Q: What is it that you do at work?
Ms Fadhlina Suhaimi: I am a Senior Scientist in the Vegetables and Fruits Section of AVA’s Technology and Industry Development Group. My role is to drive horticulture R&D so as to help local vegetable farmers enhance their productivity. My colleagues and I facilitate the development of the agricultural industry through technology transfer and collaborations with external partners such as technology suppliers and research/educational institutes.
Because Singapore has limited land, we have to think of innovative ways to ensure our local vegetable farms maximise production. Singapore’s farms are already very intensive – our vegetable farms go through 10 to 12 crop cycles per year, unlike the four to six cycles of overseas farms. To intensify farming even further, we continually study various farming systems and look at agronomic practices as well as plant genomics to increase crop yield.
Q: What are the main challenges you face at work?
Farmers may not always approach trials and experiments the same way scientists do. As scientists, we pay great attention to details and factors that critically affect experiment outcomes. At a recent farm trial, for example, we studied how LED lights could increase yield, and asked the farm to switch the light on for four hours. However, the trial results differed greatly from our lab findings, and we couldn’t figure out why – until we found out by chance that staff at the farm had left the light on for more than four hours.
Another challenge is convincing farmers to adopt new technology to increase production. Farmers usually hesitate due to costs – but they are often willing to make an attempt to do things differently and embrace technology when they come up against roadblocks.
It gives me a personal sense of satisfaction to help farmers overcome adversity. I like the challenge – and at the same time, I get to help farmers improve their livelihood, and ultimately contribute to Singapore’s food supply resilience.
Q: Tell us about notable projects that you are or have been involved in.
In 2011, my R&D team and I, together with DJ Engineering, codeveloped a vertical farming system (VFS) prototype for the production of leafy vegetables. I designed, planned, and conducted the R&D to establish the agronomy method for the system, and provided inputs to fine-tune it. The prototype was at least five times more productive than conventional farming. The project was awarded the Minister for National Development’s R&D Merit Award 2011. Also, the VFS was commercialised by Sky Greens – a spin-off company of DJ Engineering – and Singapore’s first vertical farm was officially launched on 24 October 2012.
Q: What do you enjoy about your work?
There is a surprising amount of interest in farming in Singapore. In the course of our work, we get to interact with people who love growing vegetables in the community. We introduced a pilot programme to help community gardeners upgrade their vegetable growing skills and knowledge.
There are also residents who are interested in growing vegetables at home but cannot, due to a lack of space. So, we introduced vertical farming systems such as the DIY veggie pipe. It was an overwhelming success – to this day, many people still call in to ask for our expertise in setting up veggie pipes.
These interactions with the public give me a personal sense of achievement, as I am able to raise awareness of local farming. This is important because some people don’t even know that we have farms in Singapore. I hope I can inspire the next generation to take up farming.
In addition, we get invitations from schools and tertiary institutions to give talks on home farming. Through school talks and visits, I also build up my networks and contacts. This allows me to keep abreast of the latest on-goings among community growers and explore possible collaborations.
Q: What are essential skills for your job?
You need perseverance, and you have to be open-minded. Do not give up when you hit a wall in your pursuit of a solution; sometimes the answer is just around the corner. Tap expertise from various fields – some technology solutions may originate from a completely unrelated field.