Against the majestic, panoramic view of Mount Kinabalu is the quaint village of Mesilau, about six kilometres from Kundasang town. Kundasang is long known to be the vegetable hub of Sabah. The vegetable stalls in town are always bustling with local and foreign visitors, including those coming from Sarawak and Brunei.
Vegetable farms and terraces are a common scene. Unsurprisingly, extensive farming over the decades has depleted soil nutrients, causing the crops to be increasingly dependent on chemical fertilisers and pesticides. There was even a period, between 1993 and 1996, where 15 types of vegetable produce from Sabah were banned for exports to Sarawak and Brunei due to excessive levels of pesticide detected in them.
Another more recent tragedy that hit Kundasang was the 2015 Ranau earthquake. Farmers in Mesilau, a key highland vegetable growing area, felt the pinch when roads, bridges and water supply system were damaged.
Azizul Julirin’s family were one of those affected. Vegetable farming has been his parents’ livelihood since he was young. Both his sister and he would help their parents to sell vegetables at the market to fund their studies.
Although the family have diversified their income by also operating a homestay, a popular demand in Kundasang by tourists, the 28-year-old Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) graduate has always been keen in inheriting his parents’ legacy of vegetable farming. He pursued Aquaculture for his degree to explore sustainable solutions to soil degradation by agricultural practices.
Alas, during his industrial training in Japan, he learned about a potential solution – aquaponics. After years of trial and error working on it as his personal project, he finally pursued his passion full time last year, building a 40ft x 60ft greenhouse using various award grants organised by the government he had won.
I had the privilege to visit “Kundasang Aquafarm”, the name of Azizul’s greenhouse, last Monday and that was how I came to know about this gritty Sabahan chap. At the greenhouse, he applies aquaponics to grow green and red coral lettuce, making around RM 3,000 monthly from this small area of land!
Aquaponics, Azizul explained to me, is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics. Aquaculture is growing fish and other aquatic animals, whereas hydroponics is growing plants without using soil. In aquaponics, there is a symbiotic relationship where fish waste acts as fertilisers for the plants and concurrently, the plants would filter the fish waste, maintaining the water quality.
He also shared that his parents’ land has been exhausted to grow vegetables for the past 30 years and therefore is no longer of optimum quality for further plantation. The unconventional technique of aquaponics would solve most of the problems mentioned earlier about traditional farming.
Producers of crops do not have to explore new land for farming due to nutrient depletion; pesticides are not applied thus yielding organic crops and this integrated system could accommodate short term water supply disruption.
Azizul has come a long way. Not only he is a scientist specialising in aquaponics, to realise his ambition he has also sharpened his business acumen. To fund his project, he conducted thorough research about funding opportunities by the government and to win the grants, he had to prove that his business would be viable.
Since 2015, his proposal for an aquaponics vegetable farm has been successful in a number of programmes and awarded grants – the Sabah Biz Challenge, Tunas Usahawan Belia Bumiputera (TUBE) programme, Pitch Borneo 2016 and the Inclusive Innovation Challenge Borneo Zone organised by Yayasan Inovasi Malaysia (YIM).
TUBE programme is an entrepreneurship programme by SME Corp, of which the Prime Minister himself allocated RM 10 million since 2014 to aid budding bumiputra entrepreneurs aged 18 to 30. Participants would join a business bootcamp, be linked to business mentors and awarded a grant to kick-start their venture.
Following the success of Azizul’s sustainable method of vegetable farming, last month, YIM through MOSTI granted him RM 200,000 to train the community in Kundasang in aquaponics and entrepreneurship.
I see his story as a tremendous grassroots innovation success. It is community-led, for the benefit of community and advocates sustainability. This is exactly what YIM aims to achieve. In recent years YIM has also been transformed to reach out to communities more effectively via digital platforms. In Azizul’s case, he learned about government’s various grants including YIM’s through social media.
To help connect the dots for the public in innovation, YIM has pre-launched the country’s first iGrassroots Connect in Wisma Sedia, Kota Kinabalu, on 22nd March. This is a follow-up from the National Innovation Council meeting I chaired last December.
I had visited the Centre for Creative Economy and Innovation in Jeju Island earlier last July and was determined to implement this idea back home.
Say, you are aware of a local problem that needs to be solved, or you have an innovation you would like to test and eventually sell, would you know where and how to take the first step? iGrassroots Connect would help innovators connect the dots – from verifying the needs and challenges of the local community, connecting them to various government initiatives such as SME Corp and private investors, to commercialising their ideas. With igrassroots Connect, I hope to see more success stories like Azizul’s in Sabah.
Another admirable quality of Azizul is his burning enthusiasm to give back to his community. Besides introducing a green solution to sustain the livelihood of his community, he diligently shares his knowledge and skills with them.
As a Minister and People’s Representative, I have always advocated for youths to be “job creators” rather than “job seekers”. This has been more possible in the digital era. Therefore I am very heartened by Azizul’s spirit. He demonstrated that opportunities are abundant even in the quiet outbacks of Kundasang and not limited to the cities