Vertical farm
Urban Greens is bringing fresh produce to the Philippines one rooftop and patio at a time
Food and diet in the Philippines get a bad rap for good reasons. Like a lot of island nations, there is a growing trend towards obesity-related health problems. Most food there is imported. The Philippines has one of the highest numbers of fast-food restaurants per-capita in the world. But food tech entrepreneurs, like Ralph Becker, are working to change some of this.
Hobby
turned enterprise
Learnings
from a
prior career
Blends sustainability and tech
Getting
the word
out
Hobby
turned enterprise
Learnings from a
prior career
Blending sustainability and tech
Getting
the word
out
Ralph Becker inspecting produce in one of his vertical farms.
Ralph, the founder of Urban Greens, is combining technology with sustainability to sell local, pesticide-free, vertical-farm-produced produce to restaurants. Inspired by a stint in Japan where he saw plant factories producing food in the middle of big cities, he built a vertical farm prototype as a side project for fun. He didn't expect a business to blossom from it. However, he noticed how interested friends and family were in his little "window farm". Concurrently, he saw an abundance of unused outdoor and indoor spaces around him in Manila. A business opportunity came to mind--he could grow healthy food on underutilized rooftops and basements to help offset the typical imported and processed staples so prevalent in the Philippines. Just the presence of vertical farms on a neighbor's balcony could be an opportunity to help educate people about food.
I'm going to apply everything I've learned to a new project that's more meaningful to me and in an industry that can really make a difference!
Learnings from a prior career
So far, Ralph has mainly been selling to local bars, restaurants, and the occasional international five-star hotel--customers who appreciate produce and herbs picked same-day. When I met him, it was a warm evening, and he was in the middle of hand-delivering big bags of herbs to a local bar. Sitting on a friend's patio that doubles as a local pizza restaurant (with fresh herbs grown-onsite), he relayed his experience and philosophy.

I identify a lot with Ralph. With ten years of corporate tech experience under his belt, he knew he was ready to leave San Francisco and tech to start something that would contribute more to the solution than the problem. His thesis (which I've often repeated to people over the past few months) is, "I've learned so much from being in tech in the Bay Area. I'm going to apply everything I've learned to a new project that's more meaningful to me and in an industry that can really make a difference". So he moved to Manila, his motherland, and, after seeing so much interest in his vertical farm project, started Urban Greens.

The business model is simple: If you have wasted or extra space in your home, office, warehouse or hotel you can rent an Urban Greens plot that will grow a handful of different herbs and edibles. Urban Greens sets everything up, takes care of all of the maintenance, harvests, and sells the food. You get a share of the profits and a share of the produce.
Learnings from a prior career
So far, Ralph has mainly been selling to local bars, restaurants, and the occasional international five-star hotel--customers who appreciate produce and herbs picked same-day. When I met him, it was a warm evening, and he was in the middle of hand-delivering big bags of herbs to a local bar. Sitting on a friend's patio that doubles as a local pizza restaurant (with fresh herbs grown-onsite), he relayed his experience and philosophy.

I identify a lot with Ralph. With ten years of corporate tech experience under his belt, he knew he was ready to leave San Francisco and tech to start something that would contribute more to the solution than the problem. His thesis (which I've often repeated to people over the past few months) is, "I've learned so much from being in tech in the Bay Area. I'm going to apply everything I've learned to a new project that's more meaningful to me and in an industry that can really make a difference". So he moved to Manila, his motherland, and, after seeing so much interest in his vertical farm project, started Urban Greens.

The business model is simple: If you have wasted or extra space in your home, office, warehouse or hotel you can rent an Urban Greens plot that will grow a handful of different herbs and edibles. Urban Greens sets everything up, takes care of all of the maintenance, harvests, and sells the food. You get a share of the profits and a share of the produce.
Blending sustainability with tech
At the moment, the business is sometimes profitable, but they're doing a lot of investment and experimentation with data, infrastructure, and materials. His goal is to be as sustainable as possible: "I don't want to be a hypocrite; I want to be a beacon of how things should be done environmentally." So they're trying out things like building with different local materials, using solar power, water catchment and implementing sensors to determine what plants grow best in what environment. He even has an environmental scientist on board to advise on how to do things better. The end goal is, of course, to turn a profit, but he insists not at the expense of the environment.

His background in tech leads him to be a little savvier and open-minded than many traditional farmers in the Philippines. He observes that hardly anyone is using technology to grow food there. Unsatisfied with products on the market, he is building his own vertical farming setups and hardware using iot (which he says is otherwise unheard of in the Philippines). Creating a proprietary setup allows him to scale faster, be more nimble, and continue to adhere to his environmental and local philosophies. Looking down the road at another use for tech, he hopes to skip over the stand-still traffic in Manila and use drones to deliver his produce. He feels like the lack of regulations in Manila is helpful to him because it allows him to dream big and experiment without a lot of big brother problems.

Getting the word out
Manila is a close-knit community, so word of mouth (and taste in mouth) is one of the best ways to pique people's interest. Neighbors get curious about walls of green across the way. Food is a big part of the local culture, and proof of freshness can be conveyed easily in the taste of fresh-picked produce. He promotes their food to businesses as being hyper-local, free of pesticides, and high-quality.

While the startup scene is not saturated in Manila, Ralph notes that traditional funding for startups is hard because most investors look for more traditional opportunities and tend to be risk-averse. So he's embraced an alternative route for funding; reality television.

When I met him, he was in the middle of filming "The Final Pitch" - a mix between America's "Shark Tank" and "The Apprentice." In addition to his new-found celebrity status, he teaches a course at a local college on sustainable design and plant life cycles.

Keep an eye out for Ralph and Urban Greens as they continue to promote environmental sustainability and local healthy food through innovation, education, and creativity.
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