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27 Questions: Benjamin Swan, co-founder and CEO of Sustenir Agriculture

Hong Kong is a place brimming with talented and intriguing people. Each week in 27 Questions, we get up close and personal with the city’s notable personalities, learning about their whims, aversions, pivotal life moments, and hopes and dreams — all in roughly the same duration it takes to sit through a two-minute speed date.

Talks of sustainability and being environmentally conscious is no breaking news. In fact, it’s continuously enthused upon; shared and encouraged, especially when glossing over topics like food. Farm-to-Table. Zero-waste. Supporting Local. For Australian-born, Singapore-based Benjamin Swan, it’s a step further than just personal habitual practice but to also offer an alternate, more convenient solution for established communities to build sustainability naturally into their everyday routine.

Thus prompting an introduction to Swan’s co-founded Sustenir Agriculture, tasked with a mission to “Grow Local, Grow Fresh”; in other words, to cultivate a sustainable growth of seasonal, non-native crops all year round on local soil. It’s a concept particularly apropos in cities with hot and humid climes, much like Hong Kong, Malaysia, which the company expanded to in 2021 during the pandemic, and Singapore, home to the 2013-founded agri-tech startup, where space scarcity and temperamental weather has resulted in an over-reliance on foreign foods imports, adding to carbon emissions and food wastage brought on by lengthy transportation processes.

A vertical farm, then, is the perfect space-saving, sustainable answer.

sustenir agriculture benjamin swan

Here in Hong Kong, Sustenir has set up a dedicated 25,000 square-foot smart indoor farming facility in Tuen Mun, equipped with the company’s proficient Controlled Environment Agriculture since 2019. Saved and now sheltered from the see-sawing weathers, the purple-tinted, all-enclosed space is free from environmental influences and arranged in neat rows of flourishing leafy greens that run from wall to wall, tucked snug in each dedicated plot. Impressively, it utilises 95 percent less water than traditional farming with zero fertiliser run-off, and allows for regular controlled growth of fresh, healthy crops no matter of the veg’s own native climes. The extensive selection of kales, lettuces and rockets grown promises tip-top freshness — eat-out-of-the-bag fresh, no wash needed — and never travels longer than 60 minutes from the farm to doorstep after each daily harvest.

Smart sustainability aside, Swan explained “We also had an ambition to make super foods super tasty.” And this he has with Sustenir’s range of lettuces and kales. Popular favourites include the Crisp Oak Lettuce Leaf, Greek Oak Lettuce Leaf, Toscano Kale and Curly Kale — which itself has been specially engineered for a sweeter, crisper taste, unlike its fibrous, bitter counterparts. To make a case for the controversial kale, the vitamins-rich superfood retains much of its nutrients even after high-heat exposure and is a great option for boosting immune systems with high versatility — have it in salads or a freshly squeezed juice or a delicious salt-dusted chip.

sustenir agriculture benjamin swan

Back in May, Sustenir proudly marked two years since planting its first seed at its Tuen Mun farm and celebrated with 3-day limited run of the Sustenir-Mobile, the brand’s designated mini-van that drove around the city to pass out 1,519 packs of Sustenir’s fresh veg. Today, you’re likely to have noticed Sustenir’s greens stocked on the shelves of neighbourhood supermarkets, including Wellcome, Marketplace, ParknShop, 3hreesixty, City’Super and Taste.

Fascinated and in-midst of a belated congratulations to the two-year anniversary of Sustenir Agriculture in Hong Kong, we caught up with Benjamin to find out everything from his weekend habits to what drives his sheer determination.

Name: Benjamin Swan
Age: 40 
Neighbourhood: Singapore
Occupation: Co-Founder and CEO of Sustenir Agriculture  

1. What was your first job?

My first job was at a pizza shop at 14. I saved every cent with the ambition to purchase a car by the time I could drive. When I turned 16 and could apply for my learners’ license, I purchased my first car in full.  

2. Who is your role model?

I don’t have a single role model. Everyone I meet has an impact on my life. I like to think that everyone has an important role to play in society and we can learn from what makes each of us special. 

3. Who is the best teacher you’ve ever had, what is one important lesson that they taught you?

Failure is a great teacher. Some of my friends would probably describe me as stubborn, that certainly translates though to my professional career when I put my mind to an activity. I never saw ‘failure’ as a negative thing, instead I always looked at it as ‘progress’ assuming I was learning from the situation. Failure taught me my life motto. 

4. What is your life motto?

“Impossible is a mindset. There’s always a way.” 

