Me & My Money

Agri-investor started as a sommelier

Mr Joel Low set up Agrivo International last year. It started with an investment in a 350ha pepper farm in Kampot, Cambodia, which got its geographical indication status last year, putting it on the same footing as products like champagne.
Mr Joel Low set up Agrivo International last year. It started with an investment in a 350ha pepper farm in Kampot, Cambodia, which got its geographical indication status last year, putting it on the same footing as products like champagne.PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

30-year-old wants to incubate start-ups in the agricultural scene with his new company

Former Les Amis sommelier Joel Low has moved on from recommending wines to investing in agriculture businesses.

His plan is to grow and transform the value chain across the food and beverage (F&B) scene here.

Mr Low, 30, first joined the critically acclaimed Les Amis restaurant straight out of national service, and "went through the school of hard knocks", he says.

He later became a consultant, buying over restaurants like Jane Thai and helping them transform, before setting up Agrivo International last year. The firm aims to incubate "start-ups within the agricultural scene, as well as provide seed funding for companies that focus on agriculture".

It started with an investment in a 350ha pepper farm in Kampot, Cambodia, which got its geographical indication (GI) status last year, putting it on the same footing as products like champagne. The status is given to products that come from a specific origin and have the qualities associated with the place.

Mr Low, who is married with no children, says: "I felt it was similar to wines as they also come from GI areas and found it interesting. World pepper prices are about US$7 to US$9 per kg, while Kampot pepper is US$15. The rules and regulations were also similar to what the wine industry has.

"My partner was saying pepper takes three years to harvest so why not start a Singapore company, to invest into other firms in the agriculture field.

"The next investment was in a mushroom business which supplies to major restaurants like Hai Di Lao.

  • Worst and best bets

  • Q What has been your biggest investing mistake?

    A The most painful experience was with Jane Thai. I didn't know the legality part of business as I was an amateur. I sold the restaurant but the landlord didn't want to renew the lease with the new owner.

    The renovation wasn't done, and as the restaurant was sold under my name, I was sued for $200,000. It was eventually settled. It hit me the most as that was when I had just got married.

    Also, when I first started doing corporate loans last year, I lost a mid-five-digit sum. I was brought up in a family where trust and integrity are important and I tend to trust people easily. I should have done my own due diligence.

    Q And what has been your best investment move?

    A Agrivo. A lot of gratitude does not come only because of the returns but also the way you see the company moving, the direction it's moving in and its upside.

    I tell people that when you fly into any country, there are two things you see first - property and agriculture land.

    So these are two areas my partner and I invest in.

    Rachael Boon

"As an agriculture business, the real money doesn't come from the farms and such, but the whole value chain where you are the farmer, own a trading company and cover the logistics."

For instance, under Agrivo's umbrella is Frontier Agrotech, which aims to create a network of urban farms. It has already set up its first indoor farm at its Upper Aljunied facility producing kale and mint, for instance. By 2020 or so, it hopes to have 25 micro farms with an annual production capacity of 750 tonnes of produce.

Q Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like?

A I come from a middle-income family. My dad's the sole breadwinner of the family, while my mum takes care of what's needed at home. I've two younger sisters and a granny I used to live with until I got married two years ago.

Since I was young, I've always seen how hard my dad had to work to provide for the family. I always felt the need to grow up fast, which triggered my entrepreneurial side.

I also learnt about the finer things in life when I was taken care of by my aunt and uncle, who is a captain in Singapore Airlines, and it sparked my interest in food and wine.

Q How did you get interested in investing?

A After I joined a restaurant group in 2013 and opened a few concepts for them and built up their business as well. That was the point when I realised, hey I can build new concepts and open new restaurants so why don't I do something with it.

So I started my consultancy in 2013, with a low five-figure sum. I was very young then, and to improve your portfolio you have to invest in a restaurant and things like that. I decided I can always go low with the investment, build a brand and then sell. That was my business model then, so I bought restaurants that were dying, slowing down in sales, built them up and sold them.

I think I could get deals then because I came from Les Amis, and was the first trainee-sommelier who worked all the restaurants and knew all the concepts well, from casual to fine dining.

Q Describe your investing strategy.

A My personal investing style is pretty simple, I believe in aspiration. No investment is guaranteed and I've burned my fingers many times, but these are just part and parcel of being an investor, you need sufficient due diligence.

I love investing in start-ups, as well as industries I have an interest in, such as the F&B industry.

I like start-ups as I started because a group of friends invested in me. I believe in giving back, learning to trust people. I feel people must always have that one chance. Investing in a start-up is very much about the founder itself. You can have a great concept, but without a great leader, it's as good as nothing.

I like to be involved in companies I invest in, I don't believe in silent investing. When you invest, you want to see the business running the way it should be running. When I first invested in restaurants, I'd walk in and spot things like whether the music is on, the cutlery is placed properly or if the tables are straight.

Q What's in your portfolio?

A The 350ha plot of freehold land for the pepper farm in Cambodia cost us a high six-digit figure. Agrivo started with the two of us, and there are at least 40 shareholders as we raise funds through capital management.

We've raised a few millions and invested that into different companies and ventures. Two core businesses in the portfolio are Frontier Agrotech and Agrivo Mycosciences, which produces mushrooms. We also invested in a logistics company.

For my own side investments, I put in a six-digit figure in an upcoming restaurant. My friend David spoke to me about a retail arm for his teakwood business so we came up with a concept - jewellery, furniture, art and food.

I also invested in an app company called JiojioMe as a gift to my wife as she doesn't invest; the app connects people through interests and hobbies. With co-founders, we put in a five-digit figure.

Agrivo makes up about 70 per cent of my portfolio, 20 per cent to the restaurant and 10 per cent to the app. I started investing in my own projects only this year as I've a bit more time, and I also do pro-bono work for universities.

Q What's the most extravagant thing you have done?

A I've known my wife for six years, the craziest thing was buying a diamond ring for her three years into our relationship, and that was three-quarters of my savings, which was a great investment in the end.

Q What are your immediate investment plans?

A To deepen our presence in the F&B value chain, be it in agriculture, restaurants or logistics. Eventually we all have to eat, the food industry will not die. I've set aside a low seven-digit figure for it.

I also bought a condominium in the east for at least $1 million a few months ago, and am looking to invest in more.

Q How are you planning for retirement?

A I'll move to Perth. A lot of my family members are there and by nature, I'm a relaxed person, so I like the lifestyle there where you sit and chill.

Q Home is now...

A A maisonette in the east.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 15, 2017, with the headline 'Agri-investor started as a sommelier'. Print Edition | Subscribe