From shopping mall to office block: Singapore’s micro-farms

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

From shopping mall to office block: Singapore’s micro-farms

Related tags Agriculture Shopping mall

Just 25 “micro-farms” could stimulate an agricultural economy in Singapore and produce some 750 tonnes of vegetables a year.

These hydroponic indoor farms, as small as 2,000 square-feet, would be dotted across the island in shopping malls, warehouses and office buildings, and controlled from a single laptop.

Joel Low
Joel Low

This is the ambition of Frontier Agrotech, a joint-venture between Singaporean high-tech agriculture investment company Agrivo International and Archisen, a local technology start-up.

Frontier is one of several of areas of interest for Agrivo, which was founded last year and has since invested in traditional farms in Cambodia and Malaysia, as well as in agri-tourism. It also operates a technology-driven agribusiness incubator and accelerator programme with the government.

We love to invest in projects that are both high-tech, in terms of technology in agriculture, and at the same time sustainable on their own as well​,” says Agrivo co-founder and chief operations officer Joel Low. 

Frontier focuses on opening up indoor farms in urban centres like Singapore which can be controlled remotely from a single location. It expects to expand into Hong Kong and Macao in 2018.

As owner of its farms, Frontier has three levels of investment, including one for international investors that offers tax benefits “with a modest entry price​”. Another is for those looking to diversify at a cost of over SG$250,000 (US$180,220), while an “Institutional​” tier is available for institutions looking to widen their asset portfolios.

Urban farming is not a new idea in Singapore, which is already home to some indoor micro-farms, but most of these are largely run by hobbyists. Frontier, however, calls on the Internet of Things to operate growing sensors and crunch data while monitoring and controlling scores of micro-farms from a single app. 

This heavily centralised small-scale farming system would create a “network of farms​,” according to Low. 

The difference between us and a lot of other high-tech farms is that we are able to use our technology to monitor all parts of a city using one control system for a specific area. So it saves on manpower, on costs, everything​,” says Low. It also saves on space—a problem in city states like Singapore, Hong Kong and Macao.

Frontier’s research centre is also its headquarters, where the technology is “showcased to people from China, Malaysia, Abu Dhabi and Macao​,” he says. It is also currently in talks with property developers, shopping malls and building owners to incorporate indoor-farming into their properties.

This is done in the form of rows of vertical hydroponic growing systems with an extremely high number of planting points to intensify density of production. Meanwhile, high-powered LED grow lights provide crops with the energy they require at all times.

Advanced irrigation systems recirculate water and nutrients, enhancing delivery to the crops and speeding up their growth. The process claims to use 90% less water and 50% fewer nutrients compared to traditional agriculture.

You’re talking about three tonnes of vegetables per month from a 2,000 square feet farm​,” says Low, “so you can imagine what it would be like if there were 10 or 20 different farms producing vegetables all over the city​.” 

Indoor farming, he adds, has advantages in that it is not restricted by zoning or the weather. Whereas rooftop greenhouses depend on a favourable climate, micro-farms can produce vegetables across the year.

And not only would a budding high-tech farmer have much lower overheads compared to a traditional farmer, he would also solve a range of logistical and distribution problems by operating a number of micro-farms across the same city.

Comparing data analyses across 25 citywide locations would also result in more productive crops thanks to the aggregation of data that comes from scale. Data analysis is “something very important, very crucial in farming right now​,” Low says. 

Frontier’s system uses scientific-grade sensors to capture precise data about the microclimate and hydroponic media for real-time monitoring. Nodes with sensors form a local area network with gateways to transmit data to the cloud for data analytics.

Meanwhile, industrial-grade actuators automate climate control and dosing based on data to ensure that crops are always subjected to optimum growing conditions. These data are constantly analysed by algorithms to optimise the growth recipe of crops, which are then updated and shared with the farm network.

At our headquarters we can then analyse this data and come up with the most optimal growing conditions for the crop​,” Low adds.

This renders the old, centralised way of doing horticulture obsolete and promises a high capacity of local food production that biological farming is unable to deliver​.”

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