YSE Series: Youth Action Challenge S2 Alumni Showcase — Urban Origins
Food security and sustainability have always been critical issues for countries like Singapore. The COVID-19 pandemic has escalated this relevance and the need to raise social awareness around it to the next level. One of the key ways of contributing to this matter is by boosting local food production and supporting local farmers. Many social enterprises are playing a key role in achieving food security and sustainability. We met with Suzanna Tang, Founder of Urban Origins — a sustainability-focused marketplace serving locally sourced foods and produce in Singapore.
In our interview, Suzanna, alumni of the Youth Action Challenge Season 2, shared the vision and mission of Urban Origins, why locally-sourced produce is important for Singapore’s future development, and what it was like to leave a secure government job to become a social entrepreneur.
What prompted Urban Origins and how did COVID-19 impact the idea?
Suzanna Tang: At the height of the pandemic, in March 2020, we woke up with no access to fresh produce in Singapore. After conducting some research, I found that Singapore imports over 90% of its food, and only 1% of the land is allocated to agriculture. At that moment, I realised that I needed to do something to strengthen food security in this country. Shortly thereafter, I decided to quit the safety of my government job and started to plan Urban Origins with a group of friends in an effort to strengthen one of Singapore’s key pillars — food security. The Youth Action Challenge provided us with a structured approach to take our idea further and refine it by learning from other budding social entrepreneurs and experts in relevant fields.
What is the mission of Urban Origins? What problem are you trying to solve?
Suzanna Tang: Our mission is to fortify local food sources and enable food-secure communities. Local food sources in Singapore compete on shelf space with imported food — that is the problem that we are trying to solve.
Urban Origins provides brand visibility to local food producers through its role as a dedicated marketplace by supporting them in their marketing and logistics efforts. Urban Origins aggregates local-urban farm produce and food from local agri- and food-led companies, upcycled food, and food from local artisans that use at least one ingredient that is locally sourced. We also provide the service of bundling them up as novel and customisable gift options for consumers.
For example, one of our customers tried to cycle about 15 km to a local farm to get fresh vegetables, she gave up after doing it twice as it was really inconvenient and time-consuming. She is now happy to know she will soon be able to source more products from a variety of local farms through our platform. We want to help more local consumers get easier access to locally produced goods, while also supporting local farmers in Singapore.
What have been some of the challenges you have faced so far?
Suzanna Tang: Getting buy-in from our stakeholders such as our local food producers. This is because we are young and we don’t really have much experience in the field. In order to overcome this challenge, we have engaged with them, and seeing the passion we have for Urban Origins allowed us to move the relationship forward.
Tell us about your Youth Action Challenge and the Youth Co:Lab Springboard Plus experience.
Suzanna Tang: Workshops at the Youth Action Challenge season 2 on how a lean startup should execute its business idea helped my team navigate the initial and crucial stages of coming up with a sound business plan. The best part was being able to connect with mentors who are on-the-ground experts in the field of sustainability, logistics, and technology. This helped us in direction setting and decision-making.
As for the Youth Co:Lab Springboard Plus, we benefited a lot from the weekly Q&A sessions with industry experts, as well as the workshops on the curriculum. The overall programme really allowed me to think deeper about our business plan and finetune certain things for the sustainability of Urban Origins.
How was it to leave a ‘stable’ job to become a social entrepreneur?
Suzanna Tang: Some of my friends and colleagues called me crazy at the time. They were really shocked that I was going to resign because it seemed like I was well on my way to have a good career in teaching. I have always been interested in the food and entrepreneurship space. When COVID-19 hit and there were no products on the shelves of the supermarket I went to, it shocked me and made me realise that there are many problems in the world that we can help solve. That is why I left my role as a teacher to start Urban Origins: to help society and for my personal and professional development, and it turned out well. Right now, we have 25 merchant partners onboard our platform — ranging from farms that produce leafy vegetables and seafood to companies that upcycle food to produce vegetable chips; from “ugly” foods to high-fiber premixes.
What is one piece of advice that you could offer young entrepreneurs that want to get into the sustainability sector?
Suzanna Tang: If I were to offer one piece of advice it would be “just do it”. There is no dream that is too small and it is never too late to start something as long as you have an interest and you want to make a change. So, start today and learn as much as you can even if you have had no prior experience in the field you are interested in.
Even though COVID-19 brought many setbacks and challenges to many of us, it also presented many opportunities to connect with and learn from experts. Information has moved online and that means that all this knowledge is accessible with the click of a finger.
What is next for Urban Origins and where do you see Urban Origins in 3–5 years?
Suzanna Tang: First, in a few weeks we will be re-launching our website (currently under development) and social media platforms. We are hoping this will bring more traction and therefore increase our social impact. In the short run, we aim to impact different sectors of society by engaging single parents as well as ex-offenders in sorting and delivery. We also want to provide subsidised training to upscale members in the home-based F&B sector as there is a significant number of people running home-based food businesses in Singapore that are from the lower-income group — we want to be able to support them.
Alongside, we will also work on widening our outreach to more youth through workshops and webinars and via partnerships and collaborations with grassroots associations and community development councils here in Singapore.
Finally, our long-term plans include leveraging technology and taking on a more data-driven approach towards matching consumer demand with supply. Of course, moving forward from that it is more about how we can make our process of delivery more efficient and sustainable, and as eco-friendly as possible.
This blog is part of our Youth Social Entrepreneurship (YSE) Series, where we showcase the voice and experience of different stakeholders in the social innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem in Singapore.
About Youth Action Challenge (YAC)
The YAC provides an opportunity for youth to turn their ideas into reality through curated workshops and guidance from experienced industry professionals. The YAC is a key thrust of the SG Youth Action Plan (SG YAP), organised by the National Youth Council in partnership with UNDP and Citi in Singapore through their Youth Co:Lab initiative.
YAC Season 3 is open for registrations! For more information and to register, visit: https://youthactionplan.sg/YACSeason3/
About Youth Co:Lab
Co-created in 2017 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab aims to establish a common agenda for countries in the Asia-Pacific region to empower and invest in youth, so that they can accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about the Youth Co: Lab, visit: https://www.youthcolab.org/