Be-leaf it: This duo and their sustainable farming solution

IT wiz or farmer? Why not both! Meet Vincent Wei (left) and Sven Yeo, the founders of local agritech startup Archisen, who are leveraging on technology to yield up to 100 tonnes of vegetables in Singapore a year.
PHOTO: Archisen

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People always say Singapore got limited resources and must import almost everything hor? But one duo begs to differ, what with the ultra-fresh produce they're churning out right here on our Little Red Dot.

Founded by 36-year-old Sven Yeo and 38-year-old Vincent Wei, Archisen (a portmanteau of words taken from the phrase "Architecture for Sensor Networks") operates one of the highest-yielding indoor farms in Singapore, with a projected yield of up to 100 tonnes of vegetables a year.

We speak to the pair and delve deeper into their high-tech farming practices, and their ambitions to meet the vegetable needs not only in Singapore, but the rest of Asia too.

Urban farming sees a happy marriage between tech and agriculture. How did you guys come up with it and simplify the concept for potential investors?

In 2011, we started to develop off-grid sensing infrastructure for Internet-of-Things (IoT) applications in smart cities and agriculture. During this period, we witnessed first-hand the inefficiencies large-scale traditional farmers faced due to the lack of information and operational visibility.

Also, with urbanisation, climate change, and a rising global population placing so much pressure on our food supply chain, we are likely to face an existential crisis if bold actions are not taken.

That is one of the main reasons why we started Archisen in 2015, to apply technology to farming in order to help modernise and revolutionise the agriculture industry. By providing turn-key indoor farming solutions, we simplify the implementation of this emerging technology and support its roll-out.

The biggest challenge we faced was explaining to investors how the technology works and how it would be commercially viable, given the high capital investment involved.

Projects being profitable is a given; they are only keen on projects that are investible based on the returns that they are looking for. As this industry is a fairly new one with limited success stories, it takes more effort to convince them.

Wow! You guys have really built up quite the community. Who are your biggest supporters?

Our biggest supporters are our friends, family and our community on our flagship brand, Just Produce. They were supportive in trying the various crops that we were testing to provide their feedback on how we could improve, so that we were able to get to where we are today.

Our followers share very nice dishes using our local vegetables and it’s very rewarding to see our fans eating what we grow in Singapore.

It's evident that sustainability is the beating heart of Archisen. Just how eco-friendly are your farming practices?

Our vegetables are grown hydroponically, which means we do not use any soil to grow vegetables, but a solution of water and nutrients instead.

One of the common issues that traditional farming can cause is pollution of reservoirs through a process called eutrophication. This is due to fertiliser-rich topsoil being displaced by heavy rains and entering the reservoirs, causing algae to bloom and affecting the marine life.

Heavy rains can also cause nutrients in fertilisers to leach into the groundwater, contributing to pollution.

We utilise a closed-loop system (meaning water and nutrients are constantly recirculated instead of being lost) which allows us to save up to 90 per cent more water compared to traditional farming while simultaneously avoiding the water pollution problem. Besides, by choosing locally grown vegetables you will reduce your food miles, CO2 emissions and ensure a longer shelf life for your vegetables.

Local produce maintains its crisp and crunchy texture longer than its imported counterparts, mainly because the quality of fresh produce rapidly degrades as it goes through the supply chain.

As you know, Singaporeans are big on local flavours like laksa, rojak, and chicken rice - and many foodies are curious about locally-inspired dishes. Can such flavours work with salads?

Our vegetables are very versatile and easy to mix in any dish. Actually, we have created a “rojak” using our Just Mesclun: Crunchy Classics. It's very good and easy to make! The recipe can be found on our Instagram page.

Our tropical weather and climate in Singapore can be quite jialat, especially where farming is concerned, and there's a lot of synthetic input (pesticides, fertilisers) in conventional farming. How do you ensure the freshness and safety of your products?

Since the Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) field is still relatively new, many people are not aware that growing vegetables in controlled conditions can help to maximise our produce’s freshness, retain their nutritional levels and accentuate their natural flavours.

Through our community, we bring more awareness to the consumers by explaining how being locally-based also helps us guarantee that our vegetables meet safety and nutritional standards.

Unlike outdoor farming, we do not use any pesticides, preservatives or genetic modification. Once people have tried our produce, we always get positive responses that our vegetables are indeed much fresher and tastier than imported or outdoor ones.

How timely is the launch of Archisen, considering how this ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has played a big part in disrupting the global demand and supply chain?

Many industries have been hit hard by Covid-19; we see companies closing, employees placed on leave, delays in supplies and restricted travel. Just Produce has seen a surge in online purchases during this period; delivery companies have also adapted efficiently to provide consumers with fresh and safe food.

As PM Lee shared in his speech a few weeks ago, Covid-19 is endemic and may remain for years to come. This creates a greater urgency for Archisen to plan how we can better contribute to establishing more farms to build food resilience in Singapore.

We will continue to reach out to consumers to understand their needs, and provide them with the freshest, most nutritious and flavourful vegetables grown in Singapore.

Everything you guys are doing is really tok kong! Any exciting plans ahead?

We are going to launch more products and they will be available at more locations under our flagship brand Just Produce.

In the long term, we are looking for partners to build more farms to create food resilience in Singapore and we are looking to work together with other local farms to build the domestic market and compete against overseas produce.

Surprise Supplies with Gen Lee

Click here to binge watch all the episodes of "Surprise Supplies", a series where local farmers suprise MasterChef Singapore Season 1 runner-up Gen Lee with produce from their respective farms, and Gen has to use her creativity to whip up something awesome on the spot.

In each article, find out more about the local farms featured and how they too are contributing to sustainable farming in Singapore.

ALSO READ: 5 urban vegetable farms to explore with the little ones

This article was first published in Wonderwall.sg.