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From Fishy Business to Vertical Ponds

The Singaporean Farmer Using Vertical Ponds to Boost Food Security

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In Brief

  • Climate change, ocean pollution and overfishing are threatening the global seafood supply.
  • Apollo Aquaculture Group aims to boost seafood production without compromising food quality and taste with the help of innovative fish farming methods.
  • The company's soon-to-be-built eight-storey vertical fish farm is set to meet roughly five percent of Singapore's demand for fish by 2023.
 

Sustainability is at the core of everything we do at Temasek. This article is part of Generational Investing, an ongoing series featuring individuals, organisations and activities that create a better world for future generations, through creativity, innovation and sustainable practices.

Apollo Group CEO Eric Ng

When Eric Ng took over his father’s ornamental fish business back in 2006, he knew he had to venture into unchartered waters to take the company into the future.

“When my dad handed me the business, he was getting quite ill,” Ng recalls. “We were thinking of diversifying because the ornamental fish business was flat. So, I looked into businesses that were related to fish trade and thought, 'What about seafood?'”

The Ng family had dabbled in seafood before. “My dad was a hard-working man who used to own a kelong (an offshore platform used mainly for fish farming) when I was around Primary 3,” recalls the 46-year-old. “When I was young, I didn't know the difficulties he faced with the seafood business. One day, his workers told him that the cage broke and our crabs escaped, but the next day, we saw them being sold in markets.”

“It was a fishy business,” he quips, chuckling at the memory.

Nonetheless, Ng dived in. But the current chief executive of Singapore-based Apollo Aquaculture Group is farming with a tech-infused twist. While historical aquaculture methods have largely utilised coastal ponds or floating cages out at sea, Ng looked landward.

“We were already developing the AquaDeck system for our ornamental fish,” Ng explains, referring to the company’s fully automated Recirculation Aquaculture System (RAS), which treats and recycles water to reduce waste. “I realised that once you know about freshwater, you can develop a system to contain and farm marine species as well.”

Apollo RAS System

Apollo’s Recirculating Aquaculture System uses water treatment technology to help maintain and recycle the seawater within the facility.

 

The Art and Science of Modern Fish Farming

To develop the vertical farm, Ng learnt from industry-leading engineering firms and Apollo’s global business partners. Moreover, he drew on his own expertise as a fish farmer to keep the model practical.

“Using technologies from around the world, we created a plug and play system, so farmers don’t have to do all the fine-tuning and tweaking, which is done by the model itself,” he explains. “Automation also helped to cut down a lot of unnecessary labour, like going in to scrub the ponds.”

According to Ng, doing things a little differently, like using sturdy plastic components instead of traditional stainless steel, enabled the farm to reduce heavy maintenance and scale up. In 2015, Apollo built its first vertical seafood farm, incorporating the AquaDeck system, in Lim Chu Kang, and Ng is proud of what they’ve accomplished. 

 
Vertical Farm Prototype

Having developed a system for freshwater ornamental fish, Ng diversified into marine fish and crustaceans with his prototype vertical two-tier fish farm in Singapore’s Lim Chu Kang.

According to his estimates, the farm can produce up to 150 to 200 kilograms per tonne of water of grouper, the main marine fish species Apollo farms. In contrast, sea cage farming produces an average 25 to 75 kilograms. Processes from feeding to harvesting are automated and farming conditions can be closely — even remotely — monitored and controlled, improving productivity and saving on labour.

“We’re constantly improving our systems to create a suitable environment for the fish,” he remarks. “Now, we can better track and observe fish health and behaviour. We don’t waste feed, so it’s possible to know the exact rate of growth I can get with a certain amount of feed. This kind of data-driven system can help even new farmers become experts in months.”

 

“Using technologies from around the world, we created a plug and play system"

Eric Ng

Apollo Research

Science and data help Apollo to track and optimise fish growth.  

 

The journey hasn’t always gone swimmingly. Fish farming is just as much an art as a science, Ng reflects, and requires the human touch and deep knowledge that Apollo’s more experienced staff have built up over the years. However, some of the company’s veteran staff were resistant to the changes Ng wanted to bring on board.

Hoping to address their concerns, Ng set aside a section of his father’s farm to test his methods, proving that his fish would grow faster. Yet, some of the staff remained sceptical of his efforts and decided to leave the company. “When that happened, it was quite a huge turning point for me,” recalls Ng. “I felt the responsibility grow and thought, 'Okay, no more playing around.'

With tenacity and his father’s blessing, Ng persisted on steering Apollo in this new direction.

Boosting Food Security and Farming for the Future

By 2023, Apollo’s new eight-storey vertical fish farm at Neo Tiew Crescent will be completed — and will be able to produce an estimated 2,700 tonnes of fish per year, says Ng. Maximising its land space, he estimates that this single farm will be able to meet roughly five percent of Singapore’s demand for fish.

Fish farms then now

Fish farming then and now — from traditional ponds to indoor vertical tanks.

 

“Globally, people and governments are becoming more aware about food security issues. It’s becoming increasingly prominent,” observes Ng, whose partners in China, Brunei and the United Arab Emirates have consulted Apollo while building aquaculture systems of their own. “Now people are not just talking but looking at real solutions.” In particular, wild caught fish stocks have taken a huge hit due to the climate crisis.

“What we need is a production centre that secures our national needs. With a local production centre, we won’t have to worry about lack of supply,” Ng remarks. “By 2030, we should be able to achieve the 30 percent goal of local food supply now that the government is ramping up local farms. This has never happened before.”

When asked about some of the challenges he faces as an urban farmer today, Ng reveals, “The public needs to accept that fish farming has evolved. It’s no longer dirty or smelly like in the past.” He also hopes that, with Apollo’s new farm, he can expose younger generations to the source of their food.

“Many younger people don’t realise how food is farmed. The best part is they think fish comes as a fillet, with no head and no tail,” he muses.

“What we are doing now is not just for us. We want to establish a proper business producing a healthy, clean and safe food source for our future generations.”

30%

of Singapore's food supply is set to be locally produced by 2030.

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Here at Temasek, we place sustainability at the core of everything we do. We strive to build a better world, always with tomorrow in mind.

Temasek is an investor in Apollo Aquaculture Group.

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