In The Walking Dead, one of the struggles of the surviving humans in a zombie apocalypse was finding food. But let’s not wait for that to happen.
Mid-2014, Philip Loo of HAVVA Agrotech (initially known as Loo Urban Farm) had a buddy introduce him to the concept of growing vegetables in his own home, showing him that he could produce sufficient amounts of crops for his household within just a small space in his backyard.
“I thought the idea was amazing, and started doing my research online on aquaponics and sustainable farming,” Philip said.
Philip’s research eventually landed him under the tutelage of Steffi Lee, the owner of an aquaponics farm in Taiwan who is also a cancer survivor.
Coming from a background in IT (Philip co-founded an e-commerce platform called Everyday.com.my which became a part of LivingSocial in 2013), the stress from Philip’s career constantly wore him down, making him sick very often.
“I thought that if turning to aquaponics to adopt a healthy lifestyle could help [Steffi] improve her own health, maybe it could work for me, too.”
So for a good duration of 2014, Philip spent his time in Taiwan discovering and learning about aquaponics, permaculture, urban farming, and a bunch of other related trades. He eventually came to appreciate the eco-friendly and sustainable methods that were used in such practices.
In 2015, Philip returned to Malaysia and began working on a plan to build his own aquaponics business, eventually starting HAVVA Agrotech alongside his brother Loo Cherng Look and buddy Kenzo Tan. They initially ran the operations from a 7,000 square foot bungalow in Georgetown.
Cream Of The Crop
For those not familiar with the aquaponic method of crop-growing, the concept is fairly straightforward—crops are grown without soil in structures that allow them to have their roots in constant contact with a water source that is home to fish. It’s the fish—more specifically their by-products—in the water source that end up providing the necessary nutrients for these crops to grow.
In HAVVA’s case, their crops are grown on a Penang farmland specially designed to house multiple aquaponics systems. These systems have the crops grow vertically, in a manner that allows them to go completely pesticide-free.
“We can’t cheat—if toxic pesticides are used, it’ll kill the bacteria and fish in our systems,” Philip explained. “The vegetables rely on the fish for natural organic fertilisers, and if the fish die, not only won’t the vegetables grow, but we’ll also suffer major losses to our income.”
“Therefore our customers can always rest assured that our products—be they vegetables or fish—are always safe to consume.”
Right now, HAVVA helps build and design aquaponics farms for clients, and they also manufacture and sell their own HAVVA140 line of aquaponics systems for use in homes.
According to Philip, these systems (priced at about RM4,500) are able to grow over 140 crops simultaneously and feed a family of four with vegetables (and sometimes fish) for the duration of a year.
“It’s great engagement for family members young and old, as it’s a lot of fun without the need to do any tedious work,” Philip said. “The whole family will enjoy sowing, transplanting, feeding the fish, and harvesting.”
He also added that this was all part of a mission to help people eat better and healthier while also helping out the environment.
“Our vision is to make food eco-friendly and free from toxic elements as well as make them affordable and available to everyone,” he said. “Producing and selling these systems is one of the main channels to achieve our vision.”
“Also, nothing is more satisfying than growing your own food and putting it fresh on the table,” he continued “Imagine if every household grew their own food sustainably—we’d be turning the ‘concrete jungle’ into a ‘green forest’ again.”
Talking about the market as a whole, Philip addressed the peculiar nature of aquaponics in the context of today’s farming standards. While the concept itself has a long history, its standing as a market on its own is not.
“It’s a new market—people need to have a paradigm shift,” he explained. “Generally, people are confused about food that’s ‘organic’ or ‘organic certified’.”
“Organic certification only emphasises soil preservation and sustainability, but in aquaponics it’s all soil-less, making organic certification not applicable for us.”
And he feels that because typical consumers are so hung-up on the term, there will be issues with acceptance.
“We believe we have to work towards another type of certification that proves aquaponic produce are similarly safe and healthy.”
When asked whether or not aquaponics could ever conceivably break beyond being a niche segment, Philip confidently said yes.
“I believe it will, and that’s what we’re trying to do, even if it isn’t an overnight job,” he said. “We realised that there are many hurdles and issues to be addressed in order to make aquaponics mainstream.”
“The traditional way of doing aquaponics makes it hard to achieve efficiency,” he elaborated. “But we’re researching and integrating vertical farming, aeroponics, and vermiponics into HAVVA’s technology.”
“With that, we’re looking forward to changing the whole farming landscape in the near future.”
HAVVA have received recognition from various government agencies, winning grants from MaGIC and Cradle including the MaGIC Social Enterprise grant and the Cradle CIP300 grant. In the process, they’ve also won the Industrial category at the MSC Pikom APICTA 2018 awards.
Aiming to step it up a notch, Philip and his HAVVA team are now planning to expand their market reach, first using their CIP300 funding to scale within Malaysia, and then move into neighbouring territories in 2019.
“We’re working towards another funding round in 2019 to expedite our growth,” Philip said. “We’d like to see us become the largest company making fresh and healthy food that’s eco-friendly and affordable for everyone.”
Feature Image Credit: HAVVA Agrotech