SGP Foods: Aspiring Woman Entrepreneurs Award 2021/2022

Pek Formal Photo
Pek Formal Photo

Ms. Pek Yun Ning, Chairman and Founder of SGP Foods Pte Ltd

The growing awareness of climate change globally has prompted many countries to take precautionary measures to slow down pace to protect the earth environment. Singapore is not exempt, and authorities have implemented policies like the 30 by 30 goal (30% locally produced by 2030). In 2019, Singapore announced that $100 billion would be committed to combatting climate change over the next 100 years.

The Chairman and Founder of SGP Foods Pte. Ltd., Ms. Pek Yun Ning, has been developing her business plans since 2018. Over the years, with the global move towards sustainability and combating climate change, many innovative and creative ideas have been implemented. The carbon market has gained increasing traction besides the agritech market, with an increasing number of sustainability businesses making the news in recent days.

Ms. Pek met her co-founder 3 years ago in Silicon Valley, at a blockchain event. With an aligned vision to combat both climate change and food security, they started ideating several projects they would like to embark on – that shaped their business to be what it is today. Ms. Pek is adept at bringing ideas to life, leadership, people management, strategy, and execution. Mr. Jonah Crawford is a skilled technologist and innovator at heart. Topped up with a diverse and talented team, they have a clear path to success.

For their achievements in business growth, innovative solutions and foresight, SGP Foods Pte. Ltd. will be awarded the Singapore Prestige Class Award 2021/2022. Additionally, for her entrepreneurial spirit, ambition and the drive to continually learn and grow, Ms. Pek Yun Ning will be receiving the Aspiring Woman Entrepreneurs Award 2021/2022.

Could you tell me about the business verticals of SGP Foods? 

The essence of my business is to combat climate change and achieve food security for Singapore, and of course other parts of the world; but starting with Singapore – through methods such as developing propriety technologies and processes. My company has quite a few verticals, we are setting up a group-subsidiary structure.

Our first vertical is related to the carbon market. We are developing a whole ecosystem in that aspect. It is quite a new market; Singapore recently released a few news articles to express the desire to turn the country into a carbon hub. There was also a recent launch of a carbon exchange in Singapore. The idea is that we are developing solutions in this market, the whole end-to-end process. For example, it starts from developing the technology to do the monitoring, reporting and verification of carbon credits. Carbon credits can be generated through projects, and they need to be verified so that they can be trustable, so that during the exchange you can trust the price at which it is traded. 

We are developing the technology to monitor, report and verification of carbon credits. At the same time, we are developing a platform that can facilitate the purchase and sales of carbon, in essence the trading of carbon credits. We even have our own project in Mexico, on land that we have acquired there and are conducting carbon sequestration. Carbon sequestration is a process where carbon is being absorbed by the atmosphere and is a way of generating carbon credits. There are many ways to go about doing this, and our company does it through soil amendments. We do amendments to the soil so that the soil can absorb carbon dioxide more efficiently and effectively. With less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the atmosphere is less warm, and this contributes to combatting climate change. Through this process that we can replicate anywhere else in the world, we generate carbon credits that we can use for our own operations or pipeline to countries, corporates, and organisations.

As such, carbon credits is one of our revenue streams. The reason there is a demand for this market is because different countries and companies have carbon caps, as a result, they have varying limits to the amount of carbon dioxide they can produce. When they have hit their limit, they will need to purchase more to continue their operations.

For example, Singapore has a low carbon cap because we do not have much land, and because of this, our country itself has a demand for carbon credits. People who can supply it are companies like us with a lot of land and can establish the necessary carbon credit generation projects to be able to be able to meet the demand. What I have described is our first business vertical that can achieve the end-to-end process of monitoring, reporting and verification, to having a platform, and even having our own project in the carbon space. We start with Mexico – currently we have 50 hectares of land in Mexico that we received from signing a Memorandum of Understanding with a well-known food-tech company in Mexico.

