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FEATURE STORYMarch 5, 2023

Jay Desan, Malaysia: Creative, Flexible, Adventurous

Dr Jay Desan

World Bank, 2023

Each year for International Women’s Day, the World Bank meets women across East Asia Pacific who are challenging, creating, and leading the way in their fields.

Jay Desan co-founded Kuala Lumpur-based agritech startup, Boomgrow Productions Sdn Bhd, which started based on a simple question: ‘How can people eat better?’ – and now grows healthy, pesticide-free food in re-purposed shipping containers. 

What inspired you to work in agriculture?

Sustainability is a key theme in all my work. I’ve learned how broken the food system is and its impact; not just on the health of the planet, but on nutrition and justice. That’s what got me started in exploring how technology can solve some of the deepest issues in agriculture today.

Personally, what drove me to build BoomGrow is the search for healthy and nutritious food for my family. I clearly remember when I was bearing my first child, hearing all the news about crops laced heavily in pesticides. That got me thinking how it might impact the health of our future generations.

I grew up in a two-storey house in the middle of a terrace block. One of those anonymous mass housing estates that property developers experimented with in suburban Malaysia in the 80s, with rows of identical mirror-image houses that share side walls. The concrete slabs are far removed from any farm. I have almost no experience of planting, farming or tending to animals or that kind of connection with the earth.

What I do have is a deep interest in the disconnect between our sense of who we are, and our experience of food as curated by behemoth corporations. I now also understand what it means to taste pesticide-free agriculture and embrace a more natural way to live. I am acutely aware that such a way of life is a privilege; only for those who can afford it. With that, I embarked on a journey to work with my co-founders and eventually, this tremendous team we’ve built at BoomGrow:  plant scientists, engineers, software designers to build better food solutions together. 

This year's theme is ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality’. In your opinion, how can digital technology, and innovation, deliver greater gender equality?

Some of our best agronomists in the team are women who are not just great at plant morphology, but also great data scientists. Digital technology has enabled more women to move into areas that they have traditionally shied away from – due to upbringing or rigid beliefs. It’s also enabled more women participation in leadership as we now have a more acceptable hybrid working arrangements. 

What does your profession as an agritech entrepreneur mean to you?

BoomGrow has always focused on hyper-local produce. With our production system, we can reduce dependency on imported produce in any country, especially those susceptible to supply disruptions. In doing this, we strengthen local food production capacities. This goes to the heart of my work and the transformation that we are creating. 

We grow pesticide-free food in re-purposed shipping containers. Our modular, plug-and-play farming technology allows us to serve densely populated, close to where communities live. Built in a way that is climate-resistant, our farms operate 365 days a year and can be placed in wildly varied weather conditions. 

Our system uses 95% less water and 125x more efficient than an outdoor farm, acre for acre. What we can do is provide a sustainable and reliable supplement to food production. Supplement is the key word.

There is an increasing urban population in Asia Pacific with a growing demand for fresh produce. Rising food security concerns stem from continued supply chain disruptions due to unpredictable geo-political landscape and the impact of climate change on agricultural production. With Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA), we are able to address many of these concerns but focus on what we grow most efficiently. Traditional farming still needs to buck up and change some of the less desirable practices. What organisations like ours can do is to support the interest and enable better techniques and ideas, be judicious in our sharing and trigger a thriving ecosystem. 

My work is rooted in who I am and what I impart to my children. Asia is fanatical about its food, and in Malaysia it’s almost a food frenzy. Yet we don’t interrogate our food’s origins, growth and procurement. Access to good food is a matter of economics, class and history.  

For me, there is an adrenaline rush of being part of a moment, a bigger purpose and seeing breakthroughs. In doing so, I get to be part of meaningful change – and capitalizing in the moment. We are at the cusp of breakthroughs in integrating technology in agriculture and I feel excited every day about the change that is coming through. How I am playing a small role in enabling access to clean produce is super rewarding.

What are the key ingredients to succeeding in agritech?

Building a business is a marathon, not a sprint, and figuring out how to thrive as an entrepreneur is a lifelong journey, not something you suddenly ‘get’.  In the food sector, everything takes twice as long as you plan for and produces results about half as good as you hoped. I think the one thing we were naïve about was how long natural capital takes.

Secondly, once you begin to prove – to yourself and the market – that there’s a big commercial opportunity, you attract all kinds of competition. Others are attempting their own version of our product or service. Some are figuring out how to leverage their own assets to own part or all of our space.

We have two advantages, as we had cast a stake on the ground first: focus and speed. As a pioneer in Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) we’ve made many mistakes over the years, so today we have the awareness not just of what works and what won’t, but where we should focus on our energies towards so we are poised to achieve success. My challenge is to maintain the momentum. The key is to avoid shiny distractions and focus on the roadmap. 

At the same time, as a female founder in a male-dominated industry, I am passionate about transforming the narrative of indoor vertical farms. The answer towards this is as much about production as the consumer. At BoomGrow, our direct-to-customer subscription model is 70% female, and has enabled us to focus on developing deep customer relationships. As I am the exact target customer, I really do put myself in the shoe of my subscribers and am constantly looking to enhance the customer journey and experience.

What do you think needs to be done to ensure more women end up in leadership positions in Malaysia?

One of the key areas is to remove barriers to participation as women have particular challenges in terms of continued work with time out for childcare. The way I see it, hiring women should be a founding goal, part of core business outcomes. 

When we strategically focus on the best people for a job, both men and women thrive in each other’s presence. But that’s not enough. We need to continue to put a spotlight on women who lead. At BoomGrow, our female managers are a real force and continue to inspire our younger staff. As an organization, we try to spotlight all achievements and make an effort to show the success of our women.

**The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group.


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