As consumers found it a little more difficult to get certain food items at the grocers – and also with time on their hands as they stayed home – they started looking into possibly growing their own food. Marcus Tan and Andy Ng thought the same.
“I used to visit the supermarket every three days to get my vegetable supply during the movement control order. Once, I waited two hours for vegetables to arrive at the supermarket, and began to think what would happen if there was a shortage of my beloved salads, ” mulls Tan. Tan, whose primary business is in landscaping, figured it would be easy for him to diversify into planting vegetables. He researched ideas and methods to design some kind of prototype hydroponic set.
And then, through some divine appointment, he was introduced to Ng, who not only supplies vegetable seeds and sets up commercial hydroponic farms around the region, but who is also very much interested in growing his own food.
“Rather than queue at the supermarket to buy food, why not grow or ‘queue’ your own vegetables for harvesting?” asks Ng.
The duo hit it off and founded GrowEatWell (GEW), which produces hydroponic hobby kits to enable people to grow their own vegetables for consumption.
Of course, there are already many hydroponic hobby kits that are available in the market, since urban farming is not exactly new. The competition is not only with other hydroponic kit sellers but also with organic vegetable suppliers and businesses that supply ready-to-eat vegetable boxes. What makes GEW’s product different, says Tan, is the digital component to their kits. When the first GEW trial kit arrived at his office, Tan admits to being totally lost on how to set up the system, upkeep the vegetables and maintain the set.
“I realised the biggest stress of growing vegetables would be having many unknowns – where to start, how to ensure my plants are healthy, how to harvest. “Therefore, we decided to digitise the whole process of farming through a mobile app.
There are reminders to add fertiliser and water, FAQs and a platform for users to ask questions so that we can guide them through the whole growing process. Our additional service is a ‘plant doctor online’ and R&D team who can answer questions on the health of your plants.
“We want to show customers that it is really easy, ” says Tan. The company has invested substantially into research and development to ensure that they have sufficient data on its growing plots and seedlings to aid customer queries. They obtained a 4,000 sq ft smart greenhouse in Kampung Subang that would enable them to further refine their systems and improve vegetable and seedling selections, among other things. “Since we cannot allow our customers to use trial and error for the kits, we are building baseline data to give out to our customers. Data is very important, ” Ng points out.
They are also looking to add more high-tech features to the kits and source for other forms of plant-based nutrients for the vegetables. Consumer feedback has been positive so far, given its launch into the market only early this year. Most of their concerns revolve around the time taken to grow the vegetables, cost and the lack of space in their homes for urban farming. Tan notes that consumer education and proper guidance are key to boosting prospective urban farmers.
The company aims to sell 1,000 hydroponic sets this year and is targeting an eventual 2% penetration of M40 and T20 households in Malaysia. Surprisingly, its first big order came from Singapore, which may expedite the company’s plans to venture down the Southern border. Tan says:
“Expanding beyond the Klang Valley is the next logical step for us. Andy already has a ginger farm in Kulim, Kedah. So setting up a base up North also seems like a logical step besides going down south to Singapore.
“We have also received numerous enquiries to help people set up urban greenhouses, so this is a business segment ready for harvest since Andy has built many greenhouses.
“Our business is only at the ‘grow’ stage where we are focusing on bringing out as many kits as possible to the public. Next, we will focus on the ‘eat’ stage where we are planning to open up our digital platform and work with other vendors to create an e-commerce space for products that allow people to eat healthily.
“Eventually, we will graduate to the ‘well’ stage where the focus will be on wellness and assisting people with their fitness goals. Thus, our name ‘GrowEatWell’.”