Shoppers buying locally grown vegetables at Mapopo Community Farm in Ma Shi Po village in Fanling on February 9, 2020. Photo: Dickson Lee
Amy Wu
Amy Wu

How farm tech can cultivate a new generation of innovators in Hong Kong to spark economic growth

  • The bottom line is that there is an opportunity for a new generation in their 20s and 30s to produce food locally by tapping into the agtech sector
  • It will take the combined efforts of the government, private business, growers and educational institutions to make that happen
Hong Kong has a lot going for it when it comes to farming and farm tech. The landscape of modern skyscrapers and a fast-paced urban metropolis belie the reality that its geography, weather, infrastructure and a consumer base that loves to eat are all advantageous when it comes to tapping into the fast-growing agtech sector.
Agtech, the marriage of agriculture and technology, includes any innovation that helps farmers grow smarter. It offers a bevy of solutions to the consequences of climate change, whether it be severe labour shortages and water and land management issues, or soil depletion and pest management.
It also includes seeds, indoor farming, hydroponics and aquaponics. The innovation that comes with it often involves drones, sensors, robotics, blockchain, artificial intelligence, mobile apps and data analytics.

Internationally, the sector is growing rapidly in terms of investment and adoption. Farmers are facing increased pressure to feed a global population that is forecast to reach 10 billion by 2050. In the Asia-Pacific region, the sector is already taking off in the form of industry conferences, investment and accelerator programmes in markets in Singapore and Australia.

All these components offer a tremendous opportunity to develop a new knowledge-based workforce in Hong Kong. The time is ripe for educators and policymakers to cultivate a new generation with the innovation, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit to either launch their own business or work for companies that are part of the food system. Agtech can potentially be a spark in further fuelling the local and regional economy.

While farming is rarely, if ever, considered sexy – finance, trade and tourism have historically been the flagship sectors in Hong Kong – everyone eats. Many of us, myself included, love to eat. Hong Kong is a prime location for food and top-tier restaurants in the Asia-Pacific. During my time living and working in the city, almost every family or social gathering and business meeting involved food, with the emphasis on quality and freshness.
As noted earlier, Hong Kong has considerable advantages when it comes to the agtech sector, and these are often overlooked. While the city itself has very dense areas of population and buildings, much of Hong Kong is a landscape of wide open spaces in the New Territories. The weather is excellent for farming with ample sunshine and plentiful rainfall. A family member who is a backyard gardener is astute in pointing out the growing season is 365 days a year, which means frosts are rare.
At the same time, the amount of food produced and consumed locally is relatively low, with some 92 per cent of Hong Kong’s fresh vegetables and 97 per cent of its live freshwater fish imported from mainland China. The bottom line is that there is an untapped opportunity for a new generation in their 20s and 30s to produce food locally. It will take the combined efforts of the government, private business, growers and educational institutions to make that happen.
To start with, we should make food and farming a priority when it comes to economic growth. We should consider the possibility of connecting tourism with eco-tourism or agritourism. There is an enormous opportunity to leverage the farm-to-table movement among restaurants and local eateries.
The pandemic has fuelled a growing interest from consumers internationally, including in big cities, about where their food is grown, who is growing it, how it is grown and how it is distributed. There is a small but growing contingent of backyard gardeners, landowners and conservationists who are passionate about amplifying sustainable agriculture and regenerative farming practices in Hong Kong.

The local education system should consider weaving agriculture and innovation into the mandatory curriculum, in both primary and secondary schools. Classes could combine the skills of science, technology, engineering and maths with a basic knowledge of growing. A school farm would give children a chance to learn and potentially supply school cafeterias.

Academic institutions including the University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology can consider running an agtech programme, perhaps beginning with workshops or a certificate programme. Online virtual learning would extend the reach. 
Ultimately, a robust agtech sector provides a solution to feeding a growing population and an urban population through innovation. It also promotes biodiversity and conservation. I see a strong win-win.

There are signs things are heading in the right direction. At the annual Future Food Asia conference held this month, Hong-Kong-based start-up Senior Deli was among the award winners. The company uses food engineering technology to promote a healthy lifestyle for seniors with dysphagia or difficulty in swallowing.

This is one example of why Hong Kong needs to develop innovation and cultivate entrepreneurship with agtech at the helm. The wave has yet to come. It’s time to start.

Amy Wu is a Chinese-American journalist based in New York and California. A native New Yorker, she writes about cross-cultural issues and topics related to women’s issues, including health and policy. Her book, “From Farms to Incubators: Women Innovators Revolutionizing How Our Food Is Grown”, has just been published