Hi Bettina, what do you do and what brought you to Asia?
I am leading the Singapore office as well as food activities in Asia for Alcimed, a French consulting firm.
10 years ago, I joined Alcimed’s Food Business Unit in Paris. I started as a “consultant” helping my clients explore and develop their uncharted territories. Actually, we call ourselves explorers rather than “consultants”, because exploring and developing the uncharted territories is exactly what we do!
I worked with various players along the value chain: agribusiness, ingredient suppliers and B2C companies. We tackled different challenges related to nutrition & health and agriculture & sustainability. At Alcimed, we are a bit like “detectives” finding answers in complex markets with poor or scarce information available.
Seven years later, I realized that I needed a challenge – a white page to surpass myself and do what I love the most: starting businesses. And a question arises: How to continue working for an SME that fits 100% to your values but with a new exciting role? Asia was obvious!
Singapore is our most recent office and our Asian headquarters. It has had a major focus on healthcare for the last 3 years and at the same time, the ecosystem in agrifood was emerging with a high ambition of Singapore in this field. So I moved to Singapore to communicate with food players directly in Asia.
Can you elaborate on the emergence of an agrifood ecosystem in Singapore?
When I arrived in Singapore, I was so surprised about the dynamic of the ecosystem and ambition. These were my findings in Singapore on a dynamic ecosystem:
- Regional headquarters of leading players (eg. Bayer Cropscience, Lesaffre, Roquette, DSM, Barilla, Mars)
- Regional headquarters and regional R&D centres of MNCs (eg. Danone, Nestlé, Ferrero, Mondelez)
- A great number of innovative startups, specializing in alternative proteins, vertical farming and more
- Some specialized VCs (eg. Big Idea Ventures, VisVires New Protein, ID capital) or investment companies (eg. Temasek) in the sector
- Public research like NUS, NTU, James Cook University on microbiome, biotransformation, aquaculture 4.0
- Government institutions like the Economic Development Board (EDB), Enterprise Singapore (ESG) or Singapore Food Authorities (SFA)
The second is the ambition of Singapore favouring this ecosystem: striving to be a global leader in developing & commercializing sustainable food solutions, as well as becoming the regional hub of excellence for nutrition & health.
Lastly, the major challenge of Singapore lies in its food security with limited lands. As a result, only 10% of the food consumed is produced locally. The goal is to reach 30% by 2030. In addition, with major food supply chain disruptions due to COVID-19, the government announced in March an extra grant of $30M to speed up local production of eggs, leafy vegetables & fish. There is also an extra grant of $55M to help local agriculture and aquaculture companies build new capabilities and innovate.
How can startups help in this ambition?
Major challenges remain to achieve such great ambition. There is a lack of efficient and sustainable technologies that can help reduce the unit cost of production for vertical farming or cell-based proteins, anticipate the fish diseases to decrease production loss, create transparency in the fragmented supply chain and predict the best-personalized nutrition required for each individual.
If startups have tech solutions to help overcome these challenges, Singapore is a great place to develop business.
Beyond Singapore, what are the major challenges APAC is facing in the food industry?
For agriculture and sustainability, there is a growing paradox for the coming years: feeding an increasing population while lands are not extendable.
Two third of the available water is used by agriculture worldwide and 30% of greenhouse gases are coming from the farm, especially from meat production. There is a huge need to reinvent the model of production. In APAC, we have 70% of smallholder farmers (especially in China and India). Affordability becomes an issue.
More than 25% of food waste comes from APAC due to the lack of warehouses, insect attacks arising from climate change and consumer attitudes in the more developed countries.
One solution to agricultural sustainability is leveraging Agtech to better monitor inputs, water management and decide when to harvest in regards to climate change and soil quality. With COVID-19 in India, farms were forced to shut down, causing the crops to rot and resulting in food waste. A satellite map was used to show what stage plants were in their growth cycle. This helped ease restrictions to ensure sufficient labour and machinery were in place when crops were ready to harvest. It also assisted authorities to plan rotations for farmers when they could sell their products in the market.
Recently, Bayer Cropscience and XAG have signed an MOU in February 2020 to bring, promote and commercialize digital farming technology in Thailand, Vietnam, and Pakistan. They aim to help smallholder farmers in target countries gain access to digital farm management know-how and technology, and through that, help boost agricultural production and sustainability.
What about the other aspects in regards to nutrition and health?
Indeed, on the other side, there is a double burden in nutrition and health.
In APAC, the prevalence of undernutrition is 8.8% suffering from food insecurity while overnutrition (overweight, obesity) among the same population reached 23.0%. We need to reinvent the way we eat, and solutions include personalized nutrition. This trend is emerging to ensure each person is eating the right amount & quality of nutrients he needs at different stages of life. MNCs are investigating the nutritional status of the population to explore local opportunities and maximize the success of a new solution launch. Japan and South Korea are ahead in this field.
2 years ago, Nestlé launched in Japan a DNA test kit combined with an AI tool to analyze meals. They partnered with 2 Japanese startups Genesis Healthcare and Halmek Ventures. In this context, Nestlé could develop personalized programs & solutions. Similarly, Herbalife, a supplement company, launched in South Korea, a personalized nutrition program in collaboration with the genomic science firm Theragen Etex.
In such an emerging field, these 2 examples highlight the importance of collaboration with startups and with the scientific community to tap on their respective capabilities. Startup founders can also benefit from the faster mode of entry to the market, where speed is a key lever in Asia. ‘Be fast, Be first.’
To innovate in food is challenging for our clients in the region notably due to the diversity of the local cultures. I am very glad when we contribute to this diversity understanding for our local clients – the food culture, beliefs, habits, the nutritional status of the population, the different government priorities, the vision of Key Opinion Leaders. It helps countries identify white spaces and put innovation into actions.
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