Singapore’s ‘Garden city’ gets a new meaning – going vertical

The farm-to-table movement is taking on a new face in Singapore, as land for farming is fast disappearing.

Enter innovative and green solution solutions, that could address the national urban food sustainability challenges for Singapore, and its ‘Garden city’ tagline suddenly finds new meaning for new concepts in urban farming. Vertical farming as a promising way to produce food, has a serious test bed in this city state, home to the world’s first commercial rooftop farm (Sky Greens).

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ScandAsia takes a closer look at this trend, since several Nordic start-ups have entered this sector in Singapore. Here, a home-grown solution, intended for use by the consumer in their own homes, in which a so called ‘vertical aerophonic gardening system’ concept has been fine-tuned by a Dane.

Urban gardening
“We wanted to change people’s capability of growing their own food in urban spaces and it started with ourselves. We have had great success with it, have saved money, and now our mission is to create a system available for the masses so that they can grow their own food. We want to empower everyone to grow a little food of their own” says serial entrepreneur Thorben Linneberg.

“The way we’ve been producing food in the world is problematic. We’ve scaled it up so much without thinking about long-term environmental consequences and other pressing problems like climate change, and this carries through with the way that we transport this food and the carbon impact such transportation levies. And we have already started to see consequences; it impacted Singapore in 2007,” says Thorben’s life partner as well as business partner, Nadine Keller.

Nadine is referring to the worldwide food security crisis in 2007, which caused disruptions in the supply of rice and other food products to Singapore, in addition to recent and ongoing food contamination scares.

Together Nadine and Thorben started Aerospring Gardens, offering a system to urban homes that enables one to grow herbs, salads and vegetables in limited spaces. They are thereby echoing a growing trend in Singapore, also supported by its government within urban gardening and hydroponics as an industry.

Today the country imports most of its fresh vegetables and fruits daily from neighbouring countries, and anyone living there will know the high prices in the supermarkets for such produce.

This was the reason why Thorben and Nadine started urban farming: setting up their own vertical gardening system on their small balcony – mainly to save money, but also to be able to enjoy nutritious and homegrown vegetables and herbs.

“When we started growing in early 2013, I built towers out of PVC pipes that we set up on our balcony. We didn’t intend to start a business, it was only because we were getting more and more fed up with food prices, and also about the quality of the herbs we could get in Singapore,” says Thorben.

Quality tomatoes are typically air-flown and cost between 1-2 Singapore dollars each.

Thorben, from Ikast in Denmark, grew up in the Danish countryside and was very comfortable and familiar with gardening.

“I built the entire system, a DIY project, and started planting the seeds and growing in this hydroponic system, while Nadine was fearful that she would kill every plant, which is also a typical Singaporean response to gardening and growing!”

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“We were able to grow a plentiful harvest of tomatoes, cucumbers, all the herbs like mint, basil, parsley, coriander, thyme etc. and all of it grew really well. We had chillies, capsicum and eggplant as well.

“The big savings are actually on herbs, because if you want to buy fresh Basil or Rosemary in Singapore, it will cost you 2-3 dollars for 10 grams. We had been spending well over 1000 dollars a year on herbs and greens and for the last two years we haven’t bought any of this sort of produce, and in fact we were able to give away produce to our friends too.”

3D-printed gardening system
Three years on and the success they have had in growing herbs and vegetables has lead to a fine-tuned own, vertical farming system available to purchase online or in stores as of February 2016.

While Thorben and Nadine were continuining to experiment with their system, many of their friends asked: ‘Please make me one of these towers.’ After about 50 requests, Thorben decided to go ahead with starting it as a business, commencing the R&D process in earnest.

“I understood that I had to come up with a modular system that would assemble and pack down easily and I wasn’t sure which shape to make it or how much space was  needed between the plants. So we bought a 3D printer and I drew up different designs, printed these out, took these printed designs to the garden and grew out of these.”

