MERSING: When Singaporean Ashraf Bakar decided to set up a goat farm in Malaysia, his friends were understandably concerned and wondered if he was thinking straight.
“They couldn’t believe it. Why do you want to set up a goat farm for? Aren’t there enough things to do in Singapore that doesn’t require that much effort and time?” said the 29-year-old serial entrepreneur.
“Here, I have to be under the hot sun and I have to do laborious work.”
The venture up north was sparked by a business opportunity Mr Ashraf thought could be tapped - the Islamic Aqiqah ritual where a goat or sheep is sacrificed when a child is born.
He related how, when his sister gave birth to twins and wanted an Aqiqah service to be performed, she didn’t know who to turn to for such rites in Singapore and whether they could be trusted.
“There’s also the Korban (ritual sacrifice) that we do every year. There’s always a shortage (of animals) in Malaysia and Singapore,” he reasoned. Observed on Hari Raya Haji, which falls today, the annual Korban ritual this year saw some 3,700 sheep imported from Australia into Singapore for the rites.
While the meat from the sacrifices performed in Malaysia can’t be brought into Singapore, Aliyah Rizq farm helps distribute the mutton to the needy in Malaysia on customers’ behalf, in keeping with the Korban tradition.
Mr Ashraf is among a growing number of intrepid Singaporeans venturing into unusual areas to do business and work, as the series Going Places discovers. (Watch it here)
He has been "running businesses" since he was a teenager, he said, with his fingers in the restaurant, marketing, trading, property and consulting lines. And it was by coincidence that his mother-in-law shared his vision for a goat farm - so together, they pooled their resources to invest in setting one up in Mersing, in January this year.
His aunt, who owns some land there, had generously offered him use of part of her land.
“Mersing is not a good place because it’s far from Singapore. But the thing is, I have two acres of land that is free,” he said. The drive up to Mersing takes about four hours.
HIDDEN COSTS OF FARMING
Mr Ashraf had calculated that he could sell his livestock at S$350 each, compared to about S$500 for a sheep from Australia. The numbers looked promising, and he set himself a target to sell 100 goats by this Hari Raya Haji.
His wife, Ms Nabilah Bagarib, however had her initial doubts about her husband running a goat farm.
“Ashraf comes from a family of businessmen. He is really good at building relationships, talking to suppliers and doing negotiations. But I didn’t know how he would run the farm and what his experience handling a goat farm was,” she said.
True enough, the foray into farming turned out to be more challenging than he thought.
WATCH: The challenge (2:12)
He had to clear the land, which was forested, and get electricity and water into the farm. Then he ran into problems with a contractor who disappeared midway through construction, and on top of that, they blew their budget.
We thought that setting up a farm would be cost-effective and cheap. We didn’t see the hidden costs like drainage, manpower, utilities and our own expenses.
“So we had to spend about 30 to 40 per cent more,” he said, calculating that he and his family have sunk some RM$120,000 (S$38,000) into the farm so far.
SETBACKS, BUT NO REGRETS
To make matters worse, six of his goats died, costing him some RM$4,000; and they ran into staffing issues with employees who were dishonest and incompetent. Two were even arrested by the police at the farm for taking drugs.
In search of a more steady stream of income, he decided to target restaurants and catering companies in Malaysia as a supplier – but managed to find only one restaurant to supply to. Most other F&B establishments he contacted preferred frozen meat as it was cheaper.
Mr Ashraf said that in hindsight, he should have spent more effort on marketing their sacrificial rites services. They had been in too much of a hurry to set up the farm.
“We didn’t give ourselves enough time with the marketing,” he said, adding that he also would need to work on setting up a website and harnessing social media.
He has other ideas to improve his goat farming business, including a farm-stay concept – to convert containers into kampong huts so that customers can stay on site.
Despite the setbacks, he has no regrets setting up the farm and is optimistic about the future. “Doing this under the hot sun, getting dirty among the goats, smelling the faeces, cleaning up the place and feeding them, gives me more fulfilment than, say, running a restaurant and having to please customers.
“Here, I don’t have to handle people, I handle animals. And they’re not difficult to handle,” he said.
Watch this episode of Going Places online here, or catch it on Channel NewsAsia, Sept 4 at 8pm (SG/HK).