Q&A with Mei Yong, CEO – My PlantCo

Tell us about your career path to date…

Twenty-two years ago, I kicked off my professional adventure as an HR advisor, diving headfirst into the bustling world of the resources sector. Over time, I couldn’t help but notice how easily health and wellbeing could slip through the cracks when life gets busy.

Food has always been in my DNA. My family owned one of Malaysia’s first bakeries, and my parents opened Perth’s first plant-based supermarket and restaurant in the 1990s. So, I decided to blend my love for authentic, flavour-packed food with my desire to help meet the wellbeing needs of busy folks, creating spice packs and curry pastes that turn home cooking into a breeze. In 2008, Turban Chopsticks was created.

From the beginning, I embraced our family’s approach towards food – clean, mostly plant-based dishes, made using local products to support our producers and our precious planet.

Food has the power to connect and inspire. Beyond that, what we choose to buy and eat can impact global wellbeing. This insight is what I have been focused on in the past few years – empowering every person to make good food choices that benefit local communities and the environment.

As I delved deeper into this wonderful world of food, collaborations sparked wild ideas and conversations about food innovation, market trends and demands. Taking a step back, I saw that the intersection for food innovation in WA lies in our food bowl region, focusing on avocados, oats, and value-added manufacturing of our local produce.

Enter Kado – an avocado-driven innovation, and Real Oats – an oat rice and noodles commercialisation with AEGIC, seamlessly joining the Turban Chopsticks family. Together, they form My PlantCo, a global company on a mission to make sustainable living downright irresistible. 

What are you passionate about?

It goes without saying that I am passionate about food, and I am fascinated how it can impact so many important aspects of our lives – our connections with others (have you noticed people linger longer over shared food?); the livelihood of around 5725 local producers; and, of course, the wellbeing of the planet that 8+ billion of us call home (agriculture waste is one of the four main global contributors to climate change).

Because of that, I see the innovation of food as two-fold: firstly, using produce creatively to support every person’s wellbeing; and secondly, using methods that reduce or eliminate waste. This is what drives my grey matter into overdrive –  ideas, possibilities and the potential to make such a difference using the ‘linked prosperity’ model that drives My PlantCo’s operations.

It is a way of operating that believes that the best way to predict the future is to create it together, today – so that as a business succeeds, so do all our people, and the planet. I think it is also the right approach for our business, as it does not limit our scope to local or nation-only challenges. It means we can have broader reach and deeper impact, where we have meaningful contributions to make locally or internationally. That’s empowering to our staff.

As I reflect, when I started Turban Chopsticks there were many things I didn’t know. I did know my passions, however, which at their essence have stayed the same. My view is that businesses designed around broad stakeholder integration are better positioned to create value – through win-win outcomes rather than use of trade-offs between a business and stakeholders.

What that looks like in real, everyday terms and situations is my passion for employing women and young people with disabilities, and our company’s commitment to mentoring and championing female start-ups, closing the gap for food sustainability and minimising waste between farmers and consumers, and importantly, forging powerful collaborations where everyone moves forward together.

What excites you about the future of the agrifood sector?

Former AEGIC Chief Executive Officer Richard Simonaitis referred to WA as ‘the food bowl of Australia’, which has always stuck with me. The Silicon Valley of oats! And we can see that, with regions such as Carnarvon producing 80 per cent of WA’s total fruit and vegetable crops and much of our seafood, and the south-west as growers  of world-class wine.

In addition, variations in our state’s climate from north to south enable some fruit and vegetables to be grown year-round in WA, extending typical seasons.

What we have – and should be excited and passionate about – is the many possibilities, some untapped, we have to lead the future of food product innovation, operations and sustainability.

On top of that, I am excited about being able to play a role in advancing these possibilities. Real Oats, our oats-based company, backed by a strategic alliance with AEGIC, has established a first-of-its kind diversification approach to elevating Australian oats as a healthy, trendy and sustainable food staple for every household, everywhere in the world. Watch out for oat noodles and rice hitting your pantries this year!

And soon, I am excited to also be pushing the boundaries of science and technology to bring first-to-market avocado products that redefine the Australian food landscape, with our world-known local researchers and agrifood developers.

What’s there not to be excited about in the future of agrifood?

My PlantCo CEO, Mei Yong, with a selection of Turban Chopsticks products.
My PlantCo CEO, Mei Yong, with a selection of Turban Chopsticks products.

What are some of the highlights of your role as My PlantCo CEO?

My PlantCo’s strategy was updated in 2023, and we’ve said that this is not just a company; it’s a commitment to sustainability, innovation and wholesome living. Our brands – Kado, Real Oats, Turban Chopsticks and anything else we add to our subsidiary line – share a common ethos: sustainable value-add operations that foster a profound connection with local Australian farmers and, most importantly, cater to the wellbeing of our customers.

This is an ethos we are proud to share and lead with at My PlantCo.

Shortly after its launch, Real Oats emerged as the selected commercialisation partner for AEGIC’s pioneering oat innovation – oat rice and oat noodles. Despite numerous applications from various regions across Australia, including submissions from prominent brands, Real Oats secured the opportunity to commercialise this innovative intellectual property. Our vision – to make oats a staple in every pantry in every part of the world, alongside rice and pasta – will elevate Australian oats as the go-to choice for health-conscious consumers across the globe. Thankyou to Courtney Draper and Jack King at AEGIC for making this possible.

It was an exciting milestone to have the Honourable Jackie Jarvis, Minister for Agriculture and Food, inaugurate this momentous partnership between AEGIC and Real Oats.

This year, we look forward to commercialising our food innovation in Real Oats, launching new product lines in Kado and our new, no-waste Turban Chopsticks creation into Australian and international markets, while continuing our collaboration with scientists, researchers, food scientists, producers, government and key players in agrifoods to turn possibilities into reality.

What can guests expect from your talk at the Summit? 

Innovating Food. Shaping Sustainable Futures.

How can we create products loved by people and cherished by our planet and make sure that every step of the product creation is steeped in the pursuit of a better future?

How do we then – once we have our innovative food products – create a story that’s compelling and far-reaching, crossing boundaries of language, geography and culture, to make sustainability mainstream?

These are some of the questions we ask ourselves at My PlantCo, and I would like to share some of our answers and learnings to date, while encouraging knowledge-sharing from the audience.

What do you hope to get out of the For Food’s Sake Summit?

At the For Food’s Sake Summit, my primary goal is to foster collaboration among industry players and key stakeholders with a shared vision of enhancing food security, reducing food waste and driving innovation within the Australian food landscape.

I’m particularly keen on exploring opportunities in the ‘better for you’ food categories, aiming to improve nutrition, promote functional foods, and develop cleaner food bases with added protein. I look forward to gaining insights into the latest initiatives and innovations within this space, as well as to connecting with like-minded businesses and individuals who share a purposeful commitment to positive causes.