A big-hearted plant enthusiast shares his love for all things green to the wider community.
As a kid, Fendi Sani had always been fascinated by trees and leaves, their shapes and the way the light fell on them. Then, 12 years ago, he chanced upon an abandoned money tree plant at the void deck and decided to save it. That’s when he became hooked.
Soon the self-confessed ‘plant purist’ began sharing about his plants on Instagram, forking out tens of thousands of dollars to add to his ever-growing collection which was quickly engulfing his parents’ home. He began attending plant swaps at friends’ places, doing giveaways of free cuttings, and selling plants from his home, even participating in pop up events.
The former flight attendant began visiting different markets and farms in Indonesia, Thailand and Australia to buy plants and better understand the industry. At one point, he was flying to Bangkok up to four times a month (sometimes arriving and departing in the same day) and making his rounds at the enormous Chatuchak Flower and Plant Market.
“It was amazing seeing all the beautiful plants but lugging all about 50 kg or more worth of plants with me was a torture. Thinking back about it, that was just insane but I just had to do it. I needed to achieve this little dream of mine,” he recalled.
When Covid hit, Fendi stopped flying and he decided to plunge into the business full-time. In February 2020, he opened Littlebotany at SEED@Social Innovation Park in Punggol. The store became more than just a business, but a labour of love.
It’s a bit of an adventure to get to Littlebotany.
Home to Uncle Ringo’s funfair, the place feels like a throwback to a simpler time, complete with a carousel, dragon and dinosaur park and mini Ferris wheel. One has to walk past various lovingly tended to community gardens before locating the rustic gate.
Stepping into Littlebotany, it feels a bit like entering someone’s whimsical private sanctuary. Fendi greets me warmly, which is part of his special brand of hospitality and lending that personal touch. The space is cosy yet laid out in a way that everything feels airy and spacious. Everything here is recycled or second-hand, from the wooden plant racks and the array of pots sourced from Carousell and his travels.
The place is filled with leafy abundance, from distinctive Monsteras dwarfing the skylight, splashy show-stopping polka-dotted begonias, rows of succulents, Philodendrons to hoyas ranging from below $10 to the hundreds.
It’s also full of character, filled with statement pieces like Pokémon-themed pottery modelled after Pikachu, Lapras and Bulbasaur, 3D printed pots from biodegradable thermoplastic polymer (vegetable-based and made from renewable raw materials such as corn starch).
Though the circuit breaker put a halt on physical walk-ins, Fendi said they were able to adapt. Thanks to their strong social media following, they “exploded onto the scene”. He found himself fielding multiple orders a day via his website and Instagram. Since then, things have continued to pick up, with many “plant parents” flocking to the place as a gathering point to meet up for the first time and discuss all things plants-related.
Sustainability and community at the heart of the business
Contrary to the belief that gardening is an “eco-friendly hobby”, it actually has a lot of hidden environmental costs, such as carbon emissions from importing plants by plane or sea, said Fendi, apologising a little as his love birds chirp noisily in the background.
As a result, Fendi has made sustainability at the heart of the business. For one, they have nearly 15,000 recycled pots, either collected from friends or discarded. Customers who bring their recycled pots or Littlebotany bags get a discount for every transaction.
“We’ve had pots travel to five different houses and come back to us… and that’s part of the fun of it,” said the 32-year-old with a laugh.
Fendi also sees his role as a community builder and in doing good for society. He regularly collaborates with local artisans and potters to raise funds for charitable causes, be it Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES), Darul Ihsan Orphanage, Save our Street Dogs, Cat Welfare Society, complete with selling cat themed ceramics, for instance.
SEED also connects him with numerous schools, corporate partners and grassroots organisations. Since the pandemic, he has been running beginner gardening workshops for the Central Singapore Community Development Council, HCSA Dayspring SPIN, and Tampines Residents’ Committee, for instance.
It’s crunch time as the store opens on the weekends. His older brother, who is deaf, works at the store and assists with re-potting services, along with another part-timer who is deaf as well. Other plant friends also help out to lend their expertise.
Being sited in Punggol, Fendi says that he likes the warm neighbourhood and kampung (“village” in Malay) spirit.
“In Singapore, it’s not really part of our culture to say hello, but we make it a point to do so. At first customers were a little bit shocked, thinking why are we so nice? But we’re not just here to sell you plants, but to build a sense of community and long-term relationships,” he said. For instance, they link up customers to more experienced plant hobbyists keeping the same plant species so they can give out advice.
“When you make someone smile, I smile too. At the end of the day, we are happy people,” he says.
Feeding the plant mania
With the pandemic, it has led to a green awakening of sorts, with more plant newbies making up his new clientele.
On the sudden surge of interest in plants, Fendi attributes it to people missing the freedom of being outdoors and travelling amid the prolonged Covid situation. Gardening brings a sense of mindfulness and calmness, with the tactile act of pottering about with the soil.
Littlebotany has done so well that it has opened an outlet at art enclave Pearl’s Hill Terrace in Chinatown. To cater to the creative crowd, most of the plants are already repotted and sold in stylish handmade pots by local ceramic artists. He also sells one-of-a-kind vintage pots from his travels, macramé plant hangers and plant jewellery.
In October, it also opened a small outfit above a hawker centre in Mountbatten, a mature neighbourhood estate. The crowd here is markedly different – more “older aunties and uncles” – so plants sold here are all small cuttings under $15, says Fendi.
“As we become a more fast-paced digital society, many are left behind. Through the store, I want to involve all the generations, from the children, parents, to now the grandparents. In fact, now the youngsters tell me that their grandmother wants to visit the shop whenever they go to the market!”
For now, Fendi is looking to make the business sustainable in the long-run. He has already signed a lease in the sprawling Sungei Tengah district in northern Singapore, which will give him a bigger room to bring his vision to life.
Though he cannot disclose the business concept just yet, he hints that it will be a “meeting place for plant hobbyists to meet, an open bistro, animals, sustainable furniture, farming and edible gardens.”
Wrapping up the interview, he leads me to a neighbouring plant nursery. With his discerning eye, he helps me choose a fiddle fig leaf tree I’ve been meaning to get. As we walk around the place, he occasionally points out interesting plant varieties. He has stopped buying plants recently. One has caught his eye. He examines the begonia longingly, jokes that I’ve made him bust his quota of buying one plant for the month.
Looking back on his journey of starting Littlebotany, it’s one that’s riddled with challenges, self-doubt and anxiety. But what has helped him through is this love for plants. “In being compassionate to my plants, I ended up being compassionate to myself. Plant people are people with so much love to give,” he explains.
I watch him go as he bids farewell, just a happy owner cradling his new plant.
Explore other hidden gems around Punggol in the Under My Block series:
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