With the land that we have in Mexico (hundreds of thousands of hectares within the next few years), we can deliver large-scale carbon projects. In addition, as a company, we have international ambitions that stretch way beyond Mexico. On an international scale, we are developing a franchise a land management model. This model can be applicable to anywhere in the world, as long as there are fertile and underutilised lands. At the moment, in line with this ambition, we are in talks with business contacts in Africa, Thailand, and are eyeing Indonesia as well. Since it can be anywhere in the world, even right here in Asia, we can benefit a lot of developing countries; in terms of agricultural land improvement, bringing technology into their countries, and most importantly – uplifting quality of lives.

Besides carbon credits and tools required to verify carbon credits that we are creating, we are also producing food crops from the lands that we have. We derive oil, flour and fibre from these food crops, which can be sold as both primary and secondary products. These help to achieve food security in Singapore when we pipeline it back; it can be exported to anywhere else in the world as well.

Our second business vertical is how we originally incorporated our company, in the area of agritech (high-tech urban indoor farming). We have filed patents for our vertical agriculture structure in four different countries – Singapore, China, India and the United States. This gives us quite a defensible claim over the infrastructure and technologies that we develop.

SGP Foods’ Mexico Lands

One of the milestones that we have achieved in this vertical would be signing a five-year letter of collaboration with an institute of higher learning, ITE. ITE plans to start training their students in high-tech urban farming, and we are partnering them to make it happen. We are building out indoor vertical farming demonstrations in high-ceilinged rooms they have endowed us with. This is a win for us due to land scarcity and its associated costs in Singapore.

What ITE offered was two rooms comprising of almost 800 square feet with high ceilings that we could transform into a high-tech urban farming facility making use of the VertiStacks infrastructure and technology that we developed. The facility serves as a showroom for potential investors or interested buyers who may want to procure the infrastructure and technology of the agritech products that we are developing, including that of IoT, AI, and automation solutions, one that students can learn in as well.

The convenience of indoor farms is that you can grow any type of plants you want as long as you are able to control the environmental parameters within the area – this is easily achievable using technologies that can carry out monitoring and control, with automation and optimisation functionalities. These products can be sold as a package or individually depending on what the customers want. Our current approach is selling the technology and infrastructure, before going for the scale in the long term. So this means passing on the technology in the near term, and striving towards monetising from the crops in the long term. On the more cutting-edge side of things, AI technologies can predict situations in advance, and the state and health of the plant, among the innovation initiatives we have.

We have also developed a plant incubator system, Plantr, that can be put in homes and classrooms, that are stackable and modular. This was designed for students in hope of instilling the importance of food security to our youths and taking ownership of situations. It inculcates within the young ones various values and makes them more aware about Singapore’s food situation; and in the long term, may inspire them to contribute towards food security or even building businesses like ours to help the country. This is another product that comes complementary to our high-tech urban farming business.

Plantr, the Plant Incubator System\

In addition to that, with one of the spaces that ITE has provided us, we are building a micro-propagation lab. What micro-propagation does is that it enhances the chances of survival of plants at a very early stage. The most vulnerable stage of a plant is when they are still seedlings and very small. The lab allows us to enhance the plants to improve their survival rate in a very controlled and clean environment. This will eventually grow to be a new business line for SGP Foods.

We have other initiatives going on as well, since technology is our thing. We have developed software and we have clients in the education and logistics industry, and potentially, in any industry, if they approach us and ask us to build a full stack, we can. We take pride in our back-end operations because that is what differentiates us from other companies. As long as clients give us parameters of what they want the application to do and look like, we can build it up for them. In general, we are also very strong with our monitoring, reporting, and verification capabilities. With that, software technologies, is the third business vertical of our company.

