Episode 13
Urban Greens is turning food miles into food steps at the first vertical farm in the Philippines
In this episode, you'll meet Ralph Becker, founder of Urban Greens in Manila. Inspired by plant factories in Japan, a lack of fresh produce in the Philippines, and DIY hydroponics videos on YouTube, Ralph started Urban Greens, the first vertical farm in the Philippines. He is currently building out a warehouse vertical farm from the ground up with proprietary in-house design specifically for the tropics, using local materials and his own IoT.

To be more sustainable, he grows crops without energy-intensive cooling systems. Urban Greens sells produce to individuals, bars, and restaurants. He collaborates with chefs to experiment with new crops like strawberries, fiddlehead fern, and anything with bright Instagrammable flowers. And he is minimizing food miles by setting up mini hydroponic systems in grocery stores too.

One of Ralph's main goals is to help people understand where their food comes from. To do this, he sets up pop-up dinners on the farm--giving patrons a literal farm-to-table culinary experience and morphing the idea of 'food miles' into literal 'food steps.' He even hosts local workshops to help people set up their own vertical farms.

Urban Greens is a model vertical farm attempting to improve the food system in Manila with healthy, fresh produce.

Wendy: [00:00:00] [00:00:00] Hello everybody and welcome to the Evolve.ag podcast. I am thrilled today to have an old friend of mine, Ralph Becker on the show. Ralph is the founder of Urban Greens in Manila. 
Ralph: [00:00:11] aye Hi everybody hey, thanks Wendy for having me on your podcast . 
Wendy: [00:00:15] Thank you so much for being on it. I'm so excited to chat with you.
 First things first, do you want to tell us a little bit about yourself?
Ralph: [00:00:22] My name is Ralph Becker. I'm the CEO and founder of Urban Greens I'm originally from Luxembourg, which is a small country in the middle of Europe, between Germany and France and Belgium. That's where I was born. But the reason I'm here in the Philippines is because my mom is originally from the Philippines here from an island called Cebu. My dad being German. So I grew up in a very international household spent most of my time growing up in Luxembourg and then pursued an international career as well as a international experience at college. I went to London for university and then to [00:01:00] Paris all the way to Bangkok. And I had several internships in all sorts of different countries, was followed then up with an international corporate role at Sony electronics where I spent 10 years of my life.
And I really enjoyed it. I must, I must say. And they brought me to all of these different places, brought me all around, to Barcelona, Berlin, all the way to Tokyo, to the headquarters, to Silicon Valley. So I was exposed to San Francisco and the valley for a couple of years. After which I've decided to do something else.
And this is where I am now. Fast forward, five years into this I'm here in the Philippines doing indoor urban hydroponic farming. 
Wendy: [00:01:40] Wow. That's incredible. From Sony all the way to Manila now and running an urban farm. 
Ralph: [00:01:46] That's right. Yeah.
 I never spent too much time in the Philippines here. I'm being half Filipino and having to get to know other countries such as Japan, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, a lot better than let's say my mother country. [00:02:00] I really thought that I ought to try out the Philippines because when I used to come here to the Philippines over Christmas and new year's.
I saw there was a really big shift in-- there was a big reverse diaspora that came to the Philippines you know, kids or people that had grown up in born and raised in Europe, in the U S and Australia, New Zealand, be it, you know, with Filipino roots, who then decided to come back here to the Philippines or to come to the Philippines and bring all of their knowledge.
And that was really interesting to see all of that. And I thought like, Hey, why not be part of this? 
Wendy: [00:02:31] That's amazing. And so what inspired you to start Urban Greens? 
Ralph: [00:02:35] When I came here after my corporate stint at Sony, I didn't really have a plan. So the first thing was to relax and to just hit the reset button a little bit and just let it happen. Right. And I was convinced that by me just being open to what it is that I wanna do. The only motivation that I had was to be part of something contributing to the to the betterness and the wellbeing of this planet rather than [00:03:00] being a non-contributing factor or contributing to, to something negative. Right. And that's how I felt in the last couple of years of my corporate life in a, in a big consumer electronics company.
