Transcribed Panel Discussion:
00:03 – 00:24
Teck Moh: Today we have the majority of our panel who were joining our panel in the workshop. Thank you for joining me. Let me do a simple introduction of our panel members. There’s Allan Lim. Allan, do you want to describe yourself?
00:27 – 00:44
Allan: Allan Lim, farmer, I founded a farm call ComCrop. It is currently situated on the rooftop of JTC building. It’s a production grade vegetable farm.
00:44 – 00:46
Teck Moh: Thank you, Alan. We also have Ying Quan, maybe you want to introduce yourself .
00:51 – 01:24
Ying Quan: Hello, I recently became a fish farmer and fishmonger. I represent a company, Barramundi Asia and we are the only company in Singapore that does marine ocean farming. We farm this fish called Barramundi which is a native fish in Australia. The aboriginal word is called large-scale fish and we grew it up to 45kg in the southern islands.
01:25 – 01:30
Teck Moh: Thank you, Ying Quan. Hon Mun is my longtime friend and we reconnected together because of this workshop. Hon Mun please.
01:31 – 02:27
Hon Mun: Hello everybody. I’m actually a tech guy by nature in my training and that’s how I got to know Teck Moh. We went to the same company, we work at the same company but four and a half years ago I got into food and agriculture as a CEO of Jilin Food Zone and then from there, I got exposed to this new field of food and agriculture. I think last March when Beyond Meat IPO, the whole wave about AgriTech kicked off and I was very fortunate to be working in a family office looking into Agri and Food Tech and I invested in a company called Hungry Planet and that’s my introduction into this FoodTech world. Thank you.
02:28 – 02:31
Teck Moh: Thank you for joining us today. How about John from AgFunder?
02:33 – 04:18
John: Yeah, thanks very much. Good Morning! AgFunder, just a brief background, is an agri-food tech focus domain specialist venture capital fund and we also have a media platform called AgFunder news we started off in San Francisco in 2013 to promote greater education awareness and investment opportunities in the agri-food tech space.
The company expanded to Asia last year as part of the Singapore government’s 30 by 30 and food ecosystem development initiative. So, we run an accelerator program at Block 71 here in Singapore. This is Singapore’s first dedicated agri-food tech accelerator where we bring in companies from around the world to develop and scale up with technologies, I guess, applicable for the Asia food system. So, our narrative is very much you know this is a long-term game. This is needed in terms of creating a sustainable food system given all of the all of the macro dynamics around population growth, climate change etc. So, that’s just a brief background on AgFunder.
Myself, I’m an angel investor in various agri-food tech related companies, most of which are here in Singapore and I’m generally familiar with the other panelists here this morning. So, really happy to be a part of it.
04:19 – 04:55
Teck Moh: Thank you very much, why don’t we dive into the first question. We’ve got a list of questions from different angels so I’m just going to moderate them. So, the first question is really the elephant in the room right? Given the situation associated with food security in Singapore, this situation has come earlier than expected, with this current situation, maybe Ying Quan and Alan, you can share how this situation has affected your business? How did you deal with the sudden increase of demand?
05:05 – 09:24
Allan: I would like to do a bit of sharing for what we have gone through in the last one and a half months? Essentially, what happened was that about one and a half months ago, we started to see that all the cities around the world that are facing the possibility of lockdown started to have its own population somehow engage in a bit of panic buying and that impacted Singapore one time about one and a half month ago when you see the toilet paper run out.
It was about 4pm that day before Dorscon Orange. I walked the supermarket every day to look at the stocks and at 4:00 p.m. we realized that everything is going to be okay as Dorscon Orange was announced at around 2:00 p.m. But by 7:00 p.m., the shelves are empty and then by 9 p.m, FB social media started to post pictures of people with big trolleys of food and all and that even make things worse because the next day the panic buying continues. As a farm, we were quite glad one and a half months ago because nobody raided on the vegetables and eggs and those were somehow a specific vulnerability for Singapore because they are all fresh and perishable.
Two weeks ago, we started to see more uptick of the local vegetables and eggs because of Malaysia’s MCO. Again, there was a real scare there because there is no viable way to stockpile fresh vegetables and eggs simply because if you put them in the freezer they would crumple and wrinkle and if you put it in storage, it cannot last more than seven days. So, what happened for us when MCO happened was that we went on to harvest every available vegetable in our farm, including those that are not really mature yet. So, basically if you’re looking at vegetables at a particular period of growth, it is actually edible already but we will always wait for it to grow a bit bigger so that it makes up the grammage. We emptied the whole greenhouse to stock up this shelf, thinking that the causeway would be closed and Cameron Highlands will not be supplying.
So Teck Moh was asking me just now how did we increase our yield given maximum the standard capacity. We didn’t increase our yield but what we did was that we basically over harvested and the impact is that we will actually have a very low production for the next two weeks.
Why did we decide to do that? It is really because when we set up ComCrop, it was really a way to act as a shock absorber against disruption. We did not expect this kind of disruption to happen on COVID-19. But should there be a disruption of between one day to five days, the local Agri community could really push forward in their stocks to tank the situation so that the rest of the agencies and food suppliers, importers, distributors would then find other sources coming. So, I’m quite happy in a way that we secured people’s psychology for a couple of days but I am quite sad that my farm is empty now. So that’s our experience for the last couple of weeks.
