Luxembourg-born Ralph Becker saw the need for food security solutions, as well as a way to minimise carbon footprint and the farm-to-table distance. While the Philippines is blessed with lush and fertile lands, as well as a climate suited to growing a variety of crops, in recent years, agriculture in the country is struggling. Farmers lack support and training, rural farming practices are outdated, and exposure to typhoons and droughts are making traditional food production methods more and more difficult.
In October 2016, a year after Becker moved to Manila from Silicon Valley, he founded Urban Greens, an agri-tech startup that aims “to provide cleaner, fresher, smarter greens entirely grown hydroponically,” perfectly catered to an increasingly urbanised world.
Growing greens hydroponically is a method of growing plants without soil, meaning that there’s no need for the use of pesticides, fertilisers, or fungicides. Crops are non-GMO (genetically modified organism) and only require minimal amounts of water for growth. Plants are cultivated using a carefully concocted nutrient solution and can be grown anywhere with oxygen. Another advantage is that the crops will not be subject to the whims of nature, or the devastation of natural disasters.
Becker’s passion for plants stems from his childhood when his Filipino mum would take him to Cebu during the holidays. “My mom loves to surround herself with plants and that’s how my affinity to plants grew,” shares Becker. Growing up, Becker had the opportunity to travel and live in different cities. He studied and pursued his masters in London and Singapore, and worked for Sony Corporation in various locations, including San Francisco and Tokyo. After almost an eight-year stint at Sony, he decided to leave the corporate world and start his own business.
“When I was working for Sony, I was tasked to work on a product and somehow I felt I was like a machine creating more garbage,” says Becker. “I asked myself: ‘How can I make an impact and what industry am I able to contribute my time and effort?’ In the corporate world, you are replaceable. I learned a lot while working at Sony. I learned how to be an entrepreneur and to be an observer, as well as accounting, social media, and human resources. There were certainly some skills I’ve learned that were transferable.”
After 10 years of studying and working abroad, Becker decided to get back in touch with his Filipino roots and move back to Manila. There, he noticed the imported vegetables on the shelves are expensive, but not necessarily of the best quality. With the help of YouTube tutorials, he created a window farm using a hydroponics system inside his apartment in Makati. The enthusiastic feedback prompted him to explore the idea further, which led him to set up his business.
Like any start-up owner, Becker encountered challenges. His first business model—creating custom-built hydroponic towers for individual customers—didn’t work as “it was very inefficient and requires higher maintenance”.
With the new model, Becker focuses more on bringing the right pH and nutrient levels for each plant. He employs the NFT (nutrient film technique) system, one of the most popular hydroponic growing styles, in which nutrients are delivered via a thin film of water to plants arranged on a slanted gutter. This system, Becker says, is easily scalable, with a very flexible and modular design.
“Plants are vulnerable to outside elements. By growing them indoors, you can protect them from too much rain or heat, and control the temperature and humidity easily,” says Becker. “That way each crop looks the same and they are of high quality. There are also no pesticides, so rest assured you are getting a better quality.”
Currently, Becker and his team of biologists, engineers, agronomists, and marketing specialists grow around a dozen varieties of herbs and vegetables, including arugula, basil, and mint. His clients include five-star hotels, high-end bars, and local restaurants. Sensors are also incorporated into the system to facilitate remote monitoring and big data analytics and integrates blockchain technology in vertical farming so people can understand more about what goes into putting food on their plates.
“Knowing what nutrients are needed for each crop is important,” says Becker. “We want to create the best possible environment and make everything as transparent as possible. We also want to share when and how the harvests grow so it gives people an idea of what they are consuming.”
Currently, Becker is closing the seed funding round but is continuously seeking strategic partnerships with other SME companies. Internship positions are also available.
“I built Urban Greens because I want to use my knowledge and skills to contribute something for the community and be part of a solution,” says Becker. “I have always wanted to do something more impactful and help the community.”
The Philippines may lag behind neighbours in terms of agriculture output and land reform, but Becker is still positive that the younger generation and Filipino agronomists can still contribute to something bigger. He also believes that Manila is currently undergoing a dynamic shift: It is quickly developing into a hub for social enterprises and start-ups. Like Becker, a lot of people are moving back, a sort of “reverse diaspora,” and bringing back their ideas and expertise. For Becker, the demand for a cleaner and greener Philippines is growing, and the answer might just be hiding in your basement.