And whereas doubting myself. You know, my net contribution to this planet was overly positive or whether I was contributing and making just redundant stuff that nobody really needed as much as other more essential things out there. So that was the main mission. When I landed here, one of the things in, you know, California is blessed with being the the bread basket of the US and there's so much of food that is grown and exported all throughout the US and having been to Europe and even in Japan. I saw that like, you know, veggies and greens and herbs can be of really amazing quality. And I was shocked that when I came here that it was comparatively more expensive, right?
 Fresh herbs, fresh vegetables, fresh greens of any kind were either more expensive than the rest of the produce. [00:04:00] Or when you went to the market and found like cheaper produce, it was considerably of lesser quality. So that was really shocking to me. And then come with that, you know, with that information, I also found out that a lot of the food is imported from abroad.
So be that from the neighboring countries all the way from China, from the US is a huge exporter to the Philippines. And so are different parts of Europe, like a ton of tomatoes and lettuces come all the way from the Netherlands, from Spain, from Italy, which was shocking to me because, the Philippines is such a lush and green country and it should be a net exporter of food.
And yet here we are, we are actually one of the biggest importers of food. And for a fact the Philippines is one of the biggest importers of rice in the world, right. Whereas we should be exporting that stuff. This all gave me to think about how broken the food supply chain was and having been to the US and [00:05:00] having lived there and seeing hydroponics firsthand.
I was first exposed to it in Tokyo, in Japan, where I saw like big warehouses being converted. That's when I thought like, wow, someone should be doing this here. Right. And right in the Philippines. And yeah, here I am. I'm doing it myself. 
Wendy: [00:05:18] So you basically took your background that was in tech all of the observations you've made in different places and applied that to building an urban farm in the Philippines and doing hydroponics.
Ralph: [00:05:28] Yeah, absolutely. And I, you know, you always rally with your thoughts in terms of wait, how much do I actually know about urban farming? Am I a farmer? This is not my field of expertise. Right. If anything, then, it's more like, building stuff and being creative.
 It all started with me trying to build a system at home. Just to be self-sufficient right, because I was just upset with the, the prices of like cilantro and like of the different herbs that I was getting here of kale, which was unobtainable.
[00:06:00] Right. so I, I built my own home system in my, like a window farm and I have to credit like a lot of the YouTubers out there who like led me on this path. And there was a lot of DIY videos out there. So I just copied that and I imitated this. And once I put it on social media, myself, people were like, "wow, this is cool.
 This is amazing. Can you build one for me? Can I have some of that produce? It looks really good." And then on the side I got emails and messages from people, "Hey, you should do this  big time someone should be doing this and why don't, why don't you do it?" Right.
And that's really how it started. Even though I don't have that core expertise as being like an agronomist or plant biologist or whatnot I can always surround myself with people who are good at it. And that's, that's pretty much the epitome, of starting a company. You try and fill all of your deficiencies and gaps with skillsets that are not yours, but are proper to other other people. And yeah, I found the right people. Over time, we grew [00:07:00] from a very, very small core team of 1 to 3. And right now we are about 14 in my warehouse at the moment.
So yeah, we've come a long way.
Wendy: [00:07:10] Wow, that's wonderful. And I really wish the audience could see where you're sitting right now. He's basically sitting with a big hydroponic, multiple shelving unit sitting behind him with a bunch of delicious greens growing out of it. And all of the led lights and there's even a person on a ladder back there trimming some of it.
It's incredible to see, from when we originally met a couple of years ago, You were just on Shark Tank at that point. And now you're here with a warehouse. How long has Urban Greens been in business?
Ralph: [00:07:38] We've been in business for five years now incorporated pretty much five years ago. I mean, the inception of the idea came a little bit longer, but five years ago is when the company really started picking up pace. I have to admit I was about to close the company about twice, you know, and we were very, very close in going bankrupt and
I still managed to keep on [00:08:00] pushing. That was basically because of wrong business models and, you know, if you're a pioneer in an industry in a certain country where you don't have material and that type of stuff available, and when, where you are the one leading it and having to educate people, what it is.
You learn from scratch, right? There's no one telling you how to do it or what to do. And what is it at stakes. So we've had to change our business model a couple of times from starting with home systems that we built and distributed to hotels, bars, and restaurants and people's homes, which didn't work.
