Banking at HSBC Singapore. “Over the years, HSBC has had the privilege of working with companies and industry experts to explore innovative ways in which finance can play its part in sustainability. With one of the largest business banking networks in Asia, we strive to be a driving force in this area, supporting businesses as they pursue sustainable and environmentally focused activities.”
Today, Sustenir is one of the key players supporting the Singapore government in its drive to produce 30 per cent of the country’s nutritional needs locally by 2030.
It is also pursuing its mission to bring sound nutrition and sustainable practices to more consumers around the globe, starting with those in other densely populated Asian cities.
“Our drive is to help more consumers reduce their reliance on imported food. We’re now exploring expanding production and distribution in other markets including Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan,” says Mr Swan.
At the same time, Sustenir plans to increase the produce varieties it grows and find a market for the indoor farming technology products it has developed, including a hire purchase model for its LED lighting system.
“As our expansion plans take shape, our dream of making a lasting, positive impact on the world is coming a little closer,” says Mr Swan. “We know we’d never have got this far without the great team of highly experienced people at HSBC, who have believed in our green vision since day one.”
This article was prepared by The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited, Singapore Branch.
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