Snippets of Environmental Conversations on the Island by students in the Environmental Studies programme
Comcrop: Blazing Singapore’s urban agriculture trail
By (from left to right) Rachel Ong, Joceline Yong, Clarissa Leong, Margaret Schumann and Nai Lyn Yi, with Mr Allan Lim and Mr Yuan Kang (far right).
On 18 April 2015, five students from the Introduction to Environmental Studies class interviewed Mr Allan Lim, CEO and founder of Comcrop, at his farm on the roof of *Scape complex, located in the heart of the Orchard shopping district.
Comcrop, which stands for Community Crops, is an urban farming social enterprise that aims to generate and strengthen social bonds through community farming. The enterprise was first motivated by a need to help individuals adapt to the rapid changes that Singapore had undergone in a short span of forty years. Mr Lim observed that such rapid changes had made many locals “angry”, and sought to alleviate these frustrations through Comcrop. With the help of Kenny from Garden Asia, Comcrop was born on a patch of grassland in Bukit Panjang, Block 206. Mr Lim intended for it to be a “moderate way of social change” by bringing the community together “digging and blunting and catching worms” in the same plot of land. They could contribute and take as much as they wanted, as anybody could access the open patch at all times.
In spite of initially being a a successful community project, the original model proved to be financially unsustainable. The seed of Comcrop thus emerged as a financially sustainable alternative nestled on top of *Scape as an urban farm. The land constraints in densely packed Singapore and need for land intensification served as the driving force for this amalgamation of agriculture and industry.
Mr Lim sees himself and the enterprise as “a way for other people to join in the [environmental] movement”. He professed that helping people gives him a sense of joy and satisfaction. Comcrop was thus founded following his belief that “a little social good can go a very long way” particularly given the high interconnectivity in dense Singapore. Mr Lim’s proactive outlook towards life continues to resonate in his advice to people to focus on impending issues, think about solutions, then act on them rather than dwelling too long on the idea.
Comcrops’ Practices and Ethos
As a social enterprise, Comcrop functions as a business that “weave[s] in the social good” into its revenue, creating a “symbiotic relationship” across all aspects of the business. The value-generating business encompasses employing ‘aunties’ who are valued for their expertise in selecting the best vegetables for sale, tapping onto connections for the most suitable food distribution agency to sell their produce to restaurants and hotels, and also engaging in marketing and public relations. In Mr Lim’s words, “we do everything a business would do” to thrive, because customers are not going to buy from you just because you are Comcrop”.
Comcrop’s 6000 square-foot rooftop farm is a test bed for growing fish and vegetables in a symbiotic system. The fish recirculating system fits into the hydroponic system of the vegetables, which returns filtered clean water back to the fish, creating a closed feedback loop. The fresh vegetables are then packed and sold.
Comcrop’s farming practices are largely organic, applying pesticides and nutrients with organic chemicals, and ensuring the use of natural nutrients (e.g. from fish waste) in their plants. Mr Lim holds a balanced view towards Genetically Modified Organisms as he sees their value as a means for tackling world hunger problems. Instead, he identified that a larger issue of concern is humans’ incessant ‘need’ for food. Comcrop is thus open to planting GMO seeds such as hybridised tomatoes that can survive on rooftop environments. However, Comcrop still exercises some caution over seed use, obtaining them mainly from suppliers who can trace the seeds’ origins. For instance, the eggplants they produce are heirlooms that have been around for about 50 years.
Comcrop has adapted its farming practices to cope with the growing erosion of natural biodiversity in Singapore. This includes the use of “pipes instead of land, water instead of soil, vertical instead of flat, sterilisation instead of natural remediation”. Mr Lim believes that biodiversity will evolve through erosion or enhancement due to the changing climate, apart from the influences from Singapore’s industrialisation. He adds that “as nature seeks to rebalance itself”, “we just have to deal with it” and seek practical solutions.
Given Comcrop’s niche in urban agriculture, they are open to collaborating with other NGOs, nonprofits or conscious groups, as long as these organisations serve a similar purpose. This includes fostering community bonding and resilience among Singaporeans, having a deep understanding of agriculture and its relation to mankind, and possessing an earnest mission to seek sustainable solutions and responsible consumption.
Growth & Challenges Faced by Comcrop
The journey since Comcrop’s inception in 2011 had not always been smooth-sailing. From conflicts within the environmental community to conflicts externally, from bureaucratic limitations to antagonistic individuals, Mr Lim has experienced his fair share of trials and tribulations to build Comcrop to what it is today.
He explained that a point of contention between different members of the environmental community is whether a price tag can and should be put on environmental initiatives. While he is of the view that “if it needs money, it needs money”, others believe that society and big corporations should come together and be responsible instead. Although those within the community do not always see eye to eye with regard to methods of creating change, Mr Lim still believes that there remain certain key principles that members concur with.
When asked what resources are most important to him and his enterprise, Mr Lim answered swiftly – “land and human capital”. A strong believer in independence, Mr Lim shared that Comcrop is funded through private investment rather than government grants because he feels it important that Comcrop is able to “stand on (its) own two feet”. However, he admitted that a significant challenge has been the prohibitively high cost and limited availability of land in urban estates. Mr Lim added that he hopes Comcrop will become even more inclusive and collaborative, with individuals of all backgrounds as well as other NGOs and conscious groups coming forward to work together with them to build a resilient and sustainable Singapore.
Comcrop’s Vision For The Future
Urban farming remains a relatively foreign concept to the government, said Mr. Lim. Along with increased competition for rooftop spaces, this causes hesitation in future government support. Regardless, Mr Lim believes that this can be remedied in proving Comcrop’s further success, which is looking good so far.
When asked how Comcrop visualises potential collaborations with local institutions here, Mr Lim gave a rather provocative answer. “If you ask me which faculty and what can they do, I’d rather say no.” Instead of identifying specific brands of experts needed, Mr Lim firmly believes that any branch of knowledge learned from college would be useful to Comcrop’s operations. Currently, Comcrop’s employees boast of individuals from vastly differing backgrounds – chefs, environmental studies majors, engineers, HR consultants, etc. Every single one of them has the potential to contribute beneficially to the team.
Moving forward, Comcrop has plans to build one of the world’s biggest rooftop farms within the next two years. It would be located in a suburban industrial estate. The targeted building for investment will house many catering companies, where Comcrop will use their wastes produced for urban farming. Wastes will be processed into liquid form and purified with a membrane system. This nitrate rich water would be used for their fish recirculating system, all fitting into a larger hydroponic system. At the end of each harvest, fresh vegetable produce from the farm will be sold back to the catering companies. Hopefully, this test model would influence sustainable industrial building design in the future.
Mr Lim also advised future entrepreneurs to emulate Comcrop’s ethos of prioritising pragmatic production and efficiency, although he noted cheekily that we can afford some “hipster” considerations. Still, he stressed the importance of Singapore’s unique context for local environmental entrepreneurs. In his opinion, Singapore is very “Frankenstein”, and therefore tried and tested models from other parts of the world would be unsuitable if implemented wholesale.
To push past existing indifference and ambivalence towards environmental causes, Mr Lim recommends two things that Singapore can do. The first would be initiating another government campaign for increased environmental awareness. The second would be to generate more conversations on such issues, spearheaded by existing activists and entrepreneurs.
“What would I recommend? Start.” For Mr Lim, the time for negotiation has passed. He finished off with a bold challenge to the Singaporean youth. “If you ask me what the younger generation can do, [it is] to take this next 4 years and make [Comcrop] one of the biggest projects ever in Singapore.”