From city slickers to tech farmers

16 April 2019 | Entrepreneurship
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Kelly Ann and Wesley Oxenham, NUS alumni and founders of Farmcity

In their own words, they were first corporate idealists, then activists — and now farmers. An eye-opening experience in Mauritius led to abandoning career plans in technology and non-profit administration for this husband and wife team, NUS Design and Environment alumnus Mr Wesley Oxenham and NUS Sociology alumna Mrs Kelly Ann Oxenham.

When Mr Oxenham fell ill while on an extended holiday in Mauritius in 2016, they went looking for healthier food but encountered challenges which took them on a road of discovery. Among other things, they found that farmers in this tropical island are not prepared for the weather affecting their crops. Just two weeks of torrential rains could skyrocket vegetable prices resulting in many families switching to canned vegetables or foregoing vegetables altogether. Many farmers in Mauritius are ageing, uninterested in new transformative techniques and ignorant of the harm agrichemicals can cause. Regulations on the use of agrichemicals are vague and rarely enforced resulting in pesticides being used excessively to safeguard against infestations.

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Mr Oxenham with a harvest of zucchini

“We have a really inefficient food system, not just in Mauritius or Singapore, but globally. Our reliance on industrialised agriculture also means our food is produced in completely unsustainable ways — it is poor in nutrition, it decimates the environment, much of it goes to waste, even as others continue to go hungry because they are not able to access it... It soon became a problem we couldn’t ignore, so we decided to do something to change it. We scrapped our plans to settle in Singapore, sold what we had, and moved to Mauritius,” said Mrs Oxenham.

With no background in farming and agriculture, the couple started Farmcity, a commercially viable, environmentally sustainable and socially conscious farming model that increases access to nutritious vegetables for everybody. They designed a proprietary greenhouse, The TropicBird, specifically for Mauritius’ tropical climate. It keeps heat out, reduces the entry of pests and harvests rainwater to cultivate crops without the need for agrichemicals like pesticides.

Our reliance on industrialised agriculture also means our food is produced in completely unsustainable ways — it is poor in nutrition, it decimates the environment, much of it goes to waste, even as others continue to go hungry because they are not able to access it... It soon became a problem we couldn’t ignore, so we decided to do something to change it.

Farmcity operates on a direct-to-consumer model that keeps the prices of their produce reasonable, reduces unnecessary food miles and maintains freshness.  “We are deeply committed to building a business that adds social, ecological and health value,” said Mrs Oxenham. Mr Oxenham’s background in entrepreneurship came in really useful — he co-founded a 3-dimensional modelling start-up at NUS Enterprise’s incubation space Garag3 that was acquired by eBay. Mrs Oxenham’s experience in non-profit administration also helped to grow their business.

They faced numerous challenges, such as dealing with bureaucracy and coping with less-than-ideal infrastructure, but Mrs Oxenham credits their NUS education for equipping them with skills to overcome them. “The academic rigour certainly provided us with firm foundations to look at challenges from different perspectives, and to find innovative solutions for them... I think also the community of students, staff and alumni being so diverse yet at the same time like-minded in so many ways, creates a really supportive environment to share thoughts, seek feedback and test out new ideas. Even till today, NUS Enterprise has been so encouraging of what we are doing,” she said.

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Mrs Oxenham (far right) at a market where Farmcity sells its produce direct to consumers

Their latest initiative is the Centre for Agriculture, Research and Entrepreneurship (CARE), a non-profit arm of Farmcity. CARE aims to make Farmcity socially sustainable through “agripreneurship” programmes for underserved communities in Mauritius and research about the local food system. Going forward, the couple plan to scale their Farmcity concept to other tropical countries, starting with Singapore. This includes their education programmes aimed at children between the ages of six to 15, which are designed to let them explore, invent and innovate solutions to the challenges facing the future of food.