Increasing demand for sustainable products and services in S’pore attracts entrepreneurs

SINGAPORE – Food-based entrepreneurs and start-ups are sprouting up all over Singapore as the demand for sustainable products and services goes into overdrive.

While this demand is underpinning the eco-food trend, the extended time people spent grounded in Singapore during the pandemic also prompted some to tackle environmental issues, said Ms Rosalind Bazany, head of environmental, social, governance (ESG) and impact at Antler, a Singapore-based venture capital firm.

The result is a spate of pioneering firms in fields as diverse as urban farming, edible straws and plant-based eggs led by go-getters not afraid to venture where few others have trod.

Take former flight attendant turned entrepreneur Roc Koh, who started agriculture start-up Corridor Farmers in 2020 to build micro gardens and farms at schools and companies to help support food security and reduce the nation’s carbon footprint.

“When you farm your own food, you cancel out a lot of carbon emissions that’s produced, reducing miles. If we could have small farms at every corner of Singapore, we can reduce a lot of food miles,” said Mr Koh, 36.

Corridor Farmers promotes sustainable farming methods such as fermenting expired yogurt and milk to use as fertiliser, said Mr Koh.

“Many of our build materials that we integrate into our farm design are also made from recycled material, such as our custom modular planter box and raised bed, that are made from recycled plastics and reprocessed deck wood,” he added.

The company also runs education programmes on indoor and rooftop farms for schools given food security is now part of the classroom curriculum. It also conducts workshops on topics such as composting, awareness on sustainability and hydroponics.

Fresh university graduate Vanessa Chia has taken a different track in her eco-business journey.

Ms Chia, 24, was inspired by an entrepreneurship module she took at university and seized the opportunity to set up a start-up selling sustainable products when she found that alternatives to paper straws were not commonly sold here.

She and mechanical engineer Claudia Teck, 24, started ZeroW, selling edible rice straws on e-commerce platform Shopee as an alternative to paper straws, which are more popular as substitutes for plastic ones.

Rice straws can last for two hours unlike paper straws, which can start to collapse in under an hour.

“Rice straws are burnt as food waste so they don’t provide the chemicals that burning paper straws do; they are biodegradable,” said Ms Teck.

The two entrepreneurs face challenges in terms of pricing, however, as rice straws are about a cent more expensive than paper ones.

“We’re trying to get more companies to adopt our straws and hope to make a profit by the end of the year,” said Ms Teck, adding that they are looking at other green products such as edible cups.

Local start-up Float Foods hopes to dish up an alternative treat with a plant-based substitute for chicken eggs it has developed.

Its concoction consists of an egg yolk and white as separate components that can be cooked sunny-side up. It will be launched by the end of the year.

The firm already produces plant-based omelette strips made from legumes that can be used in fried egg dishes and sandwiches.

Ms Vinita Choolani, founder and chief executive, said 25 or so local restaurants have bought the omelette strips.

“There’s a very good demand for plant-based products nowadays as there has been a big shift in people’s mindsets,” said Ms Choolani.

“People are more careful about their food choices now and are more ready to adopt plant-based food as the options are not only healthier but also taste good.”

Float Foods won an SOE-Neo Start-up prize at the annual Spirit of Enterprise Awards on May 25. The award recognises start-ups that drive the nation’s economic growth at a time of constant technological disruption.

As Sustainability and the Environment Minister Grace Fu noted earlier this month, if consumers avoid disposables, buy locally farmed vegetables and fish and choose energy-efficient appliances, these choices will create ripple effects that accelerate the development of more sustainable products.

While these cutting-edge firms face funding and other challenges, they also have some built-in advantages, said Ms Stefanie Beitien, head of market transformation at World Wide Fund for Nature Singapore.

She noted that green start-ups have the opportunity to build a sustainable business model aligned to the ESG criteria right from the start compared with corporations that need to adjust to the change.

“On the consumer front, there is also a growing, unmet demand for sustainable products and services in Singapore – consumers want more avenues that enable a circular economy, by ensuring the use of the reduce, reuse, recycle (3R) approach,” added Ms Beitien.

As Singapore accelerates sustainable development with the Green Plan 2030 agenda, there is significant funding channelling into decarbonisation and the circular economy that attracts start-ups, she added.