Singaporean of the Year 2019

Veera Sekaran: 'Plant whisperer' pays it forward in the green world

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Mr Veera Sekaran grew up in poverty. Now a owner of three successful companies, he gives back by hiring ex-offenders, helping dementia patients and children with special needs.
Botanist and Greenology founder Veera Sekaran pays it forward by hiring former convicts, giving dementia patients access to horticultural therapy and hiring children with special needs for work attachments.
Botanist and Greenology founder Veera Sekaran pays it forward by hiring former convicts, giving dementia patients access to horticultural therapy and hiring children with special needs for work attachments. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Botanist Veera Sekaran has been captivated by nature since he was a child. His fondest childhood memories are of riding a bicycle with his father, passing through farms and greenery.

"I grew up in the kampung era, with a lot more greenery and nature," said Mr Veera, 58.

"My father died when I was five. For him to take me along on his rides when I was four, I felt special. I remember thinking there was something he saw in me which made him think I would appreciate nature."

Mr Veera's childhood was marked by poverty, but he did well enough in his A levels to secure a place at the National University of Singapore and graduated with a degree in botany in 1987, with the help of lawyer Haridass Ajaib who paid his fees. "I promised to pay him back, but he told me to pay it forward," said Mr Veera.

Mr Veera worked in both the public and private sectors, including as assistant curator of horticulture at the Singapore Zoo and head of horticulture at Changi Airport, overseeing landscaping for all the airport terminals. He was also an assistant director at the National Parks Board.

Today, he is the founder of Greenology, a firm that develops ideas for urban greening with green walls and urban farms, and offers horticultural consultancy services.

He has kept his promise to Mr Haridass and pays it forward by hiring former convicts, giving a group of dementia patients access to Greenology for horticultural therapy and hiring children with special needs for work attachments.

Dubbed the "plant whisperer", Mr Veera also champions sustainability.

In line with Singapore's efforts to boost local food production, he founded VertiVegies, an indoor vegetable farm. By 2021, he expects to set up Singapore's largest indoor farm - on a 2ha space in Lim Chu Kang - which can produce between three and five tonnes of vegetables per day.

Mr Veera also hopes to help mitigate climate change.

He wants to leverage on technology by using "green intelligence", or data gathered from sensors, in order to monitor and understand the environment and mitigate any issues that might arise.

Earlier this year, he submitted a proposal to convert Gardens by the Bay into "a Smart Gardens", equipped with sensors above and below ground to monitor the plants.

"When we start putting the data gathered together, it gives you a lot more understanding. It allows you to make the design of the habitats a lot more resilient and sustainable," he said, adding that "green intelligence" could help cushion the effects of climate change.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2019, with the headline Veera Sekaran: 'Plant whisperer' pays it forward in the green world. Subscribe