5. Are you a morning person or a night owl? 

Being an entrepreneur, I’ve learnt to be a man of all hours. I get up early every morning and hit the gym, and find myself working to all hours of the evening working through various activities. 

sustenir agriculture benjamin swan
Co-Founder and CEO Benjamin Swan

6. What is the best meal you’ve ever eaten in Hong Kong? 

Mak’s Wonton Noodles on Wellington Street.

7. What is your drink of choice? 

Old fashioned.

8. Your go-to coffee order? 

Americano.

9. What’s your favourite childhood memory?

My favourite childhood memories were from spending time on my grandfather’s farm.  We would spend every school holiday at his farm learning about nature and living with the land. It was a true contrast from our daily lives, getting the bus to school and living in dense neighbourhoods to riding horses with neighbours being just down the road.

It was on that farm that my grandfather and father taught me the important role humanity has with our environment, and that we must (at a minimum) give back what we take from nature to ensure we have a resilient ecosystem.  

10. What energises you about your work? 

At Sustenir, we are literally growing a more resilient future. Every kilogram of produce we grow displaces imports and works towards reducing carbon emissions, and deforestation through food waste. 

11. What is your typical Sunday like?

My wife and I always plan a full day with the kids, taking them to new parks or places to eat.  

12. Where do you go when you want to be alone? 

If I want some alone time, I jump in the car and drive. Doesn’t matter the destination; getting lost and exploring new areas with some good tunes is key.  

13. What is the best thing in or about your apartment? 

My wife and my two children.

14. Are you a good cook? What is your best dish?

I love cooking, it’s very therapeutic for me. My best dish is a classic Rougaille; my mother is Mauritian and she taught me to cook, so it’s a very nostalgic dish for me.   

15. How often do you prepare your own meals?

I’m extremely picky with what I eat when I’m out, and I never eat fast food. I do love cooking and creating new recipes. There’s something very special about preparing a meal from scratch and sharing with friends and family.  

16. If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Pizza. It’s such a versatile dish to meet any situation.

17. What is one movie everyone should see?

The Pursuit of Happyness is a must see for anyone that needs a little inspiration in live. Life doesn’t give many free handouts. The only control we have is over our own actions. How we choose to fight back against the hard hits of life is what defines success and happiness.  

18. What is your biggest guilty pleasure?

After a tough week (and after I’ve spent time with the family), I love to unwind with a nice bottle of wine and an RPG or FPS video game.  

19. What is your biggest regret in life?

I don’t regret anything in life. The bad things that happen only make us more resilient for the future. Besides, there’s no point in focusing your energy on regretting things you can’t change. Instead, leverage what you’ve learnt from your experience and focus your energy on a more successful future.   

20. What is your greatest fear?

I fear what the future will look like for my kids. I started Sustenir before they were born, driven by the ambition to do something that would make a difference in the world. Today, I fight for change so that they, and the next generation, can have a fighting chance to experience the things that today we take for granted.  

21. If you could snap your fingers and fix one thing about the world, what would it be? 

The way society chooses convenience over progress. We all have a role to play in making the necessary change from governments and businesses, through to the end consumers. We all need to get very comfortable with change to make that happen, especially when it’s at the expense of our own personal convenience.   

22. If you had to describe Hong Kong in one word, what would it be? 

Frenetic.

23. When If you could do it all over again, what is one thing you would you do differently? did you feel that you ‘made it’? 

Success and failures have all led me to where I am today and that’s a great journey to be on.  

24. Start your life again at age 15 with all the knowledge you have now, or fast forward 10 years? 

Start at 15.

25. What’s your favourite tradition? 

Christmas.  

26. Which phone app do you think more people should know about?

Ten Percent Happier.  I strongly recommend this app to help you practice meditation to calm the mind, and also build tools to cope with stressful situations so the impact of ‘stress’ is less on the body and mind.  

27. If you were a TV show character, who would you be and why? 

Daryl Dixon from The Walking Dead. Aside from the fact that he’s a badass with a crossbow, he’s a survivor with a strong sense of purpose and dedication to the people he cares about. 

Follow Sustenir Agriculture @susteniragriculture for more updates.

Lorria Sahmet
Editor
After two years of covering luxury retail, Lorria is thrilled to be writing in fashion, food and lifestyle here at Lifestyle Asia. When not roaming around garden centres hauling back new plants for her indoor jungle, find her hunting down the best fries in the city. She's happiest by the ocean with a fishbowl glass of ice-cold Aperol spritz.