Towards units like the one that I'm sitting here that I have here behind me in my warehouse, which we then put into like a little bit like an Airbnb of urban farming, where the idea was that we would take your unused under utilized space and turn it into a farm. But logistically that was just a nightmare and operations wise that, that didn't work out.
And the more systems we setup, the more difficult it was to [00:09:00] actually make money out of it. So, yeah, that nearly collapsed altogether. And so now I've pushed, I followed suit with the, all of the other companies or the majority of the companies out there and went into like a big warehouse farm, and this is all kind of like a silver lining or a blessing in disguise to what the pandemic had in store. 
Wendy: [00:09:21] That makes sense. So what is the business model now? Strictly warehouses? 
Ralph: [00:09:25] Yeah.
 It's a volume high volume food, right? So we're, we're growing food and we're selling it. We're selling it to individuals. That's our biggest market at the moment-- hotels, bars, and restaurants. And we've started selling to supermarkets as well, because I've always stayed away from supermarkets. Because in a supermarket, your shelf life, once you harvest it and you put it on a shelf in a, in a packaging, your shelf life expires quite quickly. And whatever you don't sell goes to waste and I'm all about minimizing food waste and food distance and all of that.
So the way we've solved, it was by setting up a mini [00:10:00] hydroponic system at the supermarket shelf in a fresh produce aisle, where we transplant our plants here with the roots all together and put them back into the system at the supermarket. So you as a consumer can then go and harvest your own fresh greens.
 They're still alive because they're in a hydroponic system with nutrients. So they, will still keep alive for a number of days. As fresh as it gets.
Wendy: [00:10:28] Well, that's great. And how are people reacting to that in the grocery store? 
Ralph: [00:10:32] It's very interesting because this is a very new, and this is novelty here. I have to admit that we've had great reviews, but mixed success, meaning that because the plants look so fresh and so unreal, people actually thought that they were made out of plastic or that they were plastic or that they were decorative plants.
 Because they were in the fresh produce section, but they were in an area where there was like flowers and other plants. People were like, [00:11:00] okay, Are these plants that are, for decoration or For display only, they didn't really understand the concept that this was like fresh new harvest.
And then you can, you can transfer it home, even though, we try to advertise that. So that's a challenge that we're now facing. We're changing a little bit, our infographics, we're trying to put in videos as explanations and even the store staff have to be trained for this because you know, they don't necessarily all know how to handle it.
And , we've had to come back there and teach them how to do it. But I'm confident that, all of the key learnings that we have right now we're poised to open this in several other supermarkets. So all of their learning sets we have in, in this one supermarket, we will then transfer to all of the others.  
Wendy: [00:11:45] That's super exciting. Definitely. Can we talk a little bit about your setup? I'm looking right now at this multiple shelved vertical farm-- it's hydroponics, and you've got led lights. But what kind of technology do you use and were you the one who developed the [00:12:00] technology or are you using stuff that already exists?
Ralph: [00:12:02] So the fun part of setting up an hydroponics company here in the Philippines from scratch. And that started, as I said, five years ago was that there was nothing available here in the Philippines. Right. So it was hard to actually source this, which made my barrier of entry quite high particularly when you see all of these cool designs of  stuff that you guys have in the us or in Europe or in, in different countries.
So I tried to import that stuff and, you have import tariffs and it's, it's quite tricky here importing large systems. I quickly went back into building stuff. I have a design background actually. So I took it on myself to, to design my own systems and just following the simple principles, because hydroponics in itself is pretty straightforward and pretty much 80% or 90% of all of the systems followed the same rules. And I just applied those here and put my shelving unit [00:13:00] together. You know, it started from, from just like getting normal shelves from a DIY store and just use that.
And with PVC gutters, like rain gutters, that's basically what it is, right? So we don't buy any IP from anyone, it's our design. And we keep on progressing as we go along, which is fantastic because, even though you have to come up with every solution yourself, but at the end you own it.
And that also means we can adapt the system towards the climate that we have here in the Philippines, because I see a lot of companies that are getting into hydroponics here. They simply buy bigger units and bigger systems from abroad, notably, from the US from Europe, from China.
But more often than not, they're not for this type of climate, right? The climate on the east coast of the US, let's take container farming, is different. If you have a container and you put it here in the baking sun of the Philippines, it gets hot, right? It's a steel box.
