Q1. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you started Urban Tiller?
Urban Tiller Singapore came to be around Sep 2020, when I (Jolene Lum, CEO and Founder) was thinking about a new business model around the buzz of Agtech and Urban Farming. After the peak of COVID-19 lockdowns, the phenomenon of panic buying focused the limelight on where our food really comes from.
The idea culminated after a long exploration in Singapore’s farming history and landscape, and with hope the opportunity to cultivate a new part of it.
Q2. How did you come up with the concept of Urban Tiller?
Food security, as a topic of conversation, is to be understood with the concept of nutritional security. With some research, the Urban Tiller team found that leafy greens can lose up to 90% of their nutrient value within 24 hours of harvest (baby spinach being the prime example).
Given the emergence of farms in our island city, our natural instinct was to provide access to the most nutritious crops, with freshness that can be delivered on demand. But these new-age farmers faced various challenges and they need a new business model for a more viable go-to-market strategy.
Urban Tiller approaches this problem from the perspective of freshness - where we believe you should be able to get on-demand ultra fresh produce delivered within 8 hours of harvest which fulfils both nutritional needs and complements our lifestyle of convenience and demand for choice.
Having removed the middlemen, we are able to keep our prices significantly competitive.
While imported food goes via robust supply chains, where pound of food that moves, moves with the same amount of plastic, up to 40-70% of these items turn to waste along the supply chain due to rotting and damage. Urban Tiller hands the produce over to consumers in a ‘two-touch’ model. We pick up the produce from farms in the morning, pack them into orders and send them out the same day.
There is then no longer a reason to pay top dollar for greens that look like vegetables, taste like vegetables, but have actually lost all their nutrient content from being bounced around a supply chain for up to a week.
Q3. What was the initial response like? What is your most popular product?
It wasn't as smooth as I or any entrepreneur would have liked. Early in the development of Urban Tiller, I tried using Shopify to build her e-store but discovered it was inflexible on inventory. Crops are subject to minute changes in demand, environmental factors (weather) and inventory, and the e-store needed to be built on a more versatile platform.
Luckily, I pivoted and recruited a tech team that helped me develop an inventory management and demand aggregation system that could accommodate flexible inventory management. Which was key to our vision.
The constraints with technology forced the team to stay focused and channel all its energies in understanding user patterns, and constantly seek feedback from users so that the experience of receiving Urban Tiller veggies remains as exciting as possible. Logistical and operational excellence also remains a daily grind that requires the team’s utmost dedication.
Most popular product is probably tied up between the seasonal salad box and our mystery bag bundle!
Q4. Starting up Urban Tiller at such a young age is impressive and inspiring. How do you think your age helped or hindered the process?
I think my age is both an advantage and disadvantage.
Disadvantages are aplenty when it comes to the lack of experience, needing to build credibility and prove oneself more rigorously than ever to seniors in the industry, and not having an extensive business track record.
On the flipside, I still have plenty of energy, curiosity, and hunger for building something new.
“If you’re too nice, people will walk over you, but if you’re too harsh, people find it difficult to work with you.” – Jolene Lum.
I think we have survived the first year of business, and I don’t think I could imagine this when I started. Of course I always wish I had more resources to do more, but no regrets so far and I appreciate all the lessons learnt both the hard way and in a more celebratory fashion.
Q5. Are there any particular memories or achievements that stand out to you?
I’m excited to have a truly sustainable model of working with farmers and bringing AgTech services to them through solid offtake partnerships and relationships that we build up so that we can optimize farming and food production wherever we are operating. Through e-commerce, we enable more sustainable returns for farmers and hope to truly build a new generation of farmers and farming tech together with the farms that we work with and build.
I think that there is consensus that Urban Farming is the only way to grow food efficiently enough for large numbers of people. In Singapore, the lack of space also means that ‘Urban’ farming really points to space-saving modes of food production like vertical farming. I think that there is a real need for local self-reliance, but only when there is also a viable and sustainable economic model behind all of this. The ability to achieve price parity for consumers when it comes to produce will enable a far more sustainable supply chain in fresh food that we are able to eventually produce here as well.