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Ecolution's Symbiotic Agroecological Farm Enterprise (SAFE)

Building indefinitely sustainable farm templates that are more economical than existing farms, subsuming their role with green alternatives.

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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Ecolution Agri-Tech

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small company (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

REAPRA PTE Ltd

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Singapore

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

Singapore

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Johor, a state of Malaysia, spanning 19,166 km2

What country is your selected Place located in?

Malaysia

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

For most Singaporeans, visiting Johor Bahru isn’t much more than a touristy galivant from one good food spot to another Instagram-able location. Yet, travelling beyond the city-area malls, there is a very clear difference between life in Johor and Singapore as we visit the rural villages in the state’s outskirts. Upon venturing into the kampongs of Kota Tinggi, the industrial buildings of our familiar cityscapes fall away to small clusters of buildings, homes and the occasional road-side stall selling local produce or culturally favoured snacks; sights a city boy felt really alien to.

Yet these were the sights that greeted me when I was exploring the validity of my ideas with some of the agricultural industry’s true insiders, generational farmers of rural Malaysia. They sat patiently with a young Chinese boy to hear his grand ideas of agroecology and symbiosis and how it may possibly help them improve their livelihoods; despite the fact many of the ideas I shared went well over their heads, either infeasible or presented badly by an amateur farmer. Pass the hurdles of language barriers, they freely contributed their thoughts, not only on how my ideas could be enhanced with techniques they employ, but also on how to articulate these ideas to their follows or setup a farm of my own.

Without their enthusiastic feedback, I’d never have known whether my ideas of a top-down redesign of agriculture had any value. Whether or not introducing sustainable farming methods could improve the livelihoods of these forgotten pockets of the world. Whether or not the people who produce 60% of our food globally would stomach the introduction of such radical change to their industry, in the form of my polycultures and agroecologies. And beyond the grandiose dreams of making agriculture more efficient with cost reductions and increases in yields, these farmers and their families were exactly the people I hoped Ecolution could help, Malaysia and beyond.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

In Johor, Malays are roughly half of the population, with Chinese closest behind at ~30%, explaining why a majority of the population generally speaks Malay. The general feel of speaking Malay with them helps with being included as “one of them” though it’ll take a while more before you truly are; especially during a transition period where they help you with common bilingualism of English or Mandarin Chinese.

A fair amount of the population travels regularly to Singapore for better-paying work, some cross the Causeway daily. Johor’s economy is mostly based in services, small-holder farms do not stand as a major part of the economy, with them in small clusters spread out through the outskirts instead of near Johor Bahru, the main city. Visiting these farms usually involves an hour’s drive past fields of oil palm or fruit plantations owned by the large corporations, the odd smallholder plot with a few heads of banana trees, or small brick-plaster houses usual of the residents in the area. With these sights, one inevitably renders a rustic feel of being very much in the countryside, though the tropical version with jungles stretches between plots of utilized land rather than open moors and long fields. The weather generally maintains that hot tropical day, with random intersperses of rainstorms with the seasonal monsoons in the end of the year. Last year has had impacts from global warming manifest with rather epic floods blocking the roads, introducing rather amusing videos of boats chugging past 20-tonne lorries.

Malaysian and Singaporean food is something of a rivalry between citizens, with cultures being almost as tight nit with Singapore as the economies, with Malaysians almost always insisting that their food is better and Singaporeans stubbornly pushing the other way. Regardless, food is as significant a cultural aspect in Malaysia as my “eating as a pastime” island nation of birth, though it’s definitely cheaper in Malaysia. On the flip side, obesity is becoming an issue in Malaysia, something good food is usually blamed for.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