So before you can set [00:14:00] foot into a, let's say a container, let alone grow anything, you have to cool that system down, right? There goes all of your sustainability, there goes all of your efficiency because you have to recoup all of that cost that you're putting into it. With the margin that you make on produce and produce, doesn't have that big of a margin. From the beginning onwards, when I looked into container farming, I discarded it because I didn't think that it would be that efficient of a system particularly here for the Philippines. So we are now in a 700 square meter warehouse, 7,000 square foot warehouse.
And we don't use any air conditioning for instance. We figured out a way, even though with the blistering heat that we have here in the Philippines, we figured out how to have fantastic growth with no air con. 
Wendy: [00:14:45] Dang. You must be hot right now, Ralph.
 Ralph: [00:14:47] No, I'm fine. Good air circulation in this building. , we figured out what is most important for plants, whether it is actually air temperature or whether it is other factors that are important to plant growth. We've managed [00:15:00] everything really perfectly.
 I'm I must say, so give credit to all of my systems engineers, agroengineers and agronomists here we all figured it out together, so it is not impossible to do all of these things with local skill and, local labor and local expertise. Although be it that the uphill takes a lot longer.
But it is possible. 
 Wendy: [00:15:22] That's really cool. I hadn't even thought about how hard it must be to import certain things from other places, because I know just especially with COVID, everything's taking twice as long as it usually does, but just in general, to be able to import electronic equipment or things like that, it must have been quite taxing to try to get that sent to the Philippines.
So good for you for really stepping in and creating your own system and your own IP.
Ralph: [00:15:47] There's enough videos out there and there's enough tutorials out there, right. With the skillset that we have here, we were just like, okay, can we build this ourselves? Can we build our own IOT units? . And once you know what you're doing, you [00:16:00] know, what you're looking for,
 any good programmer can put these things together. 
Wendy: [00:16:03] Makes sense? What type of vegetables are you growing at the farm?
Ralph: [00:16:06] We grow all of the usual suspects in urban farming. So that would be basil, kale, arugulas, mints, different types of lettuces. If you would check out any indoor, urban farm or urban farm, particularly in hydroponics that would be their main stable crops, then we're dabbling in microgreens as well.
And, we've tried about 50, 60 different plants here, and we're looking at what sticks. Particularly what the market wants and demands. We're very market-driven. Two things, how we approach the market. One is like, we look at what the market consumes at the moment, and then we try and match that with the price, and superior quality.
But the other one, which is more exciting for, particularly for chefs is, when we tell them what, if you had a clean slate and what if you could get any plant or any crops or any herb out there, what is it that you want? And then, more [00:17:00] often than not, we get very exotic plants and particularly for here, which are very hard to import, which don't last long and which might not be efficient for any restaurant to put on their menu because of the high produce cost.
But because we can create that for them. That's an added value for the collaboration that we have with them. 
Wendy: [00:17:18] Very cool. What's been the most exotic request that you've gotten from chefs?
Ralph: [00:17:23] Ooh. Apart from all of the edible flowers. Which are, getting a big you know, in the era of Instagramable food , we all looking for like, what's nice and what's colorful-- throw in microgreens in there in the same mix, you know, anything that is red and that can add just a bit of splash of color.
 We get that. We're dabbling around with strawberries. Particularly  Philippines has their own strawberries. We have a mountain region where we grow strawberries, but we were looking at, different kinds of strawberries, maybe like the bigger, the jucier ones that are more common commonly known in like, Japan or US, or Australia and strawberries, [00:18:00] comparatively to those.
We have a Fiddlehead Fern that only grows in the forest-- and that travels really badly. When you harvest it in the mountain or when in a forest, you have to consume it the same day because it's 99% water and it doesn't have high water retention. So by the end of the day, it already looks quite soggy.
 If that's something that we can grow here in our farms and that could be quite, quite cool. Yeah. 
Wendy: [00:18:28] Wow. That's awesome. And so speaking of chefs, you've been having these pop-up dinners at your farm.
