IMAGINE growing crops in the Negev Desert in southern Israel, which only receives 60mm to 80mm (roughly 2½ to 3 inches) of rainfall per year.
That is what Israeli water engineer Simcha Blass did when he realised one particular tree seemed to be growing better than surrounding plants in a patch of desert.
The answer turned out to be a water pipe that was leaking next to the tree, providing water to the soil around it, drop by drop. In 1965, he founded the company Netafim to introduce low-volume drip irrigation to the world. Netafim has since gone on to refine the technology that helps farmers grow more with less resources.
Going further back in 1929, University of California at Berkeley scientist William Frederick Gericke grew 25ft high tomato vines in his back yard in mineral nutrient solutions rather than soil. He named the technique hydroponics.
Locally, GiftSeries Sdn Bhd founder and managing director Jimmy Tan brought together his knowledge of chemistry and gardening to produce hydroponic systems that are not only suitable for growing vegetables, but also various flowering plants.
Sold under the brand name Farben, which means “colour” in German, he said it also means the inspiration to bring more colour in a space, which he believes could add to the well being of people.
“Also, with the scarcity of land and people moving towards vertical living, I believe this is one of the solutions available to not only do vertical farming but also, vertical gardening,” he tells Metrobiz.
Tan worked for multinational oil and gas company Shell for over 20 years in various capacities, before making the decision to become an entrepreneur.
“I decided that I did not want to work until retirement and wanted to start a business before I got too old,” he said.
His last position, as the global procurement head for the gas division, gave him wide exposure to how to manage the procurement process for the gas division across 55 countries.
With the experience in supply chain management and sourcing, he also established contact with suppliers worldwide, which led him to start a corporate gift business in 2004.
He started the company by using the RM500,000 gratuity payment he received from Shell as seed money.
“Relatives and friends strongly discouraged me from going into business. They felt I should not give up a position that was stable and financially rewarding. Plus, my expertise was well sought after even after retirement,” he said.
Even a simple business has its challenges and in Tan’s case, it was the intense competition from more than 400 companies in the corporate gifts business in Selangor and Federal Teritory alone.
In 2008, after about four years in the business, he then ventured into the festive hamper business, again supplying to corporate customers.
In 2011, after growing the company from three employees to 24 occupying two double storey light industrial shoplots spanning 5,500 sq ft in Ara Damansara, Tan used his knowledge of supply chain management and the network he had established to get into a business a little more connected to nature.
Tan says he realised many gardeners face the issue of repotting because, after some time, the soil does not have the nutrients needed for the plants to grow further.
Out of curiousity, the former chemical engineer did some research on fertilisers in his house after finding out that the chemical components of fertilisers were available in the market and different blends could be made and tested.
“In order to test the formula I needed to do it in a completely inert medium so I decided to work on a hydroponic system,” he said.
Being a closed system, he said he was able to control the acidity and nutrients needed for plants to flourish. From the research, he also found that different varieties of vegetable and flowers required different combination of fertiliser.
Adding that the usual solid fertliser consists of six macronutrients and seven micronutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, boron and nickel, he said his research and development has resulted in close to 13 nurients vital for plant growth packaged in liquid form.
Nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium are the primary components, with sulphur, calcium, and magnesium being secondary element. To this, seven other trace elements — molybednum, boron, zinc, copper, manganese, iron and chlorine — are added.
Using common chemical compounds, sludge will form if all the 13 elements are packed together.
They have to be stored separately, leading to the creation of two separate types of liquefied fertilisers.
“The fertiliser is vital because in a closed system, there is nothing except for water. Certain compounds like urea found in granule fertiliser cannot be used because there is none of the bacteria in soil to convert urea (in conventional fertiliser) to nitrogen,” he said.
Let’s get physical
He says that tray hydroponic systems were introduced a long time ago, however, they were unpopular because they became mosquito breeding grounds and changes in water level disrupted plant growth.
“We tried to address two things here. First, the correct fertiliser which we mentioned earlier and second, a regulated water circulation system that gives the roots oxygenated water,” he said.
Starting with a crude systems made of pipes, he then tried square pipes and from there other designs evolved.
The company’s system is similar to scaled down versions of continuous nutrient recirculation systems currently used in commercial vegetable production in Cameron Highlands.
Because of its scale, he said sourcing for the parts is a challenge and some parts, like water pumps that can function in acidic environments, are sourced from China.
“We first created the four-pipe rack system, then the wall-mounted system and the latest is the hydroponic planter box. We continued testing fertilisers and now we have created formulas for flowers, fruits and vegetables as well,” he said.
The wall-mounted system allows vegetable or flowers to be grown on walls and window sills. This allows green walls, which are becoming popular in condominiums and shopping complexes, to be easily set u p.
The company’s new designs can be automated so that a pump ensures the right amount of water is recirculated to the roots of the plants.
The wall-mounted and rack systems are fully automated and need only be connected to a water pipe.
However, water replenishment is required for planter boxes. If the water level is low, one can know from the water level indicator that resembles a car’s engine oil dipstick. The owners of the hydroponic systems only need to add the liquefied fertiliser once a week.
Planning to launch the system officialy in the floral festival in Putrajaya soon, Tan said they are also working on a misting system that incorporates a mixture of chemicals extracted from plants that can drive mosquitoes away.