We also do a lot of research and development. My co-founder and I share similar thoughts, we tend to get excited when we chance upon innovative technologies, we are usually ahead of the curve. But as with technology, we must act fast. Of course, a very organic approach is for us to go through research papers to find out what the most cutting-edge academia is developing. I completed a master’s degree in the past, and one thing I noticed about research is that it needs to be novel, people cannot have done it before.

There is an advantage in looking at research papers because everything, especially if it is the latest, is a new discovery. This has been our approach during the earlier stages of building the company, reading research papers and understanding what the latest developments are. 

SGP Foods’ collaboration with ITE

We have been collaborating with A*STAR to develop scientific methodologies to facilitate the monitoring, reporting and verification of carbon credits. We are also exploring energy efficiency projects to convert waste heat to energy. This also contributes towards combating climate change because it is a sustainable way to generate energy without harming the environment, in line with the vision of our company.

This energy efficiency aspect links to our VertiStack technology. Indoor farming requires a lot of light because outdoors we have the sun to keep plants growing. As such, for indoor farming, we need to create a light source for plants to grow. Plants do not need light shining on them all the time, but because we need electricity to power the lights, it takes up quite a lot of energy and emits quite a lot of heat. The heat recovery project can be applied to the vertical farming to generate renewable energy. As much as possible, we try to integrate sustainability components together for cohesiveness.

We are also into drone technologies. Drone technology is the hallmark what technology is about. What you see is the hardware, but the software and integrations are what makes the drone smarter and more useful. We are planning to use drone technology to enhance the land scoping processing of different areas. Some areas are not accessible to humans because of environment and terrain, but if you were to fly a drone over the area, you would not even need to carry a backpack, you can just fly a drone to record the necessary information to see what is going on in those areas allowing us to survey grounds better. Therefore, improving the signal of the drones is the key to this project, so that we can improve the distance we can dispatch the drone. Our various other areas of innovation with drone technologies transcend into technological applications throughout our entire business as well.

What made you decide on starting your business in climate change? 

This is not very common amongst Singaporeans, to develop a business in climate change. Even in farming, people usually do it because it is a family business. But for me, this was not the case. For me, all along, I was always aware of the matters of climate change and food security, and how they will affect Singapore immensely. Even before people started talking about it, I would read on my own and connect the dots. It was by chance that I met Jonah – and he had multiple ideas on how we could go about developing solutions for climate change and food security. I was inspired by the ideas, and I could see how they were very relevant to Singapore. One thing about me is that I am very patriotic. I wanted to do something to help the people, help humanity and help our country. I felt that solutions like this would be immensely beneficial for Singapore. Furthermore, Singapore could become a base to leapfrog it to anywhere else in the world. I think that this is one of the value propositions in Singapore. We are a very strong business hub; we are very well connected to other parts of the world. 

Ms. Pek and Jonah

So at that point, I decided, why not. Build it with him, incorporate and headquarter it in Singapore, become an international business. And why I mentioned I met him by chance – because on the day I met him, I almost did not go to the blockchain event because I was extremely tired. But because my friend, an American-Chinese whom I met in the bay area, offered to give me a ride, I decided to headed down in the end. To this day, I am very grateful that I went, or I would not have met Jonah, and develop this business I have today.

At that time, I was in Silicon Valley because I was doing a stint at UC Berkeley, which is in the bay area. One of the courses I took was social entrepreneurship, the closest course to what we are doing right now. I remember asking the instructor, “How do I incorporate social entrepreneurship into a business I want to create in the future?”

When you find the right person you to work with, the vision of what you want to do are aligned, and you feel you feel that your skills will be complementary, I would say go for it, especially if you are entrepreneurial. For me I knew I was very entrepreneurial, the question was just, what business would I be working on. I wanted to do good for the world, so I might as well do something that is helpful for the climate and people, and empower others. These areas are the most meaningful to me.

What inspired your business idea/concept? 