09:26 – 13:06
Ying Quan: I’ll jump in to share the perspective of Barramundi Asia and I think it is going to be a very different perspective. First and foremost to give context, Barramundi Asia, we farm our fishes to up to 4-5 kg as mentioned and that is a period of 2 years of very hard work and a lot of love to nurture the fishes to that size. As a result, there is simply no way we can sell the fishes at a very affordable price and because of the industry and our scale, our impact is also very small. Our sales price or average sales price, is actually rather high. For us, we have this trade brand called Kühlbarra and if you go to our e-commerce website, it’s called https://kuhlbarra.com/ Actually, we are running a promotion right now. Kühlbarra as we created it, is really a premium brand, a local brand where we do farm-to-fork in Singapore and we deliver even on e-commerce through an unbroken cold chain for consumers.
So behind the introduction, really what I am trying to share is because we are a premium brand and even despite the shock, we actually suffered quite a bit of losses over the past two months, majority of our channels is actually hotels and food services and of course, as a result we were quite badly hit by the food services and hotels that all had to shut down to do social distancing, traffic flow sort of reduced significantly. So, for us, the hotel and horeca industry fell by around 50%. So, of course during this period of shock, I mean we still have our e-commerce and retail channels. That’s usually to us about 20 to 30% so we did see an uptake, specifically you know trending positive for our e-commerce over the past two months it has been increasing and we’re quite fortunate that we have diversified our channels to e-commerce rather early. That was since 2015, so that we could actually have that cushion.
But specifically, for this spike, it was quite a logistical nightmare for us because just like Alan mentioned, actually more specifically for us, on the 15 of March when we first heard about it. I mean, the Malaysian lockdown happened, the stalls sort of all wiped out. I think our guys have to do overtime for two days to make sure that we can keep our retail shelves stocked with our products. But that being said, you know it’s not a big channel for us and for us to harvest, we have to go out to the sea to do last minute harvests and it is more resource intensive. So, I would say that those kinds of overtime work are actually costlier than our day-to-day normal operations. So it was quite a double whammy for us also because to us even as we sell, its high cost but all around because of COVID-19, I think our sales took a hit because of online sales and the normal tonnage that harvest actually we are harvesting lesser as well. So at this point in time, given complex circumstances, we actually have more fish to sell. So we really are trying to push e-commerce and if people want to support us after this call, please get on to our website as well; we are running a promo.
13:07 – 13:20
Teck Moh: All right so the other question will be in terms of your company’s cash flow. Did this situation impact you? Allan, what did you do about it?
13:21 – 15:12
Allan: The cash flow for us, around 90% to 99% of our vegetables goes to the supermarkets, either online supermarkets or basically the physical retail stores. FairPrice has been pretty fair. However, because of the sudden spike right, we are expecting a cash flow crunch but the latest budget that was announced by DPM is really very helpful because we are sitting on JTC land; Rental continues to be an issue for us. And after the DPM’s announcement, we are awaiting JTC to come back to us on what sort of help they can do. Today, rental takes up almost 30 to 40% of our costs and that is something that was unexpected. But I think moving forward, we are looking less at how to conserve cash and actually look at how we can stockpile the consumables and make use of our cash very carefully while making sure that we have enough to grow. Our supply chain disruption will impact AgriTech because the seeds, the nutrient, the growing medium all come from overseas and we need to have adequate stockpiles for those so that we can last for a longer time.
15:13 – 16:21
Ying Quan: So, similarly to Allan, we are also facing a cash flow situation. But of course, I think because e-commerce now we get cash upfront so I think that there is some cushion right there. But just as a whole because our business is really you know, we have to put a lot of feet in the water over a two years period, the investment upfront for us, the cash flow upfront for us has always been very, very high. So, in this situation where you know, there is an inability for us to sustain ourselves, It definitely impacted us and we similarly had to make a lot of adjustments, even cuts, internally to expenditure, just to make sure that we could keep our business in the usual scenario. So, we really welcome the government’s measures, whether it is the money capital loan, and also the short-term loan, temporary bridging loan that has come in; I think those are things that will really help us on top of the work support package that’s coming as well. So those are measures that we hope to tap into sooner rather than later.
16:22 – 16:35
Teck Moh: Do you go back to your existing investors to see whether they can support you over the current situation? And what is your current investors’ view of this situation?
16:36 – 18:07
Ying Quan: I will just comment that Barramundi Asia is actually fundraising as well and this has been an effort that’s been going on for the past few months. And for us, you know, actually, maybe even going back with a question about cash flow. Our operations, you know, spans beyond Singapore. We have acquired a farm in Australia, the largest ocean Barramundi farm in Australia in 2018 and we harvest a few thousand tonnes there and we are also setting up in Brunei. So, for us, we are already at a growth stage, you know, and we are doing a lot of this expenditure and expansion since last December. So, while we are doing the expansion, when COVID comes in hard on us, then suddenly we have to really stop a lot of these plans so it was really very destructive. So, at the moment, we actually think that this is a good time for us to do some of those buildings because fishes do take time to grow. So, you know, we hope to come out of the whole COVID situation strong, but it’s a dilemma because I think at the same time, we are raising money now, people are also a bit cautious. So, we are in fact trying to raise money from our internal shareholders, new shareholders and tapping on government loans. So, we are trying to look at all sources of financing to sustain us and try to tap on growth opportunities while it is a lull period.
