Farming startup Cultiveat is helping to solve the world’s problems on many levels – foremost of which is providing nutritious and affordable food by revolutionising farms and farming methods.
If you can buy organic vegetables at the same price as vegetables from the wet market, would you do so? The answer is obvious and Malaysian startup, Cultiveat is planning to make it possible.
How? By using a modern farm that can increase the harvest 4 to 5 times more than conventional farms – and at half the cost.
The farm which started operations early 2019 has been making money since day one and demand is exceeding supply as word gets out about how delicious, lush and healthy the vegetables are. Despite its organic vegetable pricing now, Co-founder and CEO, John-Hans Oei, 30, reckons that as the number of farms and farmers increases, the price will drop in the long run.
After all, the company’s mission is to supply affordable and accessible vegetables for everyone.
Currently, most of its vegetables are sold in Singapore hence the good pricing. As Oei says, when people realise how lucrative selling such vegetables can be, they will be drawn to it. And contrary to traditional farming, the Cultiveat farm is incredibly clean, efficient and takes up little space.
The staff requirements are few too; an average of seven people are needed; four to clean and maintain, one to manage, and two for security.
The owner is also able to manage all functions of the farm including switching on and off the lights, cooling fans, and regulating its temperature, using a phone app which is currently being finalised by Cultiveat.
In short, the startup has successfully developed the mechanism and processes of running a full controlled environment setup to grow S.A.F.E (sustainable agriculture food and environment).
For a start, there are multiple sensors detecting parameters such as humidity, light intensity, temperature, etc to regulate and maintain the optimum conditions for the plants. There is also an underground water storage system which keeps the water cold to be used later to cool the farm.
The non-GMO seeds of over 50 varieties of leafy plants, climbers and small shrubs are first generation imported from Japan, Spain, Thailand and the Netherlands. Once the seeds arrive, they are checked for any defects. The good ones are then inserted into their own specially made cartridges where it would be left to germinate in the nursery.
“Our patented cartridge mechanism and plant driven watering system enable the plants to use less water, soil, nutrients and space. Each cartridge is designed to hold just the right amount of nutrients using 200 times less growing media. Coupled with cartridges that biodegrade in 3 years, wastage is virtually zero,” John-Hans explains.
“The cartridges also prevent crop contamination and bacteria susceptible soil. There is no land degradation and minimal wastage as plants grow in cartridges held in trays, at up to 98% successful harvest.”
There are three types of specially formulated nutrients solutions each of which is continuously piped from three central tanks to individual trays containing the cartridges.
It takes about 6- 7 weeks for the vegetables to achieve ready-to-eat state depending on the variety. Some of the vegetables include tomatoes, okras, cabbages, lettuce, kai lan, kale, siew pak choy, etc. The vegetables are sold fresh on trays with the roots still clinging on to the vegetables as if they have just been plucked, thus retaining their nutritional content. “They are still ‘alive’ just like the live fish in aquariums being sold at seafood restaurants,” Oei notes.
HOW IT STARTED
A couple of friends were having a chat about farming after a business course ended in Stamford, the US, three years ago. From those early discussions, the seed for a modern farm was born.
Prior to the course, Oei spent three years in the waste management industry dealing with waste from the F & B industry which is where he got his client base. Initially, they spent two years undertaking R & D with a lot of trials and errors; they started a trial farm in Gohtong Jaya, Genting Highlands (now closed down) where they experimented with what works best for the vegetables.
Then with a seed funding of RM2 million, they rented one acre of land in Kapar, Klang, surrounded by coconut trees, oil palm and kampong houses, about 45kms from Kuala Lumpur city centre. There, they built their first farm in early 2019. It took only three months to complete including a visitors centre.
THE BIG PICTURE
Since demand is outstripping supply, John-Hans and his partners plan to expand to the plot next door. The current location in Kapar was chosen due to its relative affordability.
For the farm next door, which they intend to grow only tomatoes due to its immense popularity, they also intend to build a café and visitor centre. They would allow visitors to go on a tour of their facilities, buy the vegetable and eat them there. This is expected to be set up by end 2019.
Cultiveat is also in the process of developing a pioneering Farm Academy. Expected to be officially set up by 2020, their partner is EPIC Collective, co-founded and managed by Oei’s older brother, John-Son.
“EPIC is our working partner in masterplanning, community development and engagement, and experiential design for our farms. They are also in charge of running the Farm Academy where we train the agropreneurs or agri specialists in sustainable farming practices.
“Those who have completed the Cultiveat module are then placed in jobs in the farms. Part of the profits are ploughed back into the community,” explains the young agropreneur.
The Farm Academy also offers ‘farm-chise’ business opportunities to encourage budding agropreneurs. The ‘farm-chise’ allows the ‘farm-chisees’ to share in the profits. They buy, say, one acre of land using either their savings or loan from the agribank. Cultiveat would help them build and set up all the processes. The farmers only need to maintain the farm and ensure delivery of the highest quality vegetables. In return, Cultiveat pays them a monthly fixed income.
“This eliminates the middlemen, thus instead of depending on the vagaries of the weather, they get a fixed regular income. Without distributor monopoly, farmers and consumers receive fair pricing,” says John-Hans.
He adds: “We want to make farming attractive for the new generation. It’s not dirty and backbreaking work under the sun; instead it is clean, easy and cool.”
That’s because Cultiveat’s planting and automation systems make farming easier, improve efficiency and reduce the industry’s barrier to entry. “The farming model allows anyone to adopt a Cultiveat farm into their own space or adopt a space with a Cultiveat farm. You can consume/sell the harvest from this farm and even choose to allocate a portion to underprivileged communities.”
In the Klang Valley, where the founders originate from, they plan to open five outlets in the next 12 months to cater to urban folks. For those who can’t wait, by August, Cultiveat will open their first standalone store in Lot 10 shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur.
The outlet will sell their produce and act as a pickup point for their vegetable subscription. John-Hans asserts that Cultiveat’s vegetables are higher in quality than organic vegetables but they cannot be certified organic. “This is because they are not grown on soil which is one of the prerequisites to be certified organic.”
They are also embarking on another pioneering project to build one of the largest integrated controlled environment farms in the south of Malaysia. Expected to be completed by 2022, facilities planned include vegetable farms, fish farms and poultry farms as well as living quarters and schools for the farmers and their families.
Cultiveat is certainly changing the way the world fulfils its basic need – food. The good news is anyone can participate; you can make an investment in one of three ways:
1. Land: Turn your piece of land into a Cultiveat farm.
2. Financing: Make financial investments into Cultiveat or its projects.
3. Urban Property: Sign up your property (developers/commercial building owners) for land allotment and turn them into Cultiveat farms.