19166

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

3700000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Ecolution’s current development stance could be likened to a sniper finally seeing his target. With our recent seed round investment, the next phase of Ecolution’s development calls for the setup of our pilot commercial site; a 1.5-hectare polyculture of leafy greens, freshwater aquaculture ponds, free-range poultry runs and mushroom houses. A success of this infinitely sustainable productive farm setup would attract capital and propagate a sustainable and provenly-competitive farming methodology. Yet aiming for the proverbial bullseye involves realising, polycultures increase complexity, making it harder to execute. Culturally, as an about-face turn away from standard monocultures, this methodology challenges our neighbours from principle and could breed a bias against us if our local relationships aren’t tactfully handled. Summarising, a polyculture with a wide variety of food produce grown with greatly reduced resource inputs would likely have a great synergy with culturally rich diets and be a boon to local business and people; provided said technology works and the people do not work against us.

While we have many happy dreams of Ecolution’s future, the sober reality of how to scale our company and its vision of commercially viable sustainable agriculture does drag us towards the truth of challenging a status quo, especially in an aged industry like agriculture. The most pressing concerns with such dream of a multinational expansion strategy of Ecolution are with Policy and Economics. With agriculture is a primary contributor of GDP and be taken seriously, with current policies regulating assuming monocultures. They would expect to receive an application referring to a chicken farmer farming chickens, not a farmer that farms chickens, fish, shellfish, ducks, insects and pasture animals while growing leafy greens, herbs, trees, fruits, roots and mushrooms. Regulations and licensing could prove tiresome and we haven’t yet discussed any protectionist tendencies that may sway local politics against foreign companies stepping into agriculture. Meanwhile, economics will always remain a concern for competitive industries, especially where large old companies command great influence. A new player in agriculture expecting a blue ocean of sustainable possibilities would more likely find himself diving into a blood red ocean of competition. The fact we are pushing a sustainable vision for the good of the world wouldn’t matter at all if we are swallowing more of their market share. The competition could be brutal and should not be underestimated, no matter the potential of our vision as a principally competitive push.

To a lesser extent, applying our systems to multiple environments globally could need some adjustments to deal with various climates, communities, dietary preferences and business situations.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

In the immediate future, SAFE’s success must rely on brutal pragmatism in dealing with potential challenges. Current issues are most likely to come from technological or cultural factors. From a technological standpoint, the operational breakdowns for Standard Operating Procedures will include remedies for all foreseeable issues likely to hamper the operations of SAFE; from temperature and disease outbreaks to human error and market disruptions. We will either have the issue mitigated via design features or have a resolution ready for the problem with a step-by-step SOPs for our staff to execute on demand, operational planning having factored such possibilities already to limit impacts. For instance, temperature issues can be resolved with a shade mesh to reduce direct sunlight on polytunnel structures by 20-30%; any light intensity higher than 500 μmol m−2 s−1 has little improvement for growth rates anyway. Alternatively, the careful selection of specific plant types to be grown together allow symbiotic relationships to flourish, like taller plants shading the sensitive shorter ones. The benefits of hosting an agroecological polyculture, no better analogised than “the Three Sisters” of farming tradition.

Culturally, our farming system has so far been met with enthusiasm and interest, something we greatly appreciate in our vindication, but not taken for granted. Working with the local farmers (something we already are doing, combining our productions to tap the larger profit margins within MOQs of wholesalers and distributors) and hiring the local people for well-paying jobs naturally incentivizes positive impressions of our project in their neighbourhood. And after all, working with local people to improve livelihoods is precisely part of our socially responsible development strategy.