18:08 – 18:33
Teck Moh: This is a good segment to introduce our two investors on the panel. Hon Mun and John. So maybe you can share your investments in AgriTech in this situation. Have you invested? Or how do you see startups asking for money in this situation? Maybe John?
18:52 – 23:32
John: I think both Allan and Ying Quan have articulated the realities quite clearly. Obviously, when you’re investing in private companies as an angel investor or VC, you don’t have to weather the sort of sticker price volatility as a, you know, traditional public market investor would in the stock markets and obviously the volatility which we’ve seen, or at least, you know, observed in the last several weeks in global markets. The fact of the matter is, while a company like Singapore Airlines or any other sort of publicly listed hospitality or food and beverage company may have lost, you know, 50% or more of their share value.
Nonetheless, they are still listed and afloat and can rely on the public markets to continue to sustain them. The same is not necessarily true for private, private companies, obviously, as Ying Quan said, he is actively out in the market right now, fundraising. We should speak about that later, Ying Quan.
But I think what we’ve seen from the AgFunder side, there’s absolutely no let up in obviously new companies, new startups coming onto the market, existing companies, for example, in our portfolio that are going back to the market for funding. Obviously, you know, the one of the critical questions that you look at as an angel investor or VC is the cash burn rates and what you know, the length of the runway, essentially that any private company or startup would have in their war chest to sort of see them through these difficult times. There was a good analysis of the state of private market funding done by CB Insights recently. Just looking at the quick numbers, the headline numbers they expect private market funding in the first quarter of this year is on pace to reach 77 billion. Now, I think this report came out about 12 days ago. And as you probably as most people probably know, CB Insights gets a lot of their intel/data more skewed towards the US markets. But nonetheless, that $77 billion number is down more than 16% compared to the previous quarter, and nearly 12%, down year on year from Q1 2019. So clearly, this COVID environment is already taking an impact or has already taken an impact on the amount of capital coming into private markets and startups.
And my personal view is no doubt that’s going to continue, I imagine Q2 will be an even steeper decline year on year. However, I think we just have to look back and we can look back to previous scenarios of market downturns, etc. One of the sort of things anecdote or comments was, you know, back in 2008, during the global financial crisis, that’s when a number of today’s kind of unicorns were actually starting up, the likes of Uber was, I think that their first pitch deck was touted around markets in 2008. So, that is something to be said, I suppose from an investor’s perspective, about the opportunity that now presents itself in terms of you know, you’re less in a rush. I guess you know that the power is in the investors hands to deploy their capital, compared to maybe just a couple of quarters ago, when you know, the markets were at the peak, both public and private.
You know, there was this sense of a lot of hype and momentum and frothiness even in the food tech space, by the middle of 2019, Beyond IPO, etc. You know, brand new startups pre-revenue, maybe just a couple of founding teams were demanding some pretty high valuations just for small ideas. And clearly that frothiness has been taken out of the market. So, for an angel investor, it is a good time, there’s still a lot of deal flow coming out. Obviously, if you’re an established startup, or you’re already incorporated, you need to continue raising money. I’ll leave it at that.
23:35 – 25:17
Hon Mun: I was going to say that actually, the startup that I have invested in is actually quite fortunate to be in an industry where investors in Asia in the US continue to have keen interest. I mean, if you look at it, I think it was on the 17th of this month, Impossible Food, which has not IPO, has managed to raise USD$500 million in their latest round. So, in this space, there’s no lack of interest in investors, both in Asia and globally. And then for us, we are much smaller of course, but we also share the same trend as we have more investors interested in investing in our series A round, we just closed our Note Round then we can take in. Having said that, the overall macro environment of course, we get affected by it. We do have one, just one family office, who committed to coming in series A but decided to pull out and maybe because they are in the hotel and hospitality industry, because they need the funding to go save the existing investment. Other than that, we actually oversubscribed. I think for our industry, as I mentioned, we are quite fortunate because we are in this upward trend, but it also means that the other startups that don’t have a product, don’t have existing customers and revenue may face some challenges.
25:19 – 25:27
Teck Moh: So, the question I have for investors or VCs and family offices now is that does it change your investment thesis? How do you select your companies? What measures have you done to look at your companies? So, does it change your criteria? First question. Number two is when you decide to invest as you try to get a lower valuation, do you reduce your ticket size? Can I just have your comments over this how, how have you changed your investment, philosophy or approach in this situation?
26:03 – 26:16
Hon Mun: One thing I learned about working with the family business is that they are quite individual, they have their own preference. But in this space, especially in the plant base, and AgriTech, I see a lot of family offices having a goal and those goals are quite aligned to the ESG goals, the environmental, sustainability and governance, especially in environmental and sustainability. So, when they invest in a company like Hungry Planet, the the goal doesn’t change because with this COVID 19 virus outbreak, it actually reinforces their whole outlook to say that, we got to do something about the way that we have been consuming, change the way that we have been growing food so that basic principle doesn’t change. But what changes is, still, we’ve got better quality, better choices startups or investments to pick from and it is a very good time to look at the stronger ones, at a more reasonable valuation.
