Southeast Asia leads foodtech revolution

Southeast Asia leads foodtech revolution

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Humans make up just 0.1% of all living things on Earth, yet we’ve converted almost 40% of land on the planet to agriculture. That’s an area bigger than North and South America combined - and it’s increasing every year as more forests give way to hooves and the plough to meet the world’s growing demand for food.

But it’s still not enough, even among the soaring wealth of Southeast Asia. About 15% of the population in the Philippines and Cambodia is undernourished, while land-scarce Singapore is increasingly worried about its dependence on vulnerable overseas supply chains to feed its people.

Fortunately, there are signs of hope, and it’s against this backdrop of food insecurity that some of the most innovative solutions are beginning to emerge. A rising number of Southeast Asia startups are developing technology that is improving food production and the delivery and quality of food from a farmer’s field to a family’s fridge.

Singapore

Most Singaporeans didn’t think twice about their sources of food until the pandemic when disruptions to global supply chains triggered a wave of hoarding that left many store shelves empty. With just 1% of the city-state’s land available for agriculture, Singapore depends on a steady arrival of trucks and planes to feed its growing population.

This situation may be about to change. The government is investing heavily in technology to help the country produce 30% of its required calories by 2030. A key ingredient to achieving food independence will be locally grown meat.

While local scientists work on creating meat that can be grown in large vats, Singapore recently became the first country in the world to approve the sale of meat from a lab instead of an animal. 

Plant-based meat is on the table too. The Singapore startup Next Gen Foods has raised another $20 million to help bring its chicken alternative to US consumers. One of the company’s investors was the Singapore government’s investment company, Temasek, which is active in another solution to the country’s food insecurity – vertical farming.

Vertical farms are starting to appear on carpark rooftops and inside empty buildings as the country finds clever alternatives to traditional farming. Temasek is also an investor in the vertical farming unicorn Bowery Farming.

Singapore has a unique approach to food security because, as a small island nation, it has specific needs. For other countries, the problem isn’t the availability of land – it’s the need to make this land more productive. After a slow start, Southeast Asia is beginning to make progress here as well.

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On the farm

Researchers recently took a look at 60 digital solutions for agriculture and studied how they were being applied around the world. They found that just 2.5% of the 71 million small farms in Southeast Asia used these tools to improve yields. 

It’s not many, but it also wasn’t long ago that most of Southeast Asia lacked access to the Internet and mobile phones, whereas today, the region spends more time online than anywhere else.

This rapid adoption of digital technology is beginning to impact food production. A study in Vietnam found that farmers who deployed IoT sensors to monitor moisture content in the soil could use up to 20% less water on their fields. In many cases, the farmers never had to leave their homes – because an app on their mobile phones controlled the entire process.

 

New technology will do more than improve irrigation. Drones, big data, AI and machine learning can combine to transform farming from the first planted seed to the final product on someone’s plate. The startup Gro Intelligence, for example, draws on satellite data and AI analytics to help farmers and ranchers anticipate demand and pricing long before they sow a crop or gather up a herd.

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Delivery

Farmers in Southeast Asia may be catching up with some of their peers elsewhere in the world. But there are two sectors of the food industry where Southeast Asia is second to no one when it comes to digital adoption – delivery and preparation. 

Singapore-based Grab has become one of the region’s most valuable companies in part due to its sophisticated food delivery operations. And it’s been busy with food elsewhere too. GrabKitchen is one of Southeast Asia’s largest cloud kitchens, virtual restaurants that prepare food solely for delivery instead of diners. 

Cloud kitchens can avoid high rents and expensive staff while leveraging the power of AI and big data to provide prepared food cheaply and quickly to people eating at home. 

While virtual restaurants are becoming popular, the traditional dining experience will always be in demand, and here too, innovative foodtech startups are busy making improvements. Frubana is a digital B2B marketplace that streamlines the delivery of produce from farmers to restaurant tables – improving profit margins for producers and preparers alike. 

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The world’s problems with food insecurity won’t be solved overnight. But the rapid pace of innovation among foodtech startups in Southeast Asia and elsewhere is bringing us ever closer to revolutionizing how we use the planet and feed its people.

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