In the grander future we hope to achieve, our primary concerns are Policy and Economics. Firstly, we would need to ensure from a managerial standpoint that our development strategy includes a thorough vetting of the local regulation and policies of new countries we expand into, to evaluate the possible effects it’ll likely have on our plans. With careful planning and possibly some legal manoeuvring, existing regulatory barriers can be worked through for our setup while we monitor local politics and any pending laws that may affect our growth. Economics is a more tangible issue to deal with, with known and foreseeable challenges to confront. A competitive push via a two-pronged approach of our cost-reducing value proposition and positive marketing would likely allow us to be competitive newcomer especially with increasing green-consciousness. Individuals crave being part of something bigger and helping tackle the existential crisis of global warming is a known motivator, especially if the new alternatives are cheaper and sustainable at the same time.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

In various spots of Johor, places previously thought to be infertile and valueless, multiple farms have sprouted. Yet, these farms are obviously different. Nature doesn’t seem to have been pushed back for them, rather weaved around and within them. Walking through one of these farms feels more akin to an eco-resort than a highly commercial venture, except for the large trailers full to the brim with the harvests of the day being hauled in; a visually vibrant collection of food varieties. As one progresses through the farm, clusters of native flowers and trees whaff their scents by you, but more importantly play host to a number of pest-killing predators and pollinators. Aquaculture ponds chalk full of fish and shellfish seem like natural ponds with reeds and water lettuce lining the banks as some ducks occasionally hop in for a swim and their neighbouring chickens pecking around their covered but free runs.

As the daily harvests are collected, small trucks ferry to central collections servicing multiple farms to bulk process and transport their produce and livestock to where demand is strong, and prices are good; any produce not suitable is fed back into the system to recycle their nutrients. Once done for the day, some walk home while others return to their farmhouse on site. The reality being the farm is co-owned with all the local workers in the area. Parents work alongside their children with all having well-paying jobs instead of these towns slowly being abandoned for better prospects elsewhere.

As more farms are created, food production, mentalities and environments in Johor are inevitably skewed towards sustainable farming practices that are intrinsically tied to social empowering job creation. The small/medium holders become part of a value-creating collective with lower costs and better margins, standards of living rise as farms grow.

And this is just 1 Place so far.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Our vision for agriculture is one of reimagination, a thought experiment of how agriculture needs to change in order for it to fit into a sustainable framework of human existence on our little blue dot. What is needed for us to end hunger? What is needed for agriculture not to subsume our environments and follow species in our quest for food? What is needed for market forces to adopt this new change towards the better? Ecolution’s Vision was subsequently guided by these questions into being a macro redesign of how we grow our food from the producer level. We want to make each farm produces more and cost less via symbiotic relationships between the farmed species, agroecological farm management and design aided with validated agri-tech and mechanical solutions. The 3 core tenets of our vision. Specifically, each holds some crucial factors to resolve environmental, dietary, economic, and technological issues by converting global agriculture towards a regenerative and nourishing future that would also bolster struggling local communities.

Symbiotic Relationships are about harnessing the mutual benefits of farming various species together. The most commonly known example of these benefits being tapped in commercial agriculture is aquaponics, fish fertilizing the water and plants absorbing the nutrients which later become toxic to the fish. However, if we translate this into a commercial understanding, we reduce the operational cost of chemical fertilizer needs and huge capital costs required for extensive filtration systems usually required. Within this binary relationship, it is already demonstratable that commercial value is present. Stepping up symbiosis into a network, or ecosystem, of interlinked farmable species hosts synergistic gains on top of individual mutualisms, a means of harnessing “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle” into commercial value for our farms. Less resource inputs means less costs. Less waste means increased efficiency. Recycling resources onsite means cost-effectiveness.

Biomimicking Symbiosis into our farms taps the following primary benefits; reduced costs, lower capital expense and business stability with a variety of revenue-producing crops and livestock. Secondarily, ecosystems are nature’s linchpin of sustainability. Species within live together in balance, a balance we can nurture into a food-producing bounty that self-regenerates as it provides. As a practice, this is a fundamental shift away from the dominating majority, monocultures; our thinking being that the only way of changing the equation enough to make lasting change is to rewrite it.