27:23 – 31:17
John: Picking up from what Hon Mun mentioned in terms of the type of investor or the mindset, as an angel, and again, I’ll just sort of put into context. You know, I started my own sort of investment experience specifically in the Agri/Food Tech space as an angel before joining AgFunder.
I think it’s very important to consider the other investors in the company that you’re looking at, the other investors in the cap table to give you a sense of security in terms of the potential follow on and commitment, this sort of institutional commitment or, you know, if it’s basically, I’m in my mind, I’m trying to separate fellow angels, regardless of you know, how influential or you know, successful, they may be, angels and family offices versus, say institutional investors because as Hon Mun mentioned, and we’ve shared the same experience whereby as AgFunder, we’re raising funds and we’ve been speaking to a number of potential LPs, some of whom would be considered you know, high net worth or accredited investors, others would be family offices. Obviously, these individuals have had to deal with the recent stock market, sort of wealth deterioration of their own personal wealth and therefore might not necessarily be willing to commit into a fund structure or others would be running businesses and potentially considering, you know, an investment as a sort of ancillary opportunity. But now their own sort of operation businesses are cash strapped, and they need to turn their attention to that. Let’s say that a group of investors had made up the bulk of the cap table of one particular startup, that startup goes back to the market to the same investors for another round of funding. Those guys are clearly going to have some distractions or not necessarily be focused on the startups’ needs and personally, focusing more on their own company’s needs.
However, on the institutional side, as Hon Mun mentioned, there’s a growing investor base who are looking at more sustainable, more impact driven investments and honestly speaking, I can think of no other industry or no other sector that ticks as many sustainability goals or boxes. I mean, if for a very simplistic metric, we can talk about the United Nations’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), right? Agri/Food tech, I believe, is in the strongest position to tick all those boxes, the SDG boxes. And so, for those institutional investors, like impact funds or family offices with a defined impact mandate, you know, they will, you know, they’re mandated to continue to invest in this space and when we’re when we’re looking at Agri/Food, whereby, you know, you can relate your sort of business proposition to, you know, increased food production or sustainability or, or even sort of urban agriculture. The way they tie back into the SDGs, no matter what the impact metric is, what sustainability metric is, I firmly believe that this class of investors will continue to support the Agri/Food space and that provides some confidence when you’re looking at a deal to see who are the other investors, either existing on the cap table or coming or looking at the deal in that round that you’re considering.
31:18 – 31:35
Teck Moh: Okay, so guys, both of you have avoided my real question, right. Are you reducing your bite size this round during the situation? Or are you asking for a lower valuation?
31:44 – 33:42
John: let me speak on behalf of the AgFunder side. As I mentioned at the start, we run an accelerator programme, and that provides the majority of all sort of deal flow. Deal flow comes from the platform, but I guess through the accelerator that acts as our, you know, added sort of due diligence process with these companies, which we’ve already shortlisted and vetted, etc.
Truth be told, without giving away too much, you know, we’re looking at ways of, you know, maybe tweaking the, our investment framework that we use for the first cohort. And part of that is reflective of, you know, working with the Singapore government. I mean, we’re here in Singapore. There is a conscious reason why we set up the AgFunder accelerator here in Singapore to support the government’s vision of developing the food ecosystem. It is obviously you know, working with someone like Allan that contract and the other sort of existing urban farming players in the ecosystem, I think, is very important. So, to answer your question Teck Moh, in terms of bite size, I think from our perspective, we’re sort of reevaluating the next three to six months in terms of what’s most important. And if that means, instead of investing $125k, which is our current model in 10 companies, global companies and bring them into Singapore and let them do their thing. Maybe we’ll just do, you know, five local companies at $200k, to support the local ecosystem, because that’s where capacity is needed. They’ve got the infrastructure already in place. They’re here in Singapore. So, I think we’re shifting our view and our investment methodology to fit the needs of the time. Hopefully, that kind of provides an answer.
33:43 – 33:51
Teck Moh: I think that the Singapore government and Singapore startups are very, very happy to hear about this. How about Hon Mun?
Hon Mun: Hey, yeah, I don’t mean to avoid your question, but I was looking at it because for family office, we are very conservative. So, meaning that we don’t overpay, we tend not to overpay, we have a very long horizon. We are known to walk away from deals because it doesn’t fit into the kind of mission we’re looking at, as well as if it’s too expensive. So right now, I think the startups that we’re looking at are a lot more realistic and a lot more willing to talk to us in accordance to the guidelines that we have. So, meaning, we are investing the same amount of money, doesn’t change, but we get a lot more choices and more quality choices.
With this crisis, it also opened up and accelerated our plan to look at more upstream because we are now less focusing on innovators meaning who is going to make the next best meat or next best burger, but looking upstream and say, can we invest in the factories, the food manufacturing plants, specifically for plant based meat for the alternative sauce to soy or pea, essentially driving the cost because the biggest problem for plant based meat industry is actually the cost. And the holy grail is, of course, getting the price of plant-based meat to be on parity with real meat or even lower, that will really drive the volume. So, these are the areas we’re looking at and because the family office that I’m working with, has a background in brick and mortar, it will be a lot better if they can see the factory, the office space, I mean the land and the plant machinery. So, these are the areas that not a lot of investors are going in but we are going in.
