Going overseas to be farmers

Going overseas to be farmers: Driven by worry over Singapore's food security

Farming is a far-fetched notion in land-scarce Singapore, but that has not stopped some entrepreneurial Singaporeans from venturing overseas to pursue their agrarian dreams. Those dreams are driven by a variety of factors, from easing food security concerns to a taste for fresh produce to creating jobs for locals in their host countries. Aw Cheng Wei reports.

Shovelling manure to make fertiliser, weeding and organising harvests keep former civil servant Lai Poon Piau pretty flat out when he is on his pepper farm in Kampot in south-western Cambodia.

Mr Lai visits the 10ha farm, where he grows Kampot peppercorn, every other month and stays for a week each time.

When harvest season rolls around between April and June, he stays for up to two weeks.

"Every day, I come back (to the farm house) with my clothes stained, tired but also relaxed. It's meaningful manual work, working with hands," says Mr Lai, 53.

Becoming a farmer was his way of continuing a legacy passed down from his grandfather to his father, who owned rubber plantations in Malaysia.

His cousins still run the plantations in southern Johor.

Mr Lai, a father of two undergraduates, jokes that his wife, an accountant based in Japan, considers his pepper passion project a mid-life crisis.

MEANINGFUL WORK

Every day, I come back (to the farm house) with my clothes stained, tired but also relaxed. It's meaningful manual work, working with hands.

FORMER CIVIL SERVANT LAI POON PIAU

But his decision to start a farm - and subsequently a brand called Hong Spices - was driven by concern over Singapore's food security. "Singapore is vulnerable when it comes to food safety... We don't grow our own food," he says.

Mr Lai first started looking for land when he was in a corporate position in the oil and gas industry in 2006.

When he left that job in 2009, the civil service offered him a position, but he always knew he was going to start his own farm.

In 2016, he left his government post to focus on his pepper project.

He wanted to play to the region's strength by growing Kampot pepper because the World Trade Organisation (WTO) recognises the area as a special place to grow the spice.

The WTO also recognises Champagne in France and Tequila in Mexico among other speciality-related locations.

 
 

But buying land in Cambodia was not easy. In 2008, Mr Lai lost $180,000 when he bought some acreage through a middleman who was trying to flip it.

"The middleman could not get the owner to sell, and he had already spent the deposit I gave him," Mr Lai says.

Taking the agent to court would have been too expensive and a long-drawn-out process, he adds.

Thankfully, he met a local partner through the setback, and the two have been working together to build the pepper farm since then. They started with 6,000 vines in 2014 and now have 20,000.

The vines, which take three years to mature, were first harvested last year and yielded a tonne of peppers that are now being sold to restaurants and retailers.

Mr Lai is also selling the peppers through the Hong Spices website and online stores Handpicked.sg and Lazada.

He hopes Hong Spices, which now has eight full-time workers in Cambodia, can show that regional produce can be of high quality and to instil in buyers a sense of pride in using products made in Asia.

"We buy the best steak but we (tend to) put the cheapest pepper on it," Mr Lai says.