 Ralph: [00:18:34] Yeah. So that's a fantastic by-product of having this urban farm and-- it's always been a dream of mine-- because, think of it this way; how often do you know where your food actually comes from? You're in the supermarket, you look at the fresh produce aisle and you go , all right, we're where does this come from?
 More often than not, it's imported. A lot of it from, from different parts of the country. If not from really, really yonder as far, far away. As a [00:19:00] consequence or as a result, a lot of the people, particularly kids, they don't know how food is grown anymore. Or particularly in this country. If you ask him where, where leaf comes from, , there is like from a box, everything comes from a box, comes from a mall, comes from a supermarket, but actually. How it's literally grown out in the field or how the, the provenance of different foods.
 Let's not even talk about the understanding where meat comes from and how meat appears magically as a fish stick on your plate. Or as a burger, it's even a bigger challenge. But what I wanted to achieve here was the concept of the popup. This is you get to harvest your own food right here.
We show you how to harvest it from our systems and our chefs turn them into spectacular food that, you get to eat right away. So. That's really, really cool. People use "farm to table" quite often and , it's quite a marketing spiel, but this is true "farm to table", indoor "farm to table".
It's like the, you know, [00:20:00] where the food miles get turned into food steps literally. It's the freshest food. food I was inspired by, and this sounds weird, by these Chinese restaurants that have these big fish tanks, with your crab, and with your eel. And and you go," I want this, I want this lobster."
And then they take the lobster and then , they steam it and boil it and cook it, which I thought was always like you know, cruel to my end, but "Hey, why can't we do this for plants"? And the only way to do this really is, if you have access to fresh produce and a garden or some kind.
And I do! And I have really fantastic chefs and bar keepers who turn it into spectacular food and really, really amazing drinks. 
Wendy: [00:20:40] I'm just so jealous. I wish I could come to one of those. They just sound so magical. Are you giving back to the community in Manila?  
Ralph: [00:20:46] Running a big farm operation here. There's a lot of manual tasks, that are like cleaning, planting and harvesting, and cleaning your produce, et cetera. . And since we don't use a lot of automation here for those [00:21:00] processes, we thought , Okay.
how, can we create this win-win situation, with people who are particularly during the pandemic, that were just simply unemployed. And we worked with this NGO that works with street kids called "Tiny Blessings". They look after, street kids, kids on the street who don't normally have access to food or shelter, medical attention and we reached out to them and said like, look if you have a couple of kids that want to come in and we can train them up . We can give them  just very simple jobs, and that's where we start and then train them up from there.
 And it helps them, obviously gets them out of their environment that is maybe less conducive for growth. And at the same time we teach them a skill. They get an earnest, wager as well. They don't come in here for free. They get paid and they get treated as the same, same staff.
And, you know, we, we have our family lunches, , we're like big table and we're all sitting together. They're all having the same food as we do, which is all also grown here from the farm. So we use that as well. and they get trained up.
So [00:22:00] now they know how to plant, they know how to harvest. So we're basically training the next generation of farmers-- call it internship, call it equal opportunity to everyone out there. And this has been fantastic for us and we're looking to get more of them
in for other tasks. As we're expanding now, they're helping us with the dinners as well. They'll help us with preparing the food. They're the waiters, busboys and all, and those are skills that they didn't have before-- how to take orders, for foods and for drinks. It's been quite, quite cool seeing that growth, in them. Being able to help a  group of people that are normally don't have opportunity. 
Wendy: [00:22:37] That's a lovely initiative. Really, really great. It must feel really nice to see them, from where they started to where they are now, too.
And just how people progress and learn things. Are you giving back in any other ways? 
Ralph: [00:22:49] The initiative with the street kids is obviously one thing, but because what it is that we do is very different to what people are familiar with in terms of farming, [00:23:00] in terms of planting. We do hydroponic one-on-one workshops, as well, where we teach people who want to do it themselves and the pandemic has fostered a lot of people who wanted to grow their own plants at home. And a lot of them have come across like hydroponics in one way or another, and want to learn more about that. So we offer hydroponic workshops. They're both onsite and online. Of course, we do this for corporates as well.
And for other groups who may want to do this. We're very strong in education and sharing. Whereas other companies might be very protective of what it is that they want to do. Like," I don't want to show my show off my technology."