36:03 – 36:32
Teck Moh: So, the first question is essentially what Hon Mun said, when you’re looking at new technologies such as gene technologies such as CRISPR, right? And what do you think about this? Do you think it will be a new norm in agriculture?
Allan: I’m recently sitting on a panel that is deciding and crafting the agriculture standards for Singapore, moving forward. And I think we’re going to release this new set of standards by the end of the year with Mr. Masagos. Now, what was really hotly debated in that committee, consisting of academics, farmers, AgriTech. It is really about where does all this go towards and how do we then create more transparency in the produce, the end produces that people eat.
So, for example, today, anything that you spray on the plant, on your chicken, is considered pesticide. But, if you give it a closer look, there are a lot of naturally occurring compounds that are currently classified as pesticides that are naturally occurring and therefore, it doesn’t impact your consumption. It doesn’t have a revenue impact nor health impact. Coming to this, the same principle will be applied to genetic editing, whether there is enough transparency in the usage of CRISPR for modification, is important. But what is more important today is that in our ecosystem, we do not have a facility like this, or deep-agri research facility in Singapore. I think there’s tremendous opportunity, simply because we have the infrastructure to be an agri powerhouse. But what we really need is to attract companies to come to Singapore, and set up such facilities and then, we as a downstream end user of genetically modified seeds, or newer biotech or agriculture technology. We appreciate it a lot, because that will help us scale really quickly.
Teck Moh: Ying Quan, do you have a view on this?
39:03 – 42:02
Ying Quan: From an aquaculture perspective, and maybe just to talk about this, but in general, I think like what Alan said, if you want to talk about whether it is being more mainstream, I guess you can look at the entire value chain of the farm.
So, for the whole country itself, we have not really seen it in the seed stock, which is the baby fish and the parent stock. So, while there has been a lot of research, I think, in theories, in science, scientists in the labs, we haven’t really seen much extra production.
Similarly, you have, you know, maybe have your feed, whether your components have this kind of GM materials. Unfortunately, it’s also not really present. These two are the major component for culture, really the seed stock and our feed. If you look at vaccines and whatnot, that’s not really relevant, the health side of things. Moving back to the production part and just take the example of salmon as a species, the most widely produced and most widely consumed fish in the world, they’re about 2.5 million times right now. To give perspective of that, what we’re trying to do for Barramundi Asia is to make Barramundi the salmon of the tropics. Barramundi is now only 80,000 tonnes globally, so we are still really a very small percentage of what the salmon industry is all about. So going back to the salmon industry, it’s a fairly mature market. And even so, when people talk about GM technology for the past, it is actually close to two decades already. So far in the market, there’s only one GM salmon farm that is, that’s maybe more commercial basis, but still, they are in red. I believe it is in the US and is selling to Canada and the US.
Lastly, because you know, first and foremost, I don’t think they have scaled up their production. Second, consumer acceptance is very weak. And third, I think yeah, it’s really hard to swallow if the GM salmon is more expensive than normal salmon as well. So, I think there are these few conditions that are preventing them from scaling.
Largely for me, I think the consumer sentiments have been quite negative for GM. If you look at sustainability trends, people are looking at local, natural and of course, you know, lower carbon footprint and whatnot. So, I think it’s quite difficult for I mean, this GM Salmon company to also push through because of these limitations.
42.03 – 42:48
Teck Moh: Okay, thank you so much. I got a different question from the attendees. Do you think the current situation would prompt a rethink by local governments in terms of food security and supply? And as such, will smaller, non-economic food production be subsidized by the government and therefore leaving for profit investors to look at huge scales, corporate opportunities, does it change how you invest in fundraise? So, maybe we ask the investors first and then we can ask the fundraisers.
42:49 – 43:30
John: Actually, I was thinking Allan might be in a better position to share some of his thoughts on the role of the government, in driving this. Especially, I mean, in the context of Singapore and essentially, the government has identified the question of food security as being paramount to a national agenda for the next couple of decades and as a farmer, one of the, sort of, originators of the urban farming scene in Singapore, I am curious to hear some of what Allan thinks the role of the government has played so far and should be doing more going forward.
43:38 – 49:55
Allan: Just to clarify, I’m not a government spokesperson here. But having been the very first guy who did all this, I may be able to share a little bit on this and I think what we are progressively doing is to learn about what Agri is in Singapore and in the city.
The whole idea of food security is an altruistic one that you have to provide somehow for your community. Because food touches the stomach and the stomach connects the heart, the heart connects to the brain. And it almost becomes a political situation for every government to consider. It is the political imperative that the government are obliged to provide for its citizens. And because of the 40 years of 50 years of progress, we have literally squeezed out every available farming opportunity for Singapore. We are on a rooftop. We’re running out of space. The government recognised that and the first way that a technocratic based government does is to invest in technology, right? So, this brings in a lot of technology, skill up people. Very much like what we have done in our early days for semiconductors and BioMed, put all these things in and jumpstart an industry.
