Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil. It is a type of horticulture and a subset of hydroculture that involves growing plants without soil, using water-based mineral nutrient solutions in aqueous solvents instead.
It’s at the core of what Salad Bar by Phytopia is all about. Founded in 2019, it has been on a mission to bring agricultural technologies back to the ones that need them the most, the common people.
Going back to the grassroots
The team began with five members; a lecturer and four of his former students all from Universiti Malaysia Kelantan, Jeli campus (UMKKJ).
The five were Mohd b. Mahmud (Mansor), Muhammad Firas Hamizan Hassan, Zaid Azri, Maizatul Vanizha, and Syamil Hazeem.
However, co-founders Zaid and Syamil later pursued careers in bio-industrial technology and are no longer part of the team at Phytopia.
Mansor has been a lecturer with UMKKJ for 14 years. He graduated from Wageningen University, the Netherlands, in plant pathology and greenhouse technology.
Besides being passionate about the agrifood system, Mansor became one of Switzerland’s Thought for Food Foundation regional ambassadors in 2020.
This was to further support and promote activities in the agrifood scene, especially within Southeast Asia. The founder is now pursuing his PhD in agricultural supply chain risk management.
Meanwhile, Faris is currently pursuing his Master’s in food technology while juggling his full-time responsibilities of overseeing the day-to-day operations of Phytopia.
In 2014, Mansor’s idea of social entrepreneurship was sparked when BBC featured in an article a social entrepreneur who revolutionised menstrual health for women in India.
Following that, during his trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia, the lecturer witnessed a lifestyle that was borderline poverty.
“It made me realise that I wasn’t contributing as much as I would have liked to the betterment of the country, seeing as I was an academician specialising in agriculture,” shared Mansor.
It looked like the universe agreed with Mansor’s self-discovery too. In 2019, an opportunity presented itself when he received an invitation from MaGIC (now known as MRANTI) to attend a Social Enterprise Bootcamp for two weeks in Cyberjaya.
He reached out to Firas to bring along friends who might be interested, a move which also led to the duo becoming the co-founders of Phytopia.
“Even before the inception of Phytopia, we knew the problem we wanted to solve. It was poverty and agrotechnology,” shared Mansor.
In shortlisting their options, the team decided to focus on the urban poor in the Projek Perumahan Rakyat housing around the Klang Valley.
“But the problem then was money. To begin with the concept, we needed at least RM20,000, an amount none of us had, and applying for a loan was not an option,” said Mansor.
They believed going into debt to start a business is never a good idea. Hence, after consulting with their mentor, the team realised that they had to go through a series of channels before transforming the idea into a reality.
So first, their mentor suggested, “Go back to your community, back to the community where [you] belong.”
Starting with salad
Upon their return from the bootcamp, the team decided to shelve the idea first.
However, later, Mansor came across an article about food insecurity among students. According to him, a total of 60% of students in local universities do not practice a healthy eating lifestyle.
“With some research, I found that most of the population in Jeli relies on oil palm and rubber plantations as their primary source of income,” explained Mansor.
Armed with a purpose, Mansor contacted Faris and together the duo finally figured out a solution to the problem. They could work on creating both the demand and supply at the same time. Farmers would create the supply, and the campus community would create the demand.
“Based on my experience in agriculture extension services, we decided to go with the simplest technology, which was hydroponics,” said Mansor.
According to him, the technology has been in Malaysia since the 70’s, but adoption for this was slow. In order to outsource farmers, the co-founders had to prove that the technology could actually yield results.
“We developed our first MVP, a cold salad bowl. We wanted to test the demand for healthy foods first,” added Mansor.
Coincidentally, the university also organised a biannual event, Agriculture Expo. The team decided to take the opportunity and opened up a pop-up booth.
They were eventually sold out within a few hours of operation.
Hydroponics as a foundation
In their first phase, the team introduced the farmer partners with hydroponics technology or Nutrient Film Technique (NFT).
According to Mansor, NFT saves 90% of water and is three times more productive than conventional farming methods.
However, its limitation includes its suitability only for leafy vegetables such as romaine or butterhead lettuce. This is due to the shallow channel that can’t support fruiting crops with an extensive rooting network.
Over time, the team experimented with Deep Flow Technique (DFT) and successfully grew cherry tomatoes.
“As of now, we have helped our farmers grow romaine, butterhead lettuce, Brazilian spinach, cherry tomatoes, and rockmelon. Almost all menus in our cafe have these produce as the main ingredient,” shared Mansor.
The co-founders developed their mobile unit based on understanding the basic concept of the correct water flow, depth, and size to maximise value.
From farm to salad bar
The team designs the hydroponics system, sources the materials themselves, and assembles the system.
The capacity of the system is based on the location of the farmers. For example, farmers with more space will have larger units and vice versa.
However, as a micro business with limited capital, the team can only subsidise smaller units.
“Farmers who request for larger units will have to fork out their own money, or in a special case, be matched with sponsors through grants,” added Mansor.
At the moment, Phytopia has two groups of farmers—student farmers and regular farmers.
As the name suggests, student farmers are typically sponsored by the university, which allows them to use abandoned units.
“Besides subsidising and supplying them with the physical system, we also provide continuous technical and know-how support until they can stand independently,” shared Mansor.
Currently, the team has five units. Two are operated by farmers in Jeli, whereby one produces leafy vegetables only while the other produces leafy vegetables and cherry tomatoes. One more farmer produces rockmelon, but since it’s a seasonal produce, he doesn’t do it full-time.
Another three are located in UMKKJ, managed by student bodies. They produce leafy vegetables only. The Salad Bar by Phytopia student staff will process all the produce into healthy and balanced meals.
“The staff are explicitly selected among students from the B40 groups. It’s either they or their family were recipients of Zakat or Bantuan Sara Hidup,” Mansor added.
As for expansion plans, Phytopia is currently in the midst of building SHIP 2, which is also in its R&D phase. SHIP 2 is the intelligent version of regular hydroponics units, and will have smart monitoring functions.
“The latest collaboration is with Universiti Malaysia Perlis to develop an intelligent system. The purpose of this is to grow low-land strawberries,” explained Mansor.
What started as a solution to address farmers’ low income has grown into so much more, and the developments the Phytopia team has seen are reassuring.
After all, the co-founders believe that for any technology to be accepted, it must achieve its set primary goals first.
“Many smart system projects in Malaysia were unsuccessful because of the objective mismatch between providers and beneficiaries,” summed up Mansor.
Thus, one could say they’re on the right track.
Featured Image Credit: Salad Bar by Phytopia