With growing governmental support, Singaporean farmers are now actively looking at using technology to replace traditional farming methods. For instance, strawberries, a cold weather crop, can now be grown indoors in the sunny city-state.
Not only can new technologies provide novel methods of growing food, they can also create new and efficient ways to bring produce to consumers. Glife, a B2B agritech startup, has built that system. The company recently closed a USD 1.2 million seed round and has ambitious plans for its immediate future.
KrASIA recently spoke with Justin Chou, the CEO and co-founder of Glife, to learn more about how the company came to be, the challenges it faces, as well as his plans to make a billion people go green.
KrASIA (K): How has growing up in a family of business owners influenced your own journey in entrepreneurship?
Justin Chou (C): Growing up in a family of business owners taught me a few important lessons in life that I still carry with me. Hard work and humility are two qualities that my parents have always emphasized. They have also inculcated in me the importance of building a purpose-driven business. It shouldn’t be solely profit-driven.
Thus, I have made it my life’s mission to inspire a billion lives to go green and to feed a hundred million people with plant food. I also believe that it’s necessary to get my hands dirty in order to lead well as an entrepreneur.
K: What motivated you to start your first company, Greendot?
C: I started Greendot immediately after completing my mandatory national service. My initial idea was to create an Asian fusion fast-casual restaurant, basically the Chipotle of plant-based food. The business grew and today, the Greendot Group has 14 outlets under three brands island-wide. We are the leading plant-based restaurant group in Singapore.
K: How did the idea for Glife come to be?
C: It was at this juncture, when we were managing more outlets, that I started to notice the gaps within the agriculture supply chain. I soon found that there was no way for me to trace back to the farmers whose produce was being sold in the night markets.
This lack of clarity, coupled with the need to go through multiple middlemen, often means that farmers fail to make consistent profits due to fluctuations in pricing. Some even get squeezed. Moreover, the quality of this produce can’t be guaranteed. Restaurants also end up paying a premium for fresh produce.
K: Did you receive any advice from other people?
C: I first heard about the business model of China’s Meicai from my mentor James Tan, the managing partner of Quest Ventures. Soon, alongside three others—Caleb Wu, Wayne Goh, and Joe Chen—I started a new venture, Glife. Our aim was to overlay the entire agriculture supply chain with technology to make it more efficient and productive. I have since stepped down as the chief executive officer of Greendot Group in order to focus on Glife. My co-founder at Greendot, Fu Yong Hong, now helms the company as CEO.
K: With Glife, what specific steps did you take to address fluctuating food quality, the lack of transparency, and sidestepping middlemen?
C: Sustainability and biodiversity issues have always been close to my heart.
However, it was only after I learned more about nutritional science that I dived deeper to discover more about various food sources. According to some of the reports that I have read, farmers in the region use pesticides or herbicides excessively in their farming. While this might help to ensure crop yields, this fresh produce is harmful to the health of consumers like us. The farmers themselves don’t consume their own produce.
I felt that this is a serious issue and hope to use technology to solve it. With greater demand from HORECA [hotel/restaurant/cafe] customers, we expect to use technology to forecast that demand, thereby allowing farmers to plan for supply in advance to generate consistent margins in the long run. This will be more effective than current methods of over-using things like pesticides or herbicides.
K: Quest Ventures funded Glife at the pre-seed stage. How did you use those funds to drive traction?
C: We initially had plans to use the pre-seed funding to launch our ordering app, but our mentor James Tan warned us about the potential pitfalls. It would be pointless to have a fanciful app without customers using it.
We heeded his advice and focused on developing a deeper understanding of the pain points of farmers and potential users. Once there was sufficient traction, we started to build our minimum viable product (MVP).
K: With backing from GFC, 500 Startups, and tech veteran Royston Tan, what is Glife’s next step?
C: We are currently piloting different solutions across the agriculture supply chain, from enterprise resource planning for farmers, to efficient warehouse management and logistics solutions, to our app-based ordering platform. The goal is to be more efficient and transparent to ensure the quality of fresh produce and to provide a seamless experience for our customers.
Once our technology solutions are fully integrated and running smoothly, we intend to expand into Malaysia and, later, into other countries around the region. We seek first to work directly with local farmers, exporting their produce to Singapore as it is pertinent to build trust and have positive working relationships, so we can scale our online marketplace successfully.
K: How does Glife draw inspiration from China’s Meicai?
C: Our mentor James Tan arranged a sharing session with one of the founders of Meicai. The opportunity allowed us to learn more about the challenges they faced during their early days, and also the strategies they employed to get them to where they are today.
One thing that stood out was Meicai’s ability to achieve 99% accuracy in fulfillment orders. In Singapore, even the major produce distributors can’t achieve this success rate. That’s why we believe that technology will reduce human error and improve agriculture’s supply chain.
K: What have been the biggest challenges for Glife when it comes to convincing farmers to come on board?
C: The most challenging task so far hasn’t been getting farmers to come on board, it’s figuring out how to get them to sell their produce to us. These farmers prefer to work with people that they are familiar with, and the fact that we lack volume only made the task more daunting.
Currently, we are piloting a few solutions internally and these are still in the MVP stage. Getting our employees or customers to get used to a new way of working is much harder than developing the technology. Forming new habits is a huge challenge in itself.
K: How can these obstacles be overcome?
C: We believe that technology is an enabler rather than the core of our business. Being able to deliver fresh produce with consistent quality at competitive prices is the most important thing. It’s about being cheaper, better, and more efficient.
Lastly, we believe that by helping farmers farm better, we can set a new standard for agriculture. Only then can we form a positive eco-system of stakeholders in agriculture around the region.
This article is part of KrASIA’s “Startup Stories” series, where the writers of KrASIA speak with founders of tech companies in Southeast Asia.