And for the last five years, we’ve seen different mechanisms being implemented such as agriculture productivity funds, more land being used, government test bedding with companies like us using marginalised land to build farms. But we are also now starting to realise that there are certain things that worked and certain things that don’t. I think reflecting on what Ying Quan is saying, we are reaching a point in Singapore and in urban agriculture, to see that we are no longer going to be able to reduce costs by simply putting in more money. This is a sort of reaching a plateau and I made an estimation that, for fresh vegetables the plateau is somewhere between $20/kg to $28/kg. That is cost out of the farm and I’m not sure whether another two or three times investment would bring it down by 50%. I do not think that that will happen.
If anyone is interested, we could have a chat and then show some of this data that we have collected over the last one or one and a half years, both on our farm and from our neighbour farms and friends. So, the question today is this, where do we want to go or how much government should be involved? The government has done what they usually will do; Put in skills, put in money, assist you in whatever you kind of want it but there is a lack of ability to scale. So, yesterday the news came out saying that Cameron Highlands has given a sort of a warning that in three to four months’ time, supply for fresh vegetables will be disrupted. Incidentally, they say this all the time, every time before Chinese New Year, the Malaysians will say, “Oh, this year, we are too dry and therefore you don’t have enough. And then the next year, we are too wet.” And every year we listen to this and we call them aside and say, well, you just sell to us.
But I think this time is real. So, the supply chain disruption is real. And therefore, my challenge in this whole thing is that we are now looking at growing our farm 10 times in six months. We’re working on a way that we can grow and I think that after one or two years of developing this, we are in a position to go 10 times in six months and then that will again cushion the shock. But that problem with this to the investor is that it is not going to pay back. Building capacity for a city’s food security is not a profitable business. It requires some kind of altruism and it probably requires the investor to be physically staying in the city itself, so that my family gets to eat it and maybe I get a first cut off of the produce first. But therein lies the conundrum.
To every investor out there. Are you investing for profit? Or is there profit or value in investing in capacity to withstand food disruption? I think the more I speak with people, the more this concept has returned as an answer, no. How are you going to invest in a capacity when you don’t know when the next calamity will strike? And even as a calamity strike, are you sure you could increase your price before people say that you are price gouging and that’s what is happening to ComCrop.
We basically emptied our entire farm to the push in the supermarket and after that, we are very conscious that at this time we shouldn’t be looking at a price increase, right? And also, profitability at this moment. An investor that puts in money with us, primarily myself, has to really take a step back and say, are we doing this for the common good or are we doing this as a responsible responsibility to our investor? So, the last two weeks, we kind of took the other route and said that for the common good, let’s push forward. And I think profitability will return when we renegotiate this with the supermarket’s managers and their executives. So, I think there is a light at the end of the tunnel whereby after the calamity, after the pandemic, more consciousness will happen. People will value farms a bit better and they understand how it actually operates and the business model behind it.
Shao-Ning: I want to ask a question. So, maybe it’s just me, I’m always concerned about the people and the talents, right? So just now when Allan introduced himself, the first thing he said was that he’s a farmer. So, this is actually a question for both the business owners and the investors out there. My concern actually for the AgriTech industry is actually the talents in the space. Ying Quan, your background is from civil service and you crossed over, right? But for me, my grandfather is a farmer, but his children, his four sons, none of them are farmers. And we were just having this conversation with Kenny from Garden Asia a few weeks back. His biggest concern is where is the supply of the next generation of farmers? We need food, but who is going to produce them? So, some people may give the answer that the machines, the technology, we increase the yield, increase using GM to increase the yield and everything but the thing is that at the end of the day, you still need the hands on the ground to do it. For all I know, all the farmers do not want their children to stay in the field, to stay in agriculture. So, I think this is actually the biggest elephant in the room, how can we solve this problem?
51:20 – 56:00
Ying Quan: Actually, it is something that I’ve been trying to work on for the past four years before I joined Barramundi Asia as well, you know. How do we build a talent base? And actually, I think to answer, there’s no good way to answer this question, because I think the answer comes in many different parts. I think first and foremost, right? Whatever it is, people look at, you know, having good jobs. So then the question is, how do you then create a good job to make sure that you slowly and steadily create the kind of talent pool. From the government’s perspective, in the past when I was in Enterprise Singapore, it is I think, first and foremost, to make sure that you can create a very successful, growing industry because I think that the growing industry itself then be able to soak up talents and slowly, you know, create those kinds of good jobs. But then you know, as we are trying to grow these companies, some of the companies, just like Barramundi Asia prior to me joining, have been telling us that there are not enough skilled talents in Singapore for them to support the operations. Which is why in a farm, our farm managers are all from France, our founders were originally from Marine Harvest and they are primarily Europeans, most of them. So, our vet as well, comes from Austria.
