‘Passion’ takes muskmelons to new heights

James Kon

Superfish Growers, the sole large-scale Japanese muskmelon farm in Brunei Darussalam, aims to play a role in helping to diversify the economy and boost the country’s gross domestic product as well as provide employment.

Following the signing of the Protocol between the General Administration of Customs of the People’s Republic of China and the Ministry of Primary Resources and Tourism on Phytosanitary Requirements for the export of fresh melon from Brunei Darussalam to China at the end of last year, Superfish Growers is motivated to expand its production and introduce a local contract farming programme nationwide.

The company’s success owes much to the hard work and dedication of its founders, siblings Eileen Lee Hui Shi and Lee Wei Sheng.

Chief Technology Officer for Superfish Growers Lee Wei Sheng recalled their journey in an interview with the Bulletin.

“We started our first programme nine years ago, called the Superfish Hydrolysate Organic Fertiliser, which was made from recycled byproducts of seafood.

Founder of Superfish Growers and Chief Technology Officer Lee Wei Sheng showcases the Japanese muskmelon. PHOTO: JAMES KON

“The unused leftovers from seafood factories were collected to be converted into organic fertiliser. We have been selling the Superfish Hydrolysate Organic Fertiliser to the United States (US) and Australia, because it is a US Department of Agriculture (USDA)- and Australian-certified organic product.

“In this region, we found that farmers had yet to embrace the use of organic fertiliser in commercial farming. Then, my sister Eileen came up with the idea of showing them how to use organic fertiliser in a commercial setting, as a model farm for growing high-value and sustainable plants.

“We went to Japan and found out about Japanese muskmelons. We really loved the idea of planting Japanese muskmelons, and were very intrigued because we witnessed the artistry and dedication of the farmers in growing the melons.

“We decided to set up 10 greenhouses and grow the melons by using organic fertiliser produced only by Superfish – and this is how the name Superfish Growers came to be,” he said.

On the advantage of planting Japanese muskmelons in Brunei Darussalam, Lee said, “Brunei’s weather is very unique, being very warm and humid all year round, so we had to come up with a farming method to suit the environment.

“It took me around a year-and-a-half to specialise in it. After the hard work, we had a really good harvest.

“Once we did a blind test in Kuala Lumpur, where we bought a Japanese muskmelon for RM200 and our own muskmelons. We asked the buyers to sample each of the melons. They all thought that our melon was the Japanese melon, which is indicative of how good we are. So we are confident in our products, and very lucky that Brunei is hot and sunny all year round.

“For the melons to be sweet, you need to have plenty of sunlight. Fortunately, we have plenty of it, while Japan only experiences intensive sunlight from April to August. Other times, they need to grow in the greenhouse with generators.”

With six greenhouses each producing around 15 to 18 tonnes of melons every 20 days, Superfish Growers is already exporting melons to China, Malaysia and Singapore.

Lee said, “We sell to Ben’s Independent and Grocer Village Grocer in Malaysia; Hupcopte Ltd, one of the biggest premium food distributors who own 60 per cent of fresh produce market in Singapore; and Yata, a Japanese premium store in Hong Kong.”

With the signing of Protocol between the General Administration of Customs of the People’s Republic of China and the Ministry of Primary Resources and Tourism, “Our future client in China is Pagoda, a Chinese fruit retail chain that has 3,000 outlets and we are in the midst of getting an export permit.

“With each outlet, we can supply around 500 tonnes for every three or four days. With them on our portfolio, we will be able to expand to over 50 greenhouses.

“We are motivated to expand our production further with our local contract farming project nationwide to contribute to the diversification of economy and increasing the country’s GDP. We also hope to employ more local farmers in our local contract farming programme. With the contract farming, we would build facilities such as a processing house and a value-added house to deal with melons; and a cold storage system and all the facilities to increase value for muskmelons.

“We would actively draft or invite contract farmers to join us. We want to make sure those muskmelons become a national agricultural produce, and to maintain the value of the products for the next 10 years. We also want to make sure that the quality will not be compromised with the volume that we hope to go for.”

Lee has a few words of advice for those interested in venturing into commercial farming, “You must have the passion and dedication, and most importantly, the will to learn. Throughout the years, I learnt a lot, and it’s still a never-ending process, as well as constant improvement.”

As for the future, he said, “We are thinking of investing in research and development for value-added products. Our project practises zero waste and creating value for waste. For melons that do not meet the standards of high quality, we are thinking of producing by-products such as confectioneries and cosmetics.”