Jolene Lum, 24-Year-Old Founder Of Urban Tiller, Turned A Passion For Sustainable Agriculture Into A Fast-Growing Startup

Jolene Lum, CEO or Urban Tiller

Early 2020. Food panic during the pandemic. It was during the eye of the storm, where staples were swept off supermarket shelves, when Jolene Lum, CEO of Urban Tiller, was thinking about how to resolve the national food shortage in a sustainable way. 

While Singapore’s “30 by 30” vision – producing 30% of our food by 2030 – was set out in 2019, it was only during the peaks of COVID-19 that the phenomenon of panic buying put spotlight on where our food comes from.

The idea of sustainable agriculture in a circular economy lit up in Jolene’s mind after a long exploration of Singapore’s farming history and landscape, and with that came the opportunity to disrupt a traditionally static (and often ignored) industry in Singapore. 

History Of A Long-Forgotten Industry: Local Agriculture

As at 1970, about 175,400 people (9% of the total population then) were actively engaged in agricultural activities or were indirectly dependent on farming and fishing for a living. Those numbers have since dwindled as Singapore moved rapidly away from agrarian industries and up the value chain. 

Today, we have just over 200 farms in Singapore producing similar products with a greater focus on leafy greens, eggs, and fish. More people are conscious about the food they eat, and the environmental impact that their diets have. 

Singapore has also quickly become the leader among Asian countries for eco-friendliness. The Environmental Performance Index, developed by Yale University and the United Nations, ranked Singapore 14th globally and first in Asia for its environmental sustainability practices. As such, there is a gradual shift towards more sustainable forms of consumption. 

Read Also: Financial Benefits For SMEs To Take A Green and Sustainability-Linked Loan

The Roots Of Farming 2.0 In Singapore

Working at a semi-corporate job that Jolene did not enjoy, she accidentally stumbled into the food and agricultural industry by organising a series of hackathons around Singapore Food Agency’s “30-By-30” initiative, where she saw the need to effectively buffer Singapore’s food industry from supply disruptions. She realised she wanted to play a part to help Singapore produce 30% of her nutritional needs by 2030, and to do it her way. In short, Urban Tiller was born. 

Her stint working as co-founder in an educational startup that focused on environmental sustainability allowed her to speak to farmers, and that was when she realised that there was a market gap that she could fill — using technology to help local farmers lower their overheads, increase their margins and source for local produce on behalf of health and environmentally conscious Singaporeans.

Bridging The Disconnect Between Farmers And Buyers

Jolene quickly spotted a disconnect between farmers and buyers, where local farmers aim to make a profit by growing crops with a higher unit value relative to size and fast-growing cycles, and Singaporeans wanted to eat vegetables that were usually more difficult to grow. 

For example, lettuce and bok choy (taking around 15-21 days from seedlings to harvest) are among the easiest crops to grow in terms of unit price sold and growth cycle. But who wants to eat bok choy and lettuce every day?

Urban Tiller aims to resolve this disconnect between farmers and buyers by identifying crops that can be grown in controlled environments with various space-saving technologies, and then distributed directly to consumers (D2C). This way, farmers can grow a variety of crops that Singaporeans want to eat and cater directly to a pre-existing demand.

Furthermore, farmers often find themselves at the mercy of the procurer (usually supermarkets), where the latter set prices, purchase volume and can change their minds at whim. This makes the livelihood a struggle for most farmers in Singapore. Urban Tiller’s D2C business model with a generous fixed offtake from farmers also circumvents this problem, thereby helping local farmers “hedge” against market volatility.

Read Also: 5 Ways Companies Can Go Green (And Be Part Of The Singapore Green Plan 2030)

How Urban Tiller Tilts The Scales In Its Favour

This fast-growing startup has improved the way consumers interact with greengrocers, starting with its order flow. Instead of going to a supermarket or wet market, picking your greens and checking out, you can now choose which organic vegetables you want and have them delivered to your doorstep within 6-8 hours of harvest

Its farming methods reduce up to 90% of water use compared to conventional farming methods, introducing more pesticide-free vegetables into the market and reducing food miles (which leads to food waste). 

The Picture Wasn’t Always Rosy Though (And It Still Isn’t)

Early in the development of Urban Tiller, Jolene 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, she pivoted and recruited a tech team who would help develop an inventory management and demand aggregation system that can accommodate flexible inventory management. The constraints with technology forced the team to start lean and figure out user patterns along the way, 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. 

On the woes of being a young female founder, Jolene had this to say:

“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.

She also found that younger founders are perceived as inexperienced and lacking pedigree, but she took it in her stride, overcoming the negative perception of older people telling her how to run her business. Remaining positive even when facing tremendous resistance was one of the key reasons why she has managed to turn her startup into a business that farmers now recognize and support. 

Instead Of Going Out To Look For Business, Business Now Comes To Her

Having improved her company at every turn and listened to feedback and constructive criticism, farmers now realise that Jolene is here to stay, and they actively seek her out for business opportunities and to help them solve their day-to-day problems. At the same time, Urban Tiller’s consumer base has been growing and very satisfied with a wide assortment of local produce.

Her philosophy of “Content, Community and Commerce” has helped to build her brand within the community of farmers and buyers. Moreover, documenting the process of building an environmentally sustainable agrarian community has paid off. 

For those interested in eating (and living) sustainably, it has never been easier to do so. Download Urban Tiller’s mobile app available on iOS or Android or visit their website to order fresh produce today. Use the code UTFIRST30 to get 30% off your first in-app purchase.

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