That meant non-stop printing during a four-month period until they were satisfied that the final design was both extremely durable, performed the task of aeroponically growing plants well and was aesthetically pleasing.

“We researched if competitor products were available in the region. We couldn’t find any and to deliver existing systems available in the US was going to incur prohibitive shipping costs,” Nadine replies concerning their benchmarking.

“In designing our own system, I felt it was important that it was unique enough to receive its own patent, and we had no interest in copying others. Our patent lawyers took us through the process and gave us the thumbs up that our system was unique enough to be patented,” says Thorben.

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“On a technical level, our system differs in its construction; how it is put and assembled together using the threaded water pipe within the tower; and concerning the way plants are placed into the columns.”

“We really want to target the home grower who wants to make an impact on his or her food budget or grow for their own health/wellness reasons. With our tower one can grow up to 36 plants in half a square metre of floor space. It’s easy to maintain and one can effectively supplement one’s budget and diet with this system.”

The Aerospring works in a way that plants are grown in little individual pots and when ready, are placed in the hexagonal vertical hollow columns plant sites. The roots of the plants, which grow out of the pots, are suspended within the column and water is fed up from a bucket reservoir through the threaded system of pipes, which is in the centre of the pole. Nutrient-rich water droplets periodically shower over the roots in the closed system.

“Our system is made to sustain itself with little maintenance for long periods of time, so it allows people not to worry about watering their garden when they go away over a weekend or a holiday.”

It is specifically designed for the smallest of apartment balconies to grow upwards instead of outwards. Full or partial sun in the mornings or afternoons is needed, in order to achieve the best food production with the Aerospring.

Tipping point
However, too much sun is never a good thing, especially in the tropics. If the system is basked in the sun for many hours, it is recommended to place it under cover of an awning or to use large umbrellas to shade them during the most intense hours of sunshine.

“There is a tipping point when the sun starts heating the plants too much, thereby stressing them. Our system has grown really well in Singapore and that is a testament to the design of it. We believe that a European summer may work even better for the plants,” replies Thorben.

The vertical aeroponic system works well in hot climates due to the fact that the roots of the plants receive periodic but regular water showers. Heat evaporates through the roots, through the columns and cools the ambient temperature in the poles down.

This cultivation technique uses less than 10% of water and space required by conventional soil based gardening. And produce grows 30% faster.

“The system will pay itself back in six months just from growing herbs,” he says from own experience.

Families with a larger outdoor area can have their own urban farm and can with a few units of this systemallow themselves to be self-sufficient.

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Recession-proof business concept
Singapore is a test market, but their ambitions are definitely international.

“We’ll be rolling it out into urban cities of Thailand, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Australia. I’ll be sending units to my Scandinavian family and friends in Denmark and Norway and there will be tests this summer to see how well it performs there.”

Aerospring Gardens is Thorben’s fourth start-up. He first came to Singapore in 1999 and for the last eight years has mainly been an entrepreneur; among other things setting up subsidiaries for multinationals.

“What I feel comfortable with is that this industry is recession proof, in the sense that, we all still need to eat no matter how bad it gets. Given the opportunity, a lot of people would prefer to grow their own food to save money, provided it is easy to do this where they live,” he believes. “And this is exactly what we have developed; a system that is easy to grow food with, in very small spaces.”

“I have done several start-ups in the past and am familiar with grant schemes the Singaporean government offers businesses such as ours. But we decided not to ask for grants to start our business in this instance and chose to invest with private investment and our own money. Instead, we will apply for grants that will help accelerate launching a Singaporean product internationally.”

Thorben, a Singaporean Permanent Resident has access to such grants, but foreigners on Employment Passes can also apply for such grants. He successfully obtained grants through these government schemes previously and has also served as a mentor for other start-ups.

“The government has increased their support to start-ups over the years. They’re keen to drive innovation and ideas. It’s still improving and increasing; they come up with new grants every year. They tweak them and try to make them better and are very active in helping start-ups,” he says.

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