We're pretty open in a way, because there are still barriers of entry but we get tons of messages from students, from people who want to try and do it. I always take my time to talk to them and to explain to them-- these are the different things that you need to take care of, particularly in business model.
 Everyone is in love with the idea of having their own indoor farm and vertical garden and [00:24:00] whatnot. But you need to nail the business model, then you need to nail your costs and your, your cost profit model. So that's something that a lot of people are not aware of or don't pay enough attention towards.
So that's something where I go like, okay, I can, I can help you with that. And you know, a lot of people say " oh, isn't this competition, you know, aren't you fostering competition"? I mean, the more people do here in the country, the better it is for the country. . And it will obviously keep us on our toes in developing new stuff.
Yeah. . And I think these guys are not my competition. My competition is really any big company like B one of the big five you know, big hydroponic farms that throws millions upon millions of dollars at an installation here in the Philippines and decides to, to venture out and see the Philippines as the next market that is more of a competition to me than t he next door guy who wants to grow their own herbs and at home and who has ambitions to one day start his own farm.
And I'm, I'm all in [00:25:00] favor of that. 
Wendy: [00:25:00] Cool. And where do you see urban greens in five years? 
Ralph: [00:25:03] Urban Greens in five years-- there's a lot of opportunity here in this country. First of all, so we are far from matching any demand that we have with the production that we can achieve at the moment. So the farm that we have right now, the installation we've calculated, basically that with the current demand that we have right now, we could already fill up two warehouses.
So we're trying to fill up this warehouse with more units. And that's why we're doing a fundraising. We're in the middle of a fundraising round at the moment, doing both crowdfunding. And we're looking at the bigger investments. Bigger, you know, for the Philippines, this might be big, but for other countries that's like really just very small.
So we're just looking for like 300,000 us dollars to finish this farm here, which is a far shot from the millions and millions of dollars that other companies have received in terms of investment. But once we finished this warehouse and we've nailed down the business model we're looking for growth, [00:26:00] right?
 And that's when we will start looking for more funding. Looking for maybe $3 million of funding to set up the next two, three farms here in different parts of town to cater for the demand there, and then we'll take it from there. I think Urban Greens has the same opportunity in terms of growth as any of the other big players out there, you know, who started similarly.
 We're developing all of our IP. We have a system that works. Our produce is spectacular. So the foundation that we're building on now is very solid. So I'm very confident that we can be right up there with all of the other big players. 
Wendy: [00:26:35] That's wonderful. . How can listeners contribute or support the farm? 
Ralph: [00:26:38] Yeah, so drop us a line, follow us on our social media-- which is eaturbangreens on Instagram and on Facebook. And you can drop me a line directly. So just in the DMS. Just say that you heard about us and you wanted to contribute.
We have one of our posts there is about the crowdfunding campaign. So maybe when this is launched, [00:27:00] I'll repeat that post again, but drop us a line and I'll happily send you more information 
Wendy: [00:27:06] awesome. Awesome. Awesome. Okay. One last 
Where do you see the future of vertical farming going?

Ralph: [00:27:12] The future of vertical farming is it's it's, it's a growth industry. No pun intended. In all fairness, this is not the silver bullet to fix all the deficiencies that are in farming but it lends an opportunity to fix some of it. Particularly in a country that is constantly blasted by storms and typhoons and floods and droughts and volcanoes.
 And climate change is real. There's no scenario in the world where this is going to be of less importance. I think, if anything, there'll be more demand for, for what it is that we do here. And there's a, the market is big, so there's a room for enough players.
Everyone will have their own spiel in it. 
Wendy: [00:27:54] Okay. Great. Well, thank you so much, Ralph, for being on the podcast today, I really, really appreciate you taking the time to [00:28:00] chat with me and share your wisdom and your insights and all the exciting things that are happening with Urban Greens I will be following along to see all the great progress you all make and best of luck.
Ralph: [00:28:10] Thanks Wendy. And thanks everyone for listening. And again, just feel free to drop me a line. I'll get back to each one of you. You can find me on Ralph Becker on Urban Greens or eat urban beans on Facebook, Instagram, and also on LinkedIn. 
Wendy: [00:28:26] Awesome. All right, everybody. Thanks for listening. That's the show. I hope you enjoyed it.