When we incorporated, we were building a business in agritech. I needed quite a bit of convincing from Jonah to pivot the business into the carbon market. That was also a process of learning about myself. When someone gives me a new idea for the first time, I am not immediately convinced. When a person pushes for it a second time, I start to process it and see the meaning in it.

Decision making is important – I must see that it is worthwhile for us to work on before we invest our time into it. There are opportunity costs in everything we do, when we do something, we cannot do another thing. We had to put a stop on some of our business verticals, but those were more into manufacturing; because it would put too much strain on our resources, we decided to shelve them before it was too late. 

It’s the same as what I mentioned before, Jonah was reading some research papers and he came across the topics on the carbon market and carbon sequestration. Furthermore, as a genuine and passionate guy, he attracts people to talk to him easily and has quite a few interesting friends, so he hears from these people who are well-versed in the current industry telling him that this was the market that he needed to be in if you are in sustainability. It’s raw; it’s new; there’s a lot of money in the market, when there’s demand, there’s definitely money there.

It is a combination of a few factors to consider before we decide to embark on a new business vertical; whether the timing is right; whether there is a demand; whether it aligns with our company aims, because sometimes beyond a certain time, very shiny opportunities come, but we must always remember what the vision of our business is and not deviate from it. The caveat is this – everything we do must relate to climate change and food security, and they should all have links to one another.

Does the company implement innovative processes into business operations?

I would like to say that my leadership style is quite refreshing to the scene – that can be considered as innovation on its own. I make it a point to be extra open-minded in terms of listening to ideas, thoughts, and opinions, by all members of my team. To listen with an intent of understanding, rather than to dish out instructions. As such, we have seen several instances of my company benefitting from consultations with my team members; they help with offering new perspectives and sharing about how they feel. That helps us to make better decisions, and align their work such that they are more happy and productive doing it.

I think in every company, the people are what form the core of the business. With the right people, with happy people, they are naturally productive, and at the same time we fulfil their Maslow’s needs as well. With more trusted and capable team members, we can let them take charge of more projects and hand them greater responsibilities – this not just takes load off my shoulders, but it also helps our business to expand faster. This is people empowerment, which stems from the believe in abundance.

As we all know too, the executive team’s style transcends into all parts of the companies too, via our values system, way of working, and the types of people we hire. As my company gets bigger, I will continue taking this approach. I will always make it a point to speak with people in the lower levels to understand what they are doing and the difficulties they are facing. 

Ms. Pek and her team

What sets SGP Foods apart from its competitors?

I would say that we pride ourselves upon continually innovating and keeping ahead of the fold. I want to be able to show our clients that we are always working towards providing good quality and cutting-edge products, and demonstrate our innovative R&D processes.

Evidence of us moving fast and not just staying stagnant include continual business expansion as we release new and cutting-edge technologies and processes. Existing clients definitely want to see this since they continually assess whether our company can provide good solutions for them. It is great to have loyal customers. At the same time, a company like this is attractive for new customers as well.

I believe in a lot in good user experience too. User experience makes a big difference in decision making. This is something that is lacking in society today. People are just continually churning products like clockwork; while people are still buying the new products, they are not getting the most out of their experience. Most times, even the smallest tweaks to the product can make a major difference to a purchase decision. The ease of usage, functionality, aesthetics – everything must come together. I would say what sets us aside from the others in the market, is the ease of use of our products. If you get to see our plant incubator system, you will be able to see that it is extremely user friendly.

And most importantly, it is our provision of the entire ecosystem of solutions for the carbon and sustainability market that sets us apart from the rest. We take a multi-faceted approach towards solutioning, from innovating, developing technology and processes, and taking a very collaborative and community-centric approach to implementing our solutions. All our sustainability projects have close links to one another and leverage similar technology and processes. This efficient approach helps us operate in a streamlined manner, making our business proposition even more alluring.

As CEO, what are your responsibilities as the business owner? 