The point here is that a lot of the talents from the start, to support the enterprise’s success actually don’t come from Singapore, at least for aquaculture. I think from a horticulturist perspective, people are looking at a plant scientist, also farm managers with an agronomy background. I think from the start, Singapore actually doesn’t offer any of these courses and training to support that kind of farm operation. So again, I mean, when you want to even grow the industry, there is already a challenge because, well, farmers can carry on business as usual, you tell them to innovate but they may not be able to first support hire, or even source for the available talents for them to get to where it is intended for them to go to. So I think that this cycle does need to break and I think how this can be overcome is really that the new generation of farmers with new concepts entering market and with funding, financing, whether it is from angels like yourself, growth funding, and Temasek has been a huge supporter, Temasek Holdings, because they’ve invested in say, Apollo aquaculture and those are new farms, new concepts, vertical farms. And they managed to even create their own R&D labs. So, these then now create a virtuous cycle and hopefully it will continue. This new format can then help hopefully create that new industry similarly to what Barramundi Asia is also trying to do. We are also trying to raise funding to go into this AquaTech and we have already acquired Allegro Aquaculture, which is a genetics and breeding company. We have developed our own vaccine company, so we have our own aquatic portfolio as well. Then we’re looking at farming in a whole different way, across the whole value chain, application of technology and in general, the environment.
Although we are a marine aquaculture farm, we have the environment suitable that we think can create good jobs, you know. You can farm on land because we have a land based nursery, for example, and it can be an aircon room if that’s what young people these days must have. Sure, we have that kind of environment. We can provide those kinds of good jobs. But with the aim for adventure, we also have the marine farm component where they can go out to sea and feed the fishes. We can provide opportunities in Australia and Brunei, maybe even on a sales side in China and US. So, then that becomes, hopefully, you know, when we become a successful company, multinational, then we can then create good jobs. So, now to answer the question, I think, multifaceted, first and foremost, talent pipeline is needed to help local enterprises succeed, whether it is importing from overseas, or take three or four years, send our students overseas to really pick up courses relevant to farming, and hopefully then, you know, tie them back to the local industry as part of culturing that local talent of pipeline. But then the more important thing to me is really, supporting the success of current new entrants, or, you know, farmers who are also transforming and are on a trajectory to be part of this industry transformation so that we can build this virtuous cycle of business growth and health.
Teck Moh: Okay, wonderful. Maybe I open up for one round of comments from all of us so that we can then close this session. Maybe we start backwards. John?
John: I think I would echo one of Allan’s points. And look, again, I have to be clear about which hat I’m wearing. Right now I think this is probably more from John Friedman, as an angel investor but increasingly you know, the narrative which we’re trying to craft. AgFunder is one of ,you know, more of a mission focused investment with a triple bottom line type, investment ideology. Up until now, you know, my perception of the Singapore startup venture capital ecosystem has been largely focused around sectors and industries which perhaps people are more familiar with – finance, medical, the established industries here in Singapore where they feel they comprehend, they see the commercial, realisation, etc. Agriculture, I think it’s fair to say, despite being such a passionate food nation as we are here in Singapore, we love our food and we can’t stop eating it. Many people don’t really appreciate, sort of, where it comes from, the supply chain, all the rest of that. The truth and the difficulties and challenges of the Food and Agriculture system.
I think to Alan’s point, and the message that I would hope to get across is that we, as a community of investors and supporters of startups and SMEs, should try to deploy or use this sort of triple bottom line length a little bit more. And you know, the silver lining of this whole COVID situation and lockdown and border control is, you know, it’s not about 30 by 30, you know, domestic food production up to 30% by the year 2030. It’s about 100% today. If, pardon my French, shit hit the fan, we need to solve our food production today. And if we can all be sort of responsible investors and, and citizens, then we should be backing the likes of ComCrop and Barramundi Asia and, you know, these startups and future food providers to us as a nation and hopefully beyond our own borders. So, yeah, putting my money where my mouth is, essentially.
Hon Mun: I kind of agree more than what John has just said. I know, John, in a very short period of time, not as long as you Teck Moh but we share a lot of things in common. And he said everything I wanted to say but I just wanted to add one more thing, because there were a few questions, one from Allan and one from John and from what John has mentioned.
I think we should all start looking at this COVID-19 crisis. I think John is looking at things but just not saying this is cheap, this is good so consume more. We should start looking at this, whether we are doing it responsibly, whether we’re doing this sustainably. These are the things I started to learn years ago when I went up to the, you know, in the chilling foot zone and later on, put money where my mouth is, and we start looking at this and I hope that in Singapore, investors, even governments, I think we should start looking at priorities. It’s not just because it’s efficient, because this is the cheapest way to grow food. My first investment or look at investment is in indoor vertical farms, but we have not invested in any of them because it just cannot make the numbers work. In Singapore, for example, 70% of the costs are the electricity, labour and land and in Singapore, you just can’t solve this. But then you should look at this whole thing and say, is cost the only issue that determines whether we should grow our own food. So, I agree with John, we should look at things very differently. Of course, we can get help from the government in different ways. So, when people keep asking me and now I move to plant-based meat investment, people start asking me why is plant-based meat more expensive than real meat? Well, the real meat industry has been very, very efficient, and there’s a lot of subsidy. If you take a look at a pound of beef, overall, you take in the costs of the environment, cost of water and all, it is actually not that cheap. So, these are the things people don’t think about it and it’s difficult to ask the industry to do it. It’s just my personal opinion on this, but we consumers need to do something about it and actually start with that.
