In the words of Albert Einstein, Chelsea Wan is insane.
“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This quote is something the 31-year-old holds dear to ever since she got her hands dirty with her father’s American Bullfrog Farming business.
The irony? She never wanted to hold a frog (much less kiss one). In fact, she wanted to have nothing to do with the business.
Surely, as a sociology major from the National University of Singapore, any 9 to 5 office job will bring food to the table. Yet she confessed to being a free-spirited person who enjoys autonomy and free space; working for people is not her cup of tea.
With her flare in business electives over sociology core modules, she knew she meant business – and what better way than to help her father in his?
A project in an entrepreneurial marketing module in university further boosted her confidence. She was to work on remarketing an existing product to a new set of audience. Since she had dried hashima, why not?
Hashima is a nourishment product made from oviduct fat of frogs, commonly used to substitute bird’s nest. Traditionally, the dried hashima is imported and sold in medical halls.
Through the research by her team, she was affirmed that hashima can be made from the fallopian tubes of ANY frog, not just a selected species.
You know she’s into marketing and product development just by the way her eyes lit up when asked to share her experiences.
Knowing people’s preference, she invested in R&D for ready-to-consume hashima in bottled packaging. Maintaining the high level of collagen without the use of preservatives was a feat.
Since its launch in October 2012, over 15,000 bottles were sold.
Chelsea also went on to restructure educational tours on the farm. Fees were increased with the introduction of materials to educate people on the frogs. ‘Every day in, day out, I just kept doing the tours. The content doesn’t change much. I mean, how much different can the frogs change right? It’s all the same content; you just keep moving and moving and moving, hoping to get a different response from the people. And a mindset change eventually did happen,” she said.
The 10 years spent sowing seeds were not wasted as people are growingly more receptive to the consumption of frogs.
She quipped that her “grand plan” is to have a lot of children and get all of them to work on the farm… but now that the farm’s lease is coming to an end in late July 2017, this arrangement might be a distant dream.
Chelsea’s family has been residing on the farm since 1997. She literally saw her father and his friends construct the three buildings brick by brick. (She pointed out with a laugh that they had the windows installed inside out.)
There are now 14 people working on the farm, of which half are foreigners from Bangladesh. It is difficult to attract Singaporeans to the job, even some foreigners are uncomfortable with processing frog meat.
Thankfully for her, the Bangladeshi worker she hired went on to introduce his relatives to the job. She cares for the welfare of all her workers, from bigger issues back at their hometown to smaller ones such as getting a Panadol pill.
The farm area is to be redeveloped for Singapore’s military and the lease agreements cannot be lengthened. Farms that did not get the two-year extension from 2015 have since closed down.
It is a struggle to get related information from government agencies. If the plan is for the farm to be shifted to a smaller area two lanes down, it would be “not so bad”. Chelsea is preparing herself for a new farm half the size and double the rent with many limitations.
As for now, the lack of communication from authorities on the relocation leaves the future in a mist.
After the notice to move was made, relocation offers were made from Indonesia, the Philippines and even Turkey. However, Chelsea has no willing desire to move out of Singapore. ‘Singapore really is our home. Our base is here. We want to make it work here.’
The government never quite looked at agriculture because it contributes very little to GDP and progress. No standard protocol or procedures are in place. Chelsea recalled an incident when the AVA told her to seek her father’s help instead, just because he is a veteran in the trade and would know better.
She admitted to being more hot-headed when she was younger, but after conceiving her first child, she learnt to be more “zen”.
Nonetheless, her strong conviction to ensure that food is produced with good business ethics and conscience remains. She visits the sources of her frogs to make sure they are grown out of eggs in fresh water and fed with standard high-protein feed.
Is there a Plan B? Yes, her father’s is to wrap up the business. To Chelsea, it means convincing her husband and brother to join her in the business. ‘It is a lifestyle that we can have with our child!’
Consumerism on frogs is evidently going up. Chelsea firmly believes that there is room and space in Singapore for a frog farm.
More than 90% of our food is imported. Food security is crucial to Singapore and Singaporeans should support local farmers because they too have a family to feed.
Things in Singapore change quickly in a short span of time. She wishes to cultivate a childhood that has space and nature for her children. She also hopes for the preservation of Singapore’s nature-scape.
There are no diplomas in the field of farming. Succession planning is difficult for the farmers.
To defend her passion, Chelsea volunteered to chair the Singapore Young Farmers committee by Kranji Countryside Association (KCA). The KCA consists of 35 farms banded together to speak to the government for greater bargaining power.
She thanked her mentors Mr Kenny Eng and Ms Ivy Singh-Lim for clearing her self-doubt in the early years and advising her to stay long enough to see what she is capable of doing.
Mr Kenny Eng is the President of KCA while Ms Ivy Singh-Lim is the co-founder of Bollywood Veggies.
Chelsea’s enthusiasm and business acumen are commendable. Many of us have great ideals, but only a few have the courage to take the leap of faith like Chelsea.
What advice does she have for us? Be honest. “To yourself, people around you, the things you do and your commitment to all that you are doing. Put your heart and soul into what you want to do.”
In 2016, KCA will have the privilege of hosting the 27th Commonwealth Agricultural Conference for the first time in Asia.
With Chelsea’s commitment and beliefs, I’m sure the trade will continue to prevail despite the challenges ahead. All the best, Jurong Frog Farm and all the farmers of Singapore!
Mendi Ang is a young (patriotic) Singaporean student. Her musings can be gathered from her travel observations, chats with adorable old ice cream uncles and even your conversations on the train. Inspiration is all around.