Temasek banks on tech to help Singapore achieve tall food security goal

Yeoh Keat Chuan, MD, Enterprise Development Group, Temasek.

Singapore tends to gun for the audacious.

Instead of going down what would normally be considered a more conventional route – negotiating another water agreement with Malaysia during the late 1990s to early-2000s – Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew decides that Singapore should strike out on its own. The solution: recycling potable water from sewage.

The idea sounded repulsive back then (of course). But today, that very product, christened “NEWater”, supplies 40 per cent of Singapore’s daily water needs. By 2060, NEWater is expected to meet up to 55 per cent of future water demand, right before its second and last water agreement with Malaysia lapses in 2061.

Today, Singapore has over 200 companies in the water industry with many focusing on areas like membrane technology and desalination. 

“It has catalysed a totally new sector for us,” said Yeoh Keat Chuan, Temasek’s MD of enterprise development group and former MD of Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB), in an interview with DealStreetAsia. “It turned our vulnerability into strength.”

The gears have shifted to food over the course of 2019. By 2030, Singapore wants to provide 30 per cent of the country’s nutritional needs, even as food imports into the country stand at a staggering 90 per cent today.

“I think we underestimate how much technology can progress in 10 years,” said Yeoh. “People used to say that to be self-sufficient in water was ridiculous when Lee Kuan Yew first announced it… (Driving costs down) played a role in enabling that, but I think we can bring to bear in food and agriculture as well.”

Temasek Holdings has already thrown its weight behind the effort, investing in two early-stage agri-food funds: Big Idea Ventures for alternative proteins, and Trendlines for agriculture technology. 

Both have kicked off their Asia-based accelerators in Singapore, seeking groundbreaking innovations which are sheer oxymorons by description – dairy-free milk, vegan salmon, and cruelty-free foie gras, among many. 

It’s still early days, but dabbling in the early rounds of Impossible Foods and JUST has given Temasek a taste of how this sector could play out in Asia. Many areas, however, such as regulatory clarity and project financing still need to be addressed.

Vertical farms, for instance, tend to see high capital and operational expenditure despite being more matured sectors. Many require specific types of light, water and temperature to grow plants or fish. 

Market education among financiers, investors and consumers also takes time. Financial institutions may be unwilling to grant loans simply because many have not encountered such projects before. 

It’s an ambitious project in the works, one with a timeframe of 10, 20, even 30 years. It sounds lofty, even impossible. Maybe so, but not in Singapore.

Edited excerpts of the interview with Temasek’s MD of enterprise development group, Yeoh Keat Chuan:-

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Singapore Reporter/s

In Singapore, we are looking to double our reporting team by this year-end to comprehensively cover the fast-moving world of funded startups and VC, PE & M&A deals. We want reporters who can tell our readers what is really happening in these sectors and why it matters to markets, companies and consumers. The ability to write precisely and urgently is crucial for these roles. Ideal candidates must have to ability to work in a collaborative, dynamic, and fast-changing environment. We want our new hires to be digitally savvy and ready to experiment with new forms of storytelling. Most importantly, we are looking for hard-hitting reporters who work well in a team. Collaboration and collegiality are a must.

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).   

  • A reporter to track companies/startups that have raised private capital, and have the potential to become unicorns. SEA currently has over 40 companies with a valuation of over $100 million and under $1 billion.
  • A reporter who can get behind the scenes and reveal how funding rounds are put together, or why they’ve failed to materialise. She/he in this role will largely focus on long-format stories. 
  • A journalist to track special situations funds, distressed debt and private credit (from the PE angle) across Asia.