And then for Shao Ning, I wanted to answer your question earlier about not enough talents and I think you’re spot on. But having spent two years on a farm in one of the last three pieces of black soil in China, right, I see this shift. In fact, in Thailand where I have spent a been a bit of time as well as China, I see the younger generations are actually going back to their farmland and start doing farming but not in the same old way as the farmers does; wake up five o’clock in the morning and do all this but instead, actually using technology. Now there’s, there’s this very, if I may spend the next two minutes talking about this, this traditional way of open field farming, even that itself, using big data and machine learning, there’s a lot of information and knowledge that could actually be passed on to the new generation instead of the old way of you know, the grandfather pass it to the father and so on. But then if you take a step back, I’ve been working with a company that specialises in modifying seeds to get the efficiency; either its yield or nutrition value without having to have increased pesticide and so on. So there is an area in this, where looking from the seed perspective, you can still grow the same way you’re growing but the seed itself makes it easier, shorter, better yield and so on. Then you move all the way to an indoor vertical farm where you grow vegetables in 10 stories of control environment. We founded a company that does seed breeding and essentially, taking the seeds in the open field, modifying them, whether through gene editing or non-gene editing to be specialised in these controlled environments. So, a combination of talent and technology is where we see hope is. That’s where the area we’re going to invest in.
Ying Quan: I just want to close by saying that first and foremost, I think investing in agriculture can be highly lucrative, and from an aquaculture perspective again. If we just look at the salmon industry, we can all easily earn 20% to 30% profitability. If you reach for example, for fish 2.5 million tonnes, and that’s where we are going. We want to make Barramundi 2.5 million tonnes as well in terms of production and sales. And that’s really possible and, you know, to us, at a certain tonnage, the unit costs make sense and from then on, it’s really raking in profits, but the whole business itself, while profitable, while having the potential to be profitable, it is actually highly complex because you are managing a biological asset. So then to answer, with the focus of AgriTech in Singapore by the local government, or across the world. The matter of fact is just that not many investors know how to manage value, assess the risk in agriculture or aquaculture for that matter, it’s even more complex because our growing cycles is two years. Maybe for plantations, even more complex because it’s longer, but many of them are already commoditized. It’s complex to understand the risk and therefore, unfortunately, I don’t think it’s because the government wants to crowd out private investors but it just that a lot of the businesses, or at least for my opinion, Singapore farms, we have to go to Temasek, like of the government linked ones because they are the ones that moving forward, maybe cheaper bottom line to invest and they are most sophisticated in valuing agriculture and aquaculture for now. So, I really want to encourage more people to come and participate, learn more about the industry. I think there are good deals out there. Of course, obviously I represent Barramundi Asia, I think we are a great deal as well. So, you can speak to me and I’ll be happy to share more.
Allan: Are you seeing what I’m seeing here? This is the shelf at 10:30am this morning at Vivo City Hypermart. It was stocked up yesterday at 10:30pm. Somebody put tomatoes on it, mushrooms on it. This shelf contains about 300 packets of fresh vegetables freshly harvested yesterday morning. When everyone sees this photo, the first response is “ho-seh-liao”, when we farmers see this, what goes through our mind is what are we going to do on Monday? We are not going to be able to supply this consistently. And it is a big mission to continue to make sure that the city has food.
So, I sat down with my team a couple of days ago, and we discussed this. Every one of my team are young people, below 35 years old Singaporeans, deeply passionate about what we are doing. And so we and I told them, I think there’s a high level of uncertainty that we may go out of business in six months. And today, what do you tell your young people when you say that, you know, we have nothing more to give from our farm. And I sat them down and told them right, frankly, that when you have nothing else to supply, give hope and that we are still working on it, give hope to the community, to the citizens that there is progressively work people are working behind this, right.
While we are going to have a short amount of disruption, people are just going to stop supplying to you because it’s easier to go from Cameron Island to KL than to come across the causeway. But there are a lot of people who are willing to put their hard work and blood, sweat and tears to go and get this done. Whether you’re going to be able to get investment or not is a secondary question. Whether the industry as a whole will and must go ahead is the important question, important and imperative. Just like Ying Quan said, the bandwagon is moving very slowly, there are some people already on it. While we are looking at how we scale 10x in the next six months, we are also very mindful that it is a time of extreme uncertainty.
The only way forward for ComCrop is to continue to look at where we are able to survive, what niche can we do? What can we bring as a company to our community? Today, what we are looking at forecast is that, we will probably need as a shock absorber in Singapore, close to 300 tonnes a month of production, which means today we are probably at about, all the farms combined is probably at about 100 tonnes of production per month to 200 tonnes but we need another 300 tonnes more so that we can entirely cushion up to one month of food disruption. This is a tremendous opportunity for the vegetable farmers. Where the money’s going to come from to scale? That’s a big question. But where we are going to go is a very definite target at this, perhaps running at a risk of being too lofty, but it is something that I’m very confident that we can achieve.
Basically, because we already have technologies that are brought in from overseas, we have embedded skill sets that we are transferring from precision engineering technicians, undergraduates, polytechnic graduates who are from different fields that are coming into the market. I’m not really worried about all this. What I’m really worried about is losing this momentum of pushing forward to generate 300 tonnes a month of local production. I believe this is achievable and I believe that whether, how we’re going to do it, we got to take it one step at a time and be very realistic on what are our current difficulties as an industry. But I’m sure within the next one-year, post COVID-19, this will happen. And I will end with that. Thank you.
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