Alden Boon

From ITE Graduate to Self-made Entrepreneur – Littlebotany Founder Fendi Sani on His Love for Plants and Overcoming Insecurities



The misperception that society may have about ITE is indeed what you have said earlier — that students end up there because they have not studied hard enough, or they are delinquents. What are the stereotypes that are just untrue?

Not everyone who goes to ITE is bad at studies or lazy. The sixteen-year-old me thought of himself as a quick-witted and expressive person. But Singapore’s educational system, at least back then, was designed such that you had to be good at mathematics and science. It just wasn’t designed for students like me. The mainstream schools were not flexible to accommodate students who displayed strengths in language or arts. I had peers who were artistically inclined, but because their families were not privileged, they could not afford an enrolment in a private arts school. Like me, the diploma choices offered to them were unappealing, so they chose to go to ITE as a safer option.

Another stereotype is that ITE students come from broken families. Of course, there are a few who have struggles and that show up in their behaviours. But my peers who had behavioural issues have now grown up into successful adults. When you look at it from a larger perspective, any school would have students who are battling all sorts of problems, from family issues to mental health struggles.

And finally, there are no gangsters in ITE. As I’ve said, many ITE students are the artistically inclined breed. We are expressive. We laugh a little louder. We wear our hearts on our sleeves. I think generally, when members of public see a group of ITE students hanging out in public spaces, laughing and having fun, they perceive them as rowdy or as ruckus-causing gangsters. But a group of junior college students doing the exact same thing would project the image of a unit of friends just cherishing their best years together. It’s the uniform — there’s a stigma attached to it. When in the public eye, ITE students are subjected to a lot more critical scrutiny.

On that note of having fun — what’s your fondest memory of your ITE days?

My time in the green club would be the fondest. It was a new co-curricular activity launched by my form teacher, and my class president, who was a good friend of mine, got us to join it. Back then, the topics of environmentalism and green living were still very novel. My involvement reaffirmed my innate interest in nature. We had the chance to fly to Bintan and explore the mangrove swamps. One time, for a fashion show, we had to use recycled materials to make outfits. We went around the void decks and along the roads to pick up nets and other materials from trash. That was my first exposure to the eco-friendly lifestyle.

This ties back to what you said about finding an interest, and thereafter excelling in it. And for you, your interest turned into a business. How did Littlebotany take root?

Littlebotany began as a hobbyist account on social media — I wanted a challenge outside my day job as a flight attendant. When I first started it, the online communities and resources were mostly for westerners. There was a scarcity of information on how to grow plants in Singapore’s climate and homes. Thanks to my job as a flight attendant, I had the benefit of visiting different night markets in Thailand. On the Littlebotany account, I shared about the unique plants that I came across, most of which were affordable. Even though I was in a foreign land, because of my trainings as a flight attendant (and previously as a retail assistant), I was aware of body language, and I knew the importance of respecting people and their cultures. So, I very quickly established a friendship with the farmers. In my mind, I was beginning to map everything — with air or sea freight I could import the plants into Singapore. Network of partners, also checked. Circa late 2019, I already had a somewhat successful side hustle selling cuttings as a means of funding my green hobby. I thought, ‘There’s something here that could become a real business. It could work out.’

Fendi Sani Littlebotany Singapore Plant Green Ornamental -1010
To Fendi, the Moringa is the tree of life. ‘When I visited villagers in the Philippines, I saw how all of them had moringa growing in their backyards. And it’s the reason why they are so healthy. It is a superfood. I eat it every day. Incidentally, it is one of the first plants I killed while I was still a greenhorn. I thought that it would get enough sunlight if I placed it along the corridor. But I was wrong: this tree needs a constant blast of sunlight. That’s when I started learning about the different plants' needs for sunlight.’
Fendi Sani Littlebotany Singapore Plant Green Ornamental -1010
‘I like all the sansevieria varieties. They are natural air purifiers. They produce oxygen even at night.’
Fendi Sani Littlebotany Singapore Plant Green Ornamental -1010
‘I love how the leaves of the Philodendron Billietiae face forward as if it were a giant creature greeting you. It is also known for its unique orange stems.’
Fendi Sani LittleBotany Singapore Plant Green Ornamental -1054

That tapestry of your work experiences eventually paying off is so beautiful. There’s so much pressure on us to know what we want to do in life, and if we’re not changing the world or working on our magnum opuses then we are just drifting aimlessly. But we’re in fact taking small steps to building something great; we just don’t know it yet.

Exactly. You’re never really wasting your time. All your experiences, you may forget about them, your knowledge may become rusty, but they are ingrained in your brain. And the moment you realise that everything is aligning — it blows your mind.

How did you establish a rapport with the Thai farmers, being that you’re a foreigner and at best only an acquaintance who met with them only occasionally?

The farmers are highly educated people — they are experts on agriculture. But other businesspeople who want to enter a partnership with them tend to look down on them and think of them as just farmers. They think they can just throw money at them, and the farmers will automatically say yes to doing business with them. I had been in that position before, with people thinking I was beneath them just because I’m an ITE graduate. It’s the world we live in — anyone who isn’t on our level is considered of a lower status. Being an ITE graduate shaped my perspective that everyone is equal no matter which school or background they’re from. The Thai farmers could sense that I had a genuine respect towards them and their work, so they trusted me.

Indeed, sincerity is a palpable thing, and people can usually sense when it’s genuine or ersatz. From taking root to flowering — what was Littlebotany’s journey?  

Once I decided to make Littlebotany a business, I began scouring the night markets in Thailand and procuring plants. After which, I treated, washed, and packed them into boxes myself. The bigger plants were sent back to Singapore via shipping and the rest I carried by hand. That was around January 2020. We started showcasing the plants at popups in large-scale events such as Singapore Garden Festival. By then, our social media account had grown to about two thousand followers and many of them came to support us.

And then of course COVID-19 lockdowns happened. I was so worried as I couldn’t travel to Thailand any more to procure the plants. I thought there and then the pandemic situation would kill my business, before it even had a chance to take off. But little did I know, my friends in Thailand secretly began linking up with one another. They packed the plants for me and shipped them to Singapore. I was so surprised and touched when I realised their kind gesture. Littlebotany was only a small business back then, and the revenue they would have earned from my few orders did not commensurate with the amount of effort they had to put in. But they did it anyway because they saw me as a friend. Thankfully, my business boomed, and I was able to repay their kindness tenfold.

That’s such a touching anecdote. What do you think is the reason for Littlebotany’s success?

Our plant selection is unique, and each variety is sourced by me personally. These are plants that are trending or are super rare, and they are sold at affordable prices. We’re not sellers with a mind of making more money. We’re hobbyists. We tell the truths if we know a plant would not survive in our customers’ homes. I think customers find our candour refreshing. And they come back to us when they want to expand their plant collections, because we already know the layouts of their houses well and can make the right recommendations.

For us, when our customers’ plants sag or wilt, we will take them back in and help the plants recuperate. Or we will jump in on a video call and troubleshoot with them, and tell them to move the plants to another location where they could thrive. When you’re in the business to make money, doing these things gets tiring. For me, I see the benefit of helping people — I’m happy when they’re happy. And happy customers come back.

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Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.