Vertical farming invention wins global award

A home-grown vertical farming device has bagged a prestigious international design award. It can grow 10 times as many vegetables as traditional farming methods over the same area.

The invention by local firm Sky Urban Solutions - a 9m-tall system with tiers of planting troughs which rotate around an aluminium frame - clinched the biennial INDEX: Award in Denmark on Thursday night.

Winners in the categories - Body, Home, Work, Play & Learning, and Community - each won €100,000 (S$158,000) and were selected based on a wide range of criteria for coming up with solutions to some of the world's major challenges.

Sky Urban Solutions' innovation was among 1,123 nominations from 72 countries.

Contenders for the award, organised by Danish non-profit organisation INDEX: Design to Improve Life, included a cooling cap that protects chemotherapy patients from hair loss, flying drone ambulances, man-made leaves that generate oxygen, and a revolutionary suit that protects Ebola workers.

This is the first time that a Singaporean design has won the award.

The water-pulley system uses rainwater collected in underground reservoirs to rotate the troughs so that the plants get a uniform amount of sunlight. The same rainwater is used to irrigate the crops.

The first system was developed in 2010 with the help of the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA).

Sky Urban Solutions has come a long way since then. Its farm in Lim Chu Kang now houses 1,000 vertical farming towers and produces 800kg of greens - including Chinese cabbage, nai bai and xiao bai cai - daily. Its vegetables, sold under the brand Sky Greens, are more expensive than other versions.

However, they are thought to be fresher. It takes up to four hours for the daily harvest to hit the shelves. Imported vegetables take three days to three weeks.

Sky Greens vegetables are available at selected FairPrice supermarkets. A 200g packet of Sky Greens xiao bai cai costs $1.25, while a 250g bag of Pasar brand xiao bai cai from a traditional farm in Singapore costs 80 cents.

The prize money, said founder Jack Ng, 52, will be used for research and development, and also go towards farm expansion.

The father of two added that the firm is exploring the production of organic produce and aims to increase the yield of its Lim Chu Kang farm to at least five tonnes daily in two years' time.

The vertical farming structures are gaining popularity overseas, and "this award means more people will know about us and our system. It helps build credibility, especially when meeting with overseas partners", said Mr Ng, who had Secondary 4 education and started his own engineering company at age 21. His focus was on building homes.

Asked what prompted him to develop the system, he said: "When I planned for retirement, I wanted to become a farmer. But I saw how farmers led such a tough life here, so I thought I should improve the farming process."

When contacted, AVA said: "Given Singapore's limited land resources with its various competing needs, it is important for the Republic to intensify agriculture land use, and to raise the productivity and capability of our farms."

It encouraged more farmers to leverage on technology to improve productivity.

Last year, Singapore produced about 10,900 tonnes of leafy vegetables, representing about 12 per cent of total consumption.


This article was first published on August 29, 2015.
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