Agritech: Creating an innovative ecosystem for urban farming

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 14, 2020 - September 20, 2020.
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The future of agriculture will not only involve farmers but technology players as well. This will be essential especially in urban areas, where space is scarce but demand for fresh food is high.

To accelerate this revolution, Sunway Innovation Labs (iLabs) is launching Sunway FutureX Farm, Malaysia’s first urban farming innovation hub this November.

It will bring together urban farming professionals, tech companies, researchers and young talents to create high-tech solutions for food and agriculture technology.

“We want to demonstrate on a pilot scale how technology can play a role across the food value chain to help achieve food security,” says Matt van Leeuwen, Sunway Group chief innovation officer and Sunway iLabs director.

“This will require new types of talent, as it is not just about harvesting food but also incorporating Internet of Things (IoT) and sensors, as well as the collection and analysis of data.”

FutureX Farm is one of the components under Sunway FutureX, an initiative led by Sunway iLabs that also includes FutureX Talent, a research and development centre, and FutureX Campus, a training and collaborative space. FutureX Farm will host an indoor and outdoor smart farming area.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has really shown us that we need to do something about our food supply chain to achieve food security,” says Van Leeuwen.

“This can be done through establishing decentralised farms and production centres that are closer to where people live.

“We believe that through this model, we can make food supply chains more resilient and contribute to food safety and security,” he adds.

Expanding urban farms will also reduce the country’s reliance on food imports. Malaysia currently imports about a quarter (24%) of its total food supply.

These import-dependent items have been experiencing above-average inflation rates over the past decade, compared with locally produced items, according to Bank Negara Malaysia’s third-quarter bulletin in 2019.

“I envisage that every city will have an urban farm within a 5km to 10km radius. If another pandemic impacts the transport or import of food, we will still be able to access healthy food without any problems.

“Farming can really thrive in places where there is underused land, and it can bring new purpose to spaces such as rooftops, car parks and university campuses,” says Van Leeuwen.

 

Making farming smarter

Van Leeuwen emphasises that urban farms are not meant to replace traditional farms, which are typically in rural areas. But the output of urban farms can complement this production and they use technology to improve the process.

“It’s not a question of whether we should do it but how fast we can do it. Our population is growing, and consumers are demanding healthier food. They want to know the source of their food,” says Van Leeuwen.

Technology and data analysis can be used to make farming smarter, he adds. Sunway FutureX wants to bring together technology players and urban farmers who are not afraid to get their hands dirty.

“Right now, the urban farming environment is fragmented. The collaborative approach will allow us to leverage each other’s strengths to achieve a similar goal.

“I believe there is a business model that can be built around this so everyone can benefit,” Van Leeuwen says.

FutureX Farm’s first partner is Sunway Property, which will become a test bed for the innovation lab’s urban farming solutions.

The communities who live and work in Sunway Property’s developments can become consumers of the urban farm, access fresh produce grown in their neighbourhoods and learn from experts about sustainable living and urban farming.

FutureX Farm is also in partnership with Thought For Food, a global non-profit organisation that focuses on entrepreneurial innovation for food and agriculture.

“The technologies that we are currently looking at include greenhouse technology, where the plants can grow in a controlled environment.

“With IoT, you can bring that to the next level where the plants are ‘talking’ to you [about what they need].

“We can fine-tune the technology to make sure the plants get exactly what they need to grow in the most optimal environment,” says Van Leeuwen.

Another technology FutureX Farms will focus on is indoor vertical farming, he adds.

“We are looking at hydroponics, where we can use a circular system of water to grow plants. It does not require any soil, and you can stack up to 12 plants vertically in a small space.”

The lab will also be on the lookout for software and logistics providers that can support these solutions.

Ultimately, FutureX Farm hopes to attract industry players in various sectors.

“We’re looking for technology players who can demonstrate how their technology has a role in the whole value chain from farm to fork.

“This could be farmers, entrepreneurs who are selling urban farming kits, or solar players that have a solution to power up urban farms.

“Electricity is one of the main costs of running an urban farm, so renewable technologies have a huge role in indoor farming,” says Van Leeuwen.

Even e-commerce players can join FutureX Farm if they have solutions to connect end-users with urban farms. Similarly, tech-driven logistics players who can improve the transport of fresh produce are also welcome.

“On the talent side, we will tap the digital talent at Sunway University. These are people who have an interest not just in building technology solutions but also in sustainability.

“We have seen a lot of interest from university students who want to build sustainable solutions but there was no platform for them to do so,” Van Leeuwen says.

Funding is available from FutureX Farm for solutions that can be commercialised. Via Sunway iLabs’ Super Accelerator programme, up to RM100,000 is available for start-ups to validate their innovation and business models. The start-ups will also receive mentorship and access to Sunway City.

Other potential funding sources could come from Sunway’s venture capital arms, Sunway Ventures and Sun SEA Capital.

“We have built a strong network with other venture capital firms like Gobi Partners, and government agencies like the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation, Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre and Cradle.

“I’m a council member in the Malaysian Business Angels Network as well, so angel investing could be another source of funding,” Van Leeuwen says.