To not include our 2nd tenet, Agroecology, would be a slap in the face to sustainability efforts in this field. Popular usage of the term tends to bypass the actual meaning of the academic study of ecological processes within agriculture but its potential for good makes it so, frankly, no one cares. In Kenya, Brazil, India, Bangladesh, and a whole host of other locations spread over every continent except Antarctica, Agroecology has provided a robust list of solutions to improve the agricultural livelihoods of small-holders like optimizing land use and sourcing unconventional resource inputs; a playbook of solutions for each farmer to find and further refine for their farms. In Africa, one case study increased productivity three-fold (source included in our submission under “Machobane Farming System Lesotho”). In America, Agroecology is better known as regenerative agriculture, the careful management and usage of land in order to allow nutrients to regenerate for use. A practice known for producing such picturesque ‘before and after’ photos of restored watersheds and diverse fields of crops. Its greatest strength however is standing with social upliftment to help the poorest of the poor secure a stable income, and increasingly for women empowerment. The UN FAO has been strongly pushing for agroecology as the means for Agriculture to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, we’re gladly going to help them along.

Using Agroecology designs and management practices in our farms holds the following pragmatic benefits: reduced resource inputs, increased effective yields, diversifying revenue sources, reducing operational complicity and helping overcome locational issues with a systemic analysis and solutions ready for development already prepared by the brightest minds globally. Socially the help it provides has revitalized entire villages, providing a variety of food for a nutritious diet with extra sales to shift their villages out of the poverty line and provide an improving standard of living. As a note of challenge in case you, dear reader, are still unconvinced of its potential for sweeping change, just try finding critic against it.

Now our last tenet is the most popularized means of improving agriculture, Agri-Tech; a field booming with individual solutions and increasingly, investments. Applying solutions like monitoring conditions via IOT-based sensor networks and harvesters that can cover the work of several people with just 1 operator are very useful features and absolutely have their place in revolutionizing agriculture. In our specific case, we do not intend or need to compete within the agri-tech field itself which is rife with competing products. Our ecosystem will be a platform of its own, with its own independent innovations. As needed, we will reach into the bumper-crop to find the best one to resolve the specific issue we are facing, leveraging their success in order to enhance our own.

Agri-tech’s benefit will depend more specifically on a case by case basis and tend towards the practical. Reducing labour requirements with automation, increasing resource efficiency with drip irrigation or satellite topography allowing detailed site planning. Its function is to boost the economic case for sustainable agriculture into competitive placing with damaging but productive existing farms.

Now these tenets will be blended to work in concert, achieving our main goal of making our 1st sustainable farm a better commercial case for farming. Our attitude towards building must then be one of social inclusion, such as working with and learning from our neighbouring farms and employing people from the local area. With these social initiatives guiding the way, we hope the first iteration of the Symbiotic Agroecological Farm Enterprise (SAFE) provides undeniable validation that sustainable farming methods are highly competitive for agriculture, referenced in our financial statements. Meanwhile we'll being bringing well-paying and meaningful jobs in providing unalterably stable nutrition to the market as we work with these local communities and especially with neighbouring farmers by sharing and helping each other as small-holders historically always have, a co-operative between change-makers and local communities to everyone’s benefit.

However, as excited as we are about this phase of our dream, SAFE is only the 1st step in our vision of agricultural revolution. Without a plan to scale, the impact of our sustainable movement will stop here. Once again, SAFE’s execution will, principally, be to capture the first commercial success in our financial records. Coupling this with replicable designs and operational processes, we can draw interest and capital to expand our operations to create new farms, leading towards exponential growth with the old farms funding the development of new ones perhaps even alongside novel financial resourcing like the offering of agri-bonds. As we scale, we can concurrently establish or secure supporting infrastructure like distribution channels, centralised processing and collection hubs; facilities we will continue to share with our follow neighbouring farms. Come 2035, we could transform many of Johor’s farms into productive and sustainable bastions supported with committed communities and co-operatives. By 2050, who knows how many agri-countries we could have ‘ecologized’?

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Happened upon it online

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Hi, I want to create a network with you.
Email;- vdcrangpur@gmail.com

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