As CEO of SGP Foods, I make decisions, chart the right direction, communicate, and develop the business strategy of my business. A lot of what I do from day to day include management of my team, communicating with external and internal stakeholders, and deciding on our next steps and priorities. I think what makes a CEO distinct is that the CEO is the ‘face of the company’, and often, the company’s brand is synonymous to the CEO. In addition to overseeing the business, I am a technologist at heart as well (in data science). I can code, but more importantly, I take a data-driven approach in developing my business. We take a very public sector collaborative approach too – since I am involved in the grassroots every week, I am very close to what the public sector does.

What made you to decide to start the business in Singapore? 

Singapore is a very business friendly place, and the government is very supportive of local enterprises. It is just whether people have the guts to do what it takes. Singapore also has extensive diplomatic ties with the rest of the world. Regardless of which partner we are dealing with, if we say that we are a Singapore company, it gives you credibility. We can work with America and China without any issues.

Additionally, Singapore has a strong logistics and distribution capability. We have free-trade agreements with many countries. It is easier to be an international business by setting up in Singapore. 

I think the last most important point for me is because, Singapore is home to me, I want to stay here. 

What are some of the major milestones you have achieved?

I would say that the first big one was having the opportunity to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I was registered as a student at Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) which was established in collaboration with MIT, but even having said that, only five percent of the cohort could go to MIT which made it extremely competitive. This gave me my first major confidence boost. It was my first time in America, and I met several lifelong friends in MIT.

The next major milestone was the opportunity that I got to help manage a small tuition business. The founder even allowed me to handle the cashflow and marketing to get students, and at the time, I was only 19 years old. This was a huge leap for me, in that process I also moved from being an introvert to an extrovert, and I have been an extrovert ever since.

The opportunity to go to the America came again and I took it. It was an opportunity to be in the Silicon Valley to fulfil part of the master’s degree requirements by studying at UC Berkeley. I never imagined that I would take my master’s degree at such a young age; it was an integrated master’s. I would say that attaining a master’s degree was also a milestone to me, and I took pride in everything I wrote – it did pay off, because my paper got published in the renowned Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Big Data Conference in Los Angeles, California. I chose the right mentor, he believed in me, the paper I wrote was meaningful, all of this contributed to the publishing of the paper. Being able to complete both my bachelor’s and master’s within four years three months and publishing a paper in the midst was an achievement.

Besides that, as a leader of my business, some other milestones that I have led my company to include attaining steady revenue streams of $250,000 per annum (2021-2022), being mentioned by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat in his Prime Minister’s Office speech, being featured in the papers, and achieving other awards such as Singapore SME 500 Award, Golden Bull Award, and Food 2.0 Award (Singapore, Regional, and International awards).

Recently, I also got nominated to be one of the Ten Outstanding Young Persons of Singapore. This award honours exceptional young people who have excelled in their respective fields of expertise and exemplified the strong passions to make a difference in the community.

If you had one piece of advice to someone starting out, what would it be?

If someone has the ambition to build their own business, and if it sounds feasible, even in the short-term, just go for it, try it out. Even if the first business fails, it gives them the experience to do better in the next round. In the past, I ran a Kickstarter and I really wanted it to become a business, but it did not happen. I would consider that my first business, and I gained a lot of insight and experience from it. So, don’t think about whether it will succeed, you need experience to run a successful company.

Also, I think it is very important to find the right people to work with you. I feel that it isn’t possible to build a good business alone, there are some who have tried to do it themselves, but they cannot get the traction that they need to get the business off the ground. But more importantly, the people that you find must also be the right ones. You shouldn’t just create a company just because you are friends, and you think the idea is good. It needs to be deliberate; you must understand what your vision is, what you want to achieve, and your work styles and personality must complement each other. A good friend does not necessarily make a good working partner. Be more deliberate in forming the team.

I suppose that makes one piece of advice already. But since we are at the tail end, I would say, last but not the least… Dream Big! With that, I hope that you got to learn more about us and I wish you all the best in your endeavours as well.

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