Sustenir to boost HK’s local food supply amid coronavirus crisis

May 12, 2020 06:00
Jack Moy, Sustenir's General Manager, believes the coronavirus crisis gives local farms a big responsibility to provide cities with reliable local produce. Photo: Sustenir.

Founded in Singapore in 2013 by Benjamin Swan and Martin Lavoo, Sustenir Agriculture produces non-native crops that are in local demand using proprietary vertical farming technology solutions.

The Temasek-backed agritech startup expanded to Hong Kong last year with a 26,000-square-feet hydroponic farming facility in Tuen Mun district in New Territories.

With a partnership with supermarket and convenience-store operator Dairy Farm International (DFI), Sustenir has officially launched in Hong Kong in 65 stores including ThreeSixty, Market Place by Jasons, among others, with two types of kale they harvest locally.

With countries closing their borders due to the virus, Jack Moy, Sustenir’s General Manager, believes the crisis gives local farms a big responsibility, and a valuable opportunity, to provide cities with reliable local produce.

As a vertical farming business founded in land-scarce Singapore, Sustenir was recognized last year by Singapore Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, for being a key initiative in his “30 by 30” vision, that will enable the island nation to locally produce 30 percent of its nutritional needs by 2030, with an aim to help ensure food security especially in times of crisis.

“When we did our market study, we started realizing that, whereas Singapore had imported 90 percent of the fresh vegetables, Hong Kong was even higher, at 98 percent,” said Moy, “and we immediately identified that this is a market that we could potentially go into.”

In Singapore, Sustenir grows non-native cold-weather crops including kale, arugula, cherry tomatoes, and strawberries. In Hong Kong, it is producing two types of kale, Curly Kale and Toscano Kale.

The startup uses controlled-environment agriculture to grow crops and fruits that previously could not be cultivated in the area. Its patented farming system, calibrated with lighting, temperature, humidity, water, nutrients and air, enables it to boost productivity and modify the taste, crunchiness, among other attributes, of vegetables.

It also differentiates itself among other vertical farming businesses with its proprietary artificial intelligence (AI) system, called "SARA", an agricultural real-time system to monitor the status and life cycle of the plants.

Leveraging AI and robotic technology in the farming process, Sustenir’s Hong Kong farm has the capability to grow about 800 kilograms of produce a day, with a team of about 30 staff.

According to Moy, Sustenir’s Hong Kong farm has resumed operations, with most of the staff working on site, while their working hours have been staggered to avoid the risk.

He also told EJ Insight that while they have been focusing on supplying local restaurants since the beginning stage of its Hong Kong farm, however, “as more consumers stay at home due to the current situation, we are seeing that the F&B business is quite badly impacted.”

In addition to establishing the retail channel with Dairy Farm, Moy said they are exploring direct consumer channels, such as e-commerce platforms, to deliver the product straight to the homes of the consumers.

Asked about the profitability of its Hong Kong farm, Moy said though they are seeing an upward momentum on demand thanks to the partnership with Dairy Farm, “it wouldn't exactly be fair to be expecting a full return right now."

Since its launch in Singapore, Sustenir plans to only grow imported produce so as to reduce competition with local producers. “We hope to add to the [local] industry as we enter the market by complementing the existing ecosystem,” said Moy.

“In Hong Kong, there are approximately 4,300 farm workers, so we are contributing about 1 percent of the workforce. And in terms of production wise, we will be adding approximately 2 percent towards the local vegetable production.”

As they build a sustainable vertical farming business in Hong Kong despite high rent and labour cost, Moy said they aim to add "excitement" towards the viability of the agritech industry here in Hong Kong.

"If we can increasingly motivate and excite more people about joining the industry, we can increase the amount of local food production,” said Moy, “2 percent [of local vegetable production] is a low base right now. There is a lot we can do to double, triple, or expand five times the amount of local food production in Hong Kong.”

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EJ Insight writer