Digerati50: Michael Simon, the TV producer, taking farming to greater heights

  • Finds perfect middle ground between tech and agriculture to change farming
  • Aspires to change the face of paddy farming in Malaysia, a Khazanah startup winner

Digerati50: Michael Simon, the TV producer, taking farming to greater heights

Digital News Asia (DNA) continues its series that profiles 50 influencers who are helping shape Malaysia’s Digital Economy, from Digerati50 2020-2021 (Vol 4), a special biennial print publication released in July 2020. The digital copy can be downloaded from the sidebar link.

The following in an expanded version of the article which first appeared in print edition in June 2020.

Like most people who got into organic foods, Michael Christian Simon, founder of Homegrown Productions Sdn Bhd just wants his family and him to eat healthier. He has been reading about the harmful effects of pesticide on vegetables, and decided a good way forward is to grow his own vegetables.

“You just want the best for your family. So I put my head down, and thought: ‘hey, you produce TV shows. What’s the difference from producing vegetables?’” he says.

Michael would say that he’s no farmer, but what has sprouted from his own farm aren’t just organic vegetables, but the seeds of an idea to turn aquaponics into something that will disrupt and decentralise farming in Malaysia.

He founded Homegrown Farms in 2017 with his wife, a former journalist, as a way to serve a group of people who want to eat healthy, but can’t seem to afford organic produce. While farming, he found that soil-based crops have a tendency to get attacked by pests. He initially warded them with their own natural concoctions of pest deterrents, but research led him to discover aquaponics.

Aquaponics is a farming system that combines aquaculture (the raising of fish) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil) into a symbiotic system. Removing soil from the equation, Michael found, led to far fewer pests and higher crop yields.

Aquaponics also led Michael to a thought. For the most part, farming is horizontal – expansion requires more land mass, which goes against the sustainability aspect of organic farming. With that, Michael turned towards vertical aquaponics, adopting a system that grows vegetables in stacked layers. With that, one square foot of their system can produce 36 more yield than growing on one square foot of soil.

Michael is not too caught up with the “sexiness” of indoor farming. “We’re not the AeroFarms of the world,” he quips. Instead, Michael trusts in the 365 days of sun a tropical country like Malaysia brings, opting to make his system more effective outdoors while eliminating the carbon footprint needed for indoor farming to thrive.

He began experimenting on different crops and larger systems, too, designing a 20 foot x 20 foot system that allows for paddy to grow aquaponically. As it’s a vertical system, there’s a cavity in the middle that allows farmers to grow mushrooms alongside the paddy.

Michael received his first harvest of paddy in 90 days, which is faster than the 104-day maturing variety he planted. The small plot, Michael claims, has beaten the national average of paddy yield per square foot. If it works as intended, farmers are able to grow paddy alongside mushrooms and harvest fish as they harvest the rice.

“It sounds utopic,” Michael says. “But we’ve done it. We just need to scale it. We’ve done the calculation, and I see that it works. We can change the face of paddy farming in Malaysia.”

It’s a utopia that some are buying in. Homegrown Farms is one of the 2018 Khazanah Nasional Entrepreneurship Outreach (KNEO) programme winners, a feat which Michael notes is a validation of his vision.

The next step, he says, is to technologize the system. Together with 1337 Ventures and its CEO Bikesh Lakhmichand (also a DNA Digerati50), Michael was connected to MIMOS Bhd and has begun development of sensors to be utilised with Homegrown’s vertical systems. Sensors and MIMOS’ middleware system would allow Michael to scale Homegrown’s system to larger plots, allowing him to monitor their processes.

But this is not the extent in which Homegrown would be spreading its technology roots. For one, Michael is looking to develop his own brand of sensors to be sold to aquaponic farmers, and has already been in talks with a local IoT company to develop them.

The end goal here, however, is to create a holistic ecosystem not unlike his own symbiotic farming system. Michael is at work developing a platform that will allow aquaponic organic farmers to sell their produce directly to consumers and restaurants, thus cutting out the middle man.

The idea here is to decentralise farming and putting food security in the hands of the masses, Michael explains. Homegrown’s platform and farming systems will essentially allow people to grow vegetables in their own balconies, harvesting their own produce and selling the rest on the platform. Restaurants on the platform can provide their organic waste to be composted, which can be bought by other farmers.

This can also be done at a bigger scale. Michael’s systems will allow for rooftop farming, allowing owners of buildings with large rooftop estate to set up aquaponic farms. He has already set up rooftop farms as part of the Crops for the Future centre in Semenyih, as well as one in Bangsar South, where completion was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Michael acknowledges that his ideas may sound naïve. “But 10 years ago, if I told you that you can leave your office and stop a stranger who will take you to your destination, or that on vacation you can stay at a stranger’s apartment via AirBnB, you will call me crazy, right,” he says.

“This is a big goal. It’s very lofty. But with technology in place, we can manage farming better. With the platform, we not only get to sell vegetables, but also educate people and bring in people on the fringes of agriculture – community farmers, compost makers, smallholder farms. We can get them on the platform.”

This is quite the leap for one of Malaysia’s most prolific TV producers – a job Michael had for 25 years, right after graduation. A USM English and Mass Communication major, he came to Kuala Lumpur in 1997 with aspirations to be a composer, but ended up as an assistant producer for TV3.

In time, his talent in conceptualising hit shows got him promoted to senior producer. After a brief stint with Channel V as an executive producer, he returned to Media Prima in 2003 as a consultant for 8TV, eventually promoted to manager following his work on programmes like The Quickie and Latte@8.

He would leave in 2005 to establish his own company, Homegrown Productions Sdn Bhd. Among his most prominent successes is the hit comedy reality show, Raja Lawak. Currently, Homegrown Production runs the EC Inspirasi channel on TM’s Unifi TV, which include popular shows like KL TV and Dapur Bujang. 

His history in TV production will also be merging with farming. As part of his platform Michael has produced several videos to educate people on aquaponic farming on top of providing farming tips and recipes for their organic vegetables.

Michael says that he has taken TV production to as high as he could take it, and is now hoping that someone younger and aspirational will take it further. He’s more content getting his fingers green.

For aspiring agropreneurs, Michael says that they shouldn’t just “look at the sexy stuff.”

“To me, my whole life has been of practicality. I would ideally like to see my own AeroFarm, with air-conditioned warehouses and a sterilisation chamber. But hey, practically, how much will you be spending on this?

“Look for ways to marry technology and agriculture in a very practical way. I think we have found a perfect middle ground here. That’s where we’re headed.”

During the Covid-19 movement control order, demand for Michael’s vegetables, which can be ordered online only, grew three times. This, he says, is more validation. Even if his lofty goals on the platform doesn’t come to fruit, well, at least his vegetables are feeding people healthily.

Digerati50 2020/2021 is proudly sponsored by Maxis - Powering Malaysia's 5G era.

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