Image: Ridhwan Kamarulzaman

Three years ago, a group of young entrepreneurs started a hydroponics greenhouse project in Kg Labi under Greenthumb Farms (GTF). 

With a piece of land, time, energy and funding from their rainy day savings, Mohammad Dzairenny Hj Muslim, Julian Chan, Jeremy Chan and Mohammad Baihaqey Pehin Shari, aspired to bring clean and healthy food produce to the kitchen table. 

However, despite their best efforts, they faced a number of obstacles and the business resulted in vain. 

Right place, right time

A couple of years later, the agripreneurs decided to look into the mushroom farming business. 

“At that point, we were already closely talking to the Department of Agriculture and Agrifood (DAA) of the Ministry of Primary Resources and Tourism (MPRT),” said director Mohammed Dzairenny.

Oyster Mushrooms being grown at Greenthumb Farms. Image: Ridhwan Kamarulzaman

“One thing led to another and it was a case of being in the right place at the right time as it was made known to us that a piece of land with existing mushroom operations run by the government would probably be privatised.” 

A year and a half later, the DAA awarded GTF a tenure concession to operate at an existing mushroom facility at the Brunei Agriculture Research Centre (BARC) in Kilanas. 

“We’ve been operating ever since but one of the challenges we faced was raising funds to be able to scale up for commercial production,” said Mohammed Dzairenny.

“We were looking for an equity investor to come in and support the scaling of operations.”

With 15 years of experience in the private sector and entrepreneurial landscape, Pg Irwan Ab Rahaman saw potential in the GTF and decided to invest. 

“Compared to a conventional mushroom farm, we are using more technological-based equipment which needed sizeable investment to be able to scale up, start-up and grow the business up to where we are today in terms of our set up,” said Pg Irwan, who then became the company’s Managing Director. 

Cultures being incubated at Greenthumb Farms. Image: Ridhwan Kamarulzaman

The farm achieved operational status over a month ago equipped with full technology and hardware.

The process and facilities

GTF focuses on three main products namely; Oyster Mushroom, Shitake Mushroom and Reishi Mushroom.

According to Pg Irwan, the strains or cultures were brought in from Belgium and obtained from a special lab that deals with pure mushroom cultures. 

Greenthumb Farms staff packing the mushrooms in a clean room. Image: Ridhwan Kamarulzaman

“From the petri dish, our technicians created some cultures enough to inoculate master spawn bags or pure Mycelia.” 

The Mycelia will fill a whole spawn bag which will then be cultivated, he explained, adding, “One master spawn bag will be divided into commercial spawn bags which will subsequently be divided into growing bags.”

According to the Managing Director, one master spawn bag can make 10 commercial bags where one commercial bag can produce 10 growing bags. 

GTF products are grown organically using sawdust and rice bran without pesticides and fertilisers. 

Greenthumb Farms staff packing the mushrooms in a clean room. Image: Ridhwan Kamarulzaman

“One crucial step that must be taken before introducing the cultures into the bags is packing them into vessels followed by a four-hour sterilization process using hot steam to kill bacteria and other contaminants,” said the managing director.

The mushrooms are then placed in growing rooms with specific temperatures and humidity conditions for each strain. 

Image: Ridhwan Kamarulzaman

The company engaged a foreign lab expert to oversee operations as well as locals to be trained in order to have continuity of the business.

Mohammad Dzairenny further said that specific types of mushrooms were selected due to its localised variety and high demand in the country. 

“This means that our environment and climate suits them the best to grow, it’s just that we chose to focus on growing it specifically in climate-controlled rooms to ensure quality, consistency and volume.” 

“We are considering expanding to growing button mushrooms in the future as it requires further investment in technology,” he added. 

Commercialisation

As the company only achieved an operational state over a month ago, opportunities to commercialise the produce have not yet transpired. 

“(However), there’s quite a number of interest as we’ve spoken to larger retail supermarkets, certain contract buyers as well as large catering operations,” said Mohammed Dzairenny, who expressed the company’s excitement to make their first sale.

Image: Ridhwan Kamarulzaman

“We spent a large part of last year testing and experimenting as there are a lot of factors that come into play. (Now) we’re at the stage where we’re quite confident and are ready to start selling.”

Challenges

Apart from capital, another challenge faced by GTF included upgrading the existing facility with new technology.

“It was a matured and aged facility and required some improvements but with the right resources we managed to upgrade to much-needed equipment,” said Mohammad Dzairenny. 

Advice for future entrepreneurs

Seeing a growing interest in agriculture in the country, the two entrepreneurs advise those keen to venture into the field to understand and conduct research beforehand. 

“Don’t just dive into it. Find out about the location of the site, access to the facilities, whether there’s water – these are all critical factors,” said Pg Irwan.

Agriculture in general, he added, can be a high-risk business and make sure that you are able to financially sustain in case you encounter any difficulty along the way. 

Image: Ridhwan Kamarulzaman
Oyster Mushrooms being grown at Greenthumb Farms. Image: Ridhwan Kamarulzaman

Sharing the same sentiments, Mohammad Dzairenny encourages youths to venture into the agricultural field to heed His Majesty’s titah on self-sufficiency. 

“Lead by the ministry and DAA, these initiatives focus on food sustainability as there’s a demand – the population is growing and it’s becoming more expensive to import.”

“It is an industry that is critical for the country’s self-sustainability and development,” concluded the agripreneur. 

This article was first published on February 23, 2020 in our National Day Supplement

The Bruneian | BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN

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