We could be tracking the productivity of plantations industries such as palm oil and rubber through as precisely as each plant, rather than by a plot. The “wellbeing” of each tree can be monitored and prescribed interventions – for example to be irrigated, fertilised or applied with pesticide.
Ripe commodities could be identified accurately, harvested and delivered to the mill – all of these done autonomously. This is a near-futuristic scenario Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong, Minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities, recently asked Malaysians to envision for the sector.
In the rise of the digital sector, the Government has been careful to not neglect “traditional” sectors such as agriculture. In fact agriculture is known to be one of the largest beneficiaries of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, open-source software and other digital technologies have been made increasingly accessible to farmers to help them make better decisions to boost productivity.
At the time of writing I happen to be traveling to the annual Science and Technology in Society (STS) Forum in Kyoto, Japan, that would commence on 1st October. The forum’s aim is to discuss problems stemming from the application of science and technology, simultaneously exploring opportunities arising from them. I am a regular participant and last year the possibility of robots as the next generation of farmers dominated the forum.
The average age of farmers globally is nowhere near “youthful”. The United Nations reported that this age is about 60 in developed countries, which is similar in Malaysia. In Japan it is 67. The Japanese Agriculture Ministry reported that in 2015, the area of uncultivated farmland was 420,000 hectares, a figure that almost doubled over the past two decades. Coupled with a shrinking population, they had to turn to workers who do not have heartbeats – robots.
Last year they committed 4 billion yen (RM 150 million) just to promote farm automation. It is not that easy. Different crops would require different handling – some challenged by terrains, some by the meticulousness of picking fruits. But it has to get started and has to be done. The Japanese have developed 20 different types of robots from strawberry harvesting to separation of over-ripe peaches from the rest.
Although the population in Malaysia has a growth rate of 1.3 per cent, various indicators show that we are an aging society. The median age is expected to increase from 28.1 in 2016 to 28.3 this year, contributed by the increase of population aged 15 to 64 and the drop in the younger demographic aged 0 to 14.
We are also very reliant on foreign labour in the agricultural sector. Non-citizen workers increased by 16.3 per cent in 2015 to 646,400 compared to the previous year while local workers only increased by 3.5 per cent to 1,753,900.
While it is not possible to discuss the solutions to sustain the agriculture sector in the Fourth Industrial Revolution exhaustively here, I would like to share two immediate approaches MOSTI is taking.
First was as mentioned, the use of digital technologies as empowerment and productivity tool. About a year ago MOSTI initiated the talk on automated plantations through a series of roundtables called “Innovators Dynamic”. Since oil palm and rubber constitute a combined 54.1 per cent of total agricultural activities, it was logical to start the discussion from these two, with the Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities (MPIC).
Despite the on-going research and development (R&D) efforts in automation in plantations, we acknowledge that there are a number of challenges to be overcome.
Researchers and technologists noted that more farmers need to open their doors for pilot projects to be implemented at a larger scale. Furthermore proving the technology’s success often takes several years. However the gravest concern especially among rural farmers worldwide is the lack of data coverage.
Our Prime Minister shares the same concern. On Tuesday he launched Unifi’s “i-foundit!” app that would help connect users to more than 5,800 hotspots across the country for free until year-end. Internet connectivity and coverage needs to be the government’s priority in the digital economy.
Secondly, MOSTI through Bioeconomy Corporation is also working with the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry in drawing more youth to the fields. The specialised “Unit Agropreneur Muda dan Strategik Lautan Biru Kebangsaan” offers youth aged 18 to 40 programs in technical training, consultation and matching grants.
An agropreneur from a bee farming anchor company at the recent BioMalaysia Day shared that under the program youths could expect a monthly income of RM 1,500 to RM 15,000! He even claimed that his seven-year-old son was well versed with the steps in bee farming and was generating his own income at this tender age.
At the same time, the Bioeconomy Community Development Programme (BCDP) would elevate incomes and provide employment opportunies for suburban bio-agropreneurs especially the B40. Through the BCDP, we are looking at new and innovative business model which would eliminate the role of middlemen and promote fair trade.
This win-win BCDP model is about sustaining the income of bio-agropreneurs and the supply of raw materials for the anchor companies. Producers of raw materials would be equipped with biotechnological skills and knowledge in farming, enabling them to capture more returns as middlemen are made redundant. The cooperative contract farming business model between farmers and companies would hopefully spur the establishment of more bio-based firms.
These firms could capitalise on Sabah’s abundant natural resources to produce value-added food and specialty products that are based on botanicals, aquatic plants and animals. Examples of pipeline BCDP projects in Sabah include Stevia production in Tuaran, mushroom cultivation, seed production and bee farming in Kimanis, and shrimp farming in Pitas to effectively support the development of bio-agropreneurs.
The key is to understand that it is no longer business as usual in the agriculture industry. It would not be as labour-intensive and should not be viewed as a “traditional” area in this digitalised world. Therefore a forward-looking policy and dialogues such as held through the National Transformation 2050 (TN50) is crucial in provoking new perceptions and future scenarios.
A decade ago, would you imagine that the agriculture sector requires science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) talents such as software engineers, data analysts or even cybersecurity personnel?
I think that our farmers or agropreneurs are huge risk takers. To grow the food that you could enjoy on your plate, they have to brace and overcome many variables like climate change that are out of their control. Therefore I believe that they have all it takes to be innovative in the fields.
If you would like to be further inspired by what the future has to offer, do come to our National Innovation and Creative Economy Expo 2017, or NICE 2017, to be held from October 12-16, 2017 at Technology Park Malaysia.