A search for chemical- and pesticide-free vegetables has brought two Malaysian university friends together in more ways than one.
Monash University graduates Clarence Chin and C K Chia had both seen family members or close friends fall ill and were looking for answers. They say their loved ones did not have poor lifestyle habits or genes that predisposed to chronic illnesses.
Chia says his late mother, who passed away from cancer five years ago, grew her own vegetables and was always careful about what she ate.
“She was a big fan of re-using waste to generate organic fertiliser … for her homegrown vegetables,” he says.
The fact that she suffered from cancer puzzled Chin. But both men felt that poor knowledge of food sourcing and a lack of pesticide-free options may be factors in some chronic illnesses.
Charged by this idea, the 30-year-olds spent time researching how consumers could eat better.
Knowing there was demand for organic products, they studied the accessibility of organic or chemical-free vegetables.
“We looked online and even visited many organic farms to see how easy it is for people to buy vegetables that are not sprayed with pesticide or poisonous chemicals,” Chin says.
They found that a lack of clarity on sourcing, knowledge about farms and coordination between farmers and customers was making life difficult for producers.
The young entrepreneurs saw this as a problem in the market – one they believed they could tackle themselves.
Bridging the gap in the organic produce market
Initially they had wanted to invest in an organic farm but sourcing affordable land and skilled labour proved difficult, Chin says.
After much deliberation, they realised many growers, especially from small and medium-sized farms, were facing a similar problem. Because they often didn’t have direct access to consumers, they were reliant on distributors or middlemen to sell their produce. These additional “layers” made their produce more expensive for consumers.
“The small farmers are being squeezed. Running a farm itself is expensive, and they already don’t make much money,” Chin explains.
The men wanted organic farmers to enjoy the benefits of fair trade by bridging the gap between the farms and consumers.
So, in 2017, they launched Everleaf to deliver chemical-free vegetables directly to homes in Kuala Lumpur and surrounding areas.
After initially starting with just 10 orders a week, they now have 500 customers in their database and have moved up to 80 vegetable boxes a week.
Through Everleaf’s mobile app consumers can choose how they want to fill their boxes and can also learn exactly where their vegetables are grown. Aside from greens, they also offer mushrooms, honey and condiments from local producers.
Before being distributed to customers, the vegetables are either delivered to Everleaf’s base in Shah Alam, about 30 km from Kuala Lumpur, or are directly collected from the suppliers or farms. Orders are delivered within 28 hours, the company says.
Feedback so far has been positive, particularly in terms of the condition of the vegetables.
“We get 90 percent of our customers saying they are satisfied with the freshness,” says Chin.
As well as keeping customers happy, both Chin and Chia also want to ensure farmers can earn a decent income, so they let farms set their own prices.
“We hope [that] through our conversations with the farmers they are more aware of what consumers want and can manage their growing schedule to meet these orders,” Chin says. “We think that will help them make a bit more money and cut down on waste too.”
The challenges of a fresh concept
Keeping vegetables fresh was far from the only obstacle the Everleaf founders faced when starting operations.
“Many farmers were not convinced with our business idea and were unsure if it will work, so we persuaded them again and again,” Chin says.
They visited the farms repeatedly to “sell” their business idea and get buy-in from these smaller farms.
To date, six organic farms – in the Cameron Highlands, Batang Kali, Semenyih and Klang – supply vegetables and other locally made products to Everleaf’s customers. All except the Cameron Highlands are within an 80 km radius of the city centre.
Chin and Chia emphasise that they want to not only deliver pesticide-free vegetables to consumers but also help farms get more publicity and exposure.
Most of the farms they work with are certified as organic facilities, but a few smaller operations either do not have the resources to get certified or are not aware of the certification processes.
The Malaysian government offers organic certification through its Agriculture and Agro-based Industries Ministry. Certification is awarded upon satisfactory inspection by the authorities and is subject to yearly renewals.
According to the ministry’s website, there is no cost to apply for organic certification but farms have to produce proof of land ownership and undergo soil testing, along with analysis for pesticides residues and heavy metals. Farms also have to be free of synthetic herbicides, growth hormones, fertilisers and additives, among others.
Everleaf is working with organic farm pioneer Centre for Environment, Technology and Development, Malaysia (CETDEM) to help smaller farms boost their credibility by ensuring they meet basic organic farming standards.
CETDEM is a non-profit organisation set up in 1985 to offer consultancy and training to promote sustainable and environmentally friendly practices.
Everleaf relies on CETDEM’s independent inspection of the farms to ensure they meet its requirements as a chemical-free supplier.
Aside from managing expectations of these farms, Chia explains that educating the consumer about their delivery business posed another challenge.
“We have received feedback that our prices are a little higher – say about RM3 (SG$1) more than vegetables sold in the supermarket,” he says.
They respond to this by explaining that the time-saving benefits of home delivery should make the slightly higher price worthwhile.
“Customers don’t have to rush to supermarkets after work, waste time looking for parking or queuing. Deliveries are done to their doorstep, so they have more time,” he adds.
He feels that their delivery service suits the busy city worker or working families who prefer their weekends be filled with activities of their choice, instead of being at the supermarket pushing through crowds.
Everleaf is still running at a loss but Chin and Chia are working hard to expand their customer base through digital promotion and working with food businesses, such as restaurants and catering companies.
“We do not have rivals: in our minds, they are friends as we’re open to more players in the delivery business,” says Chia.
“That will help in making the business more viable if we’re open to sharing the lessons learnt in organic farming field.”