The Peak Power List 2018: Eric Ng

GROUP CEO, APOLLO AQUACULTURE GROUP

YEAR ESTABLISHED: 2014

WHAT IT DOES: Uses technology and vertical farming to boost seafood production.


Things aren’t looking good for our oceans. Overfishing is depleting once-abundant species and whatever’s left (that’s edible) may end up suffocating due to falling oxygen levels in the seas caused by global warming.

For a solution to what’s happening, Eric Ng, group CEO of Apollo Aquaculture Group (AAG), is looking heavenward. His farm in Lim Chu Kang has been embracing vertical farming to maximise production and efficiency in land- scarce Singapore since 2012.

The three-storey farm houses six ponds – two on each level – with each 135 sq m pond being able to hold 22,000 fish fry. This system allows AAG to farm 150kg to 250kg of fish per cubic metre of water, compared to the 25kg to 75kg that sea cage farming can yield. AAG’s farm is fully automated, with everything from water conditions and feeding being controlled remotely, thus reducing labour costs.

It’s a simple idea in theory, but one that took immense conviction to turn into reality. AAG was started by Ng’s father to cultivate ornamental fish. Ng gave up the chance to continue his studies in Australia to help with the family business, but he and his father “were fighting all the time”, he recalls.

After three years, he left to start his own construction business. But when the market crashed, so did his company. “I hung my head and went back to my dad, who was grinning smugly. But that experience helped me relate to his challenges as a business owner, and he in turn let go a little more and gave me the freedom to explore different ways to operate.”

One of those ways was automation, which he admits was inspired by his own laziness. “I had to be at the farm before 7am, doing jobs like siphoning water from tanks and filling them up again – and we had 500 tanks,” he says. “During my experiments with semi- automation, I killed many fish and shrimp, but that’s where I gained the know-how. I realised that fish farming is both an art and a science.”

The science part received a major boost when Ng shifted from ornamental fish to food fish after his father passed away in 2009. He decided to farm fish on land, knowing the difficulties of farming them in sea cages. “Sea cage systems are difficult to control because everything is dependent on the weather, fish are vulnerable to diseases and you have to manage everything off shore. Should anything happen while you’re on land, you have to react very quickly and it’s very taxing on the mind,” he explains.

By investing in high-tech land-based farming, AAG promises its products – mainly grouper, trout and shrimp – are safe to consume and traceable. The next step was to increase output. “With my background in construction, I came up with ideas on how to build upwards,” he says. He had to mortgage his house to get started.

Today, his “floating ponds” concept is about to materialise in a massive 38,400 sq m hub in Neo Tiew Crescent, built at an estimated cost of $72 million. The farming block is due to be completed before next October, with the office and processing block the year after. “By escalating the model to eight tiers, we are able to reduce our energy costs from production from 30 per cent to 3 per cent, which adds up to $3.5 million in savings a year.”

The 45-year-old hopes more traditional farmers will adopt this model, since “floating ponds” can fi t into any unused urban space, including parks, rooftops, community spaces and viaducts. “The older generation is still farming like they did 30 years ago, but they have experience and soft skills. I hope to help the industry upgrade their hardware while maintaining their ‘software’,” he says. “Instead of a competitor, I hope the older generation will come to see me as a collaborator, so we can all make the world a better place to live in.”

IN 60 SECONDS

I’d gone skydiving and canoeing, all without my parents’ knowledge because they wouldn’t allow it. So now I want to support my three children in whatever they want to do.

I’m the only child, but my father never pampered me. He could have bailed me out when my construction business failed, but he taught me to face what I needed to.

If I could farm anything, it would be bluefin tuna. Tuna are fast swimmers and migratory so I don’t think there are any land-based farms that can do it yet.

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This article is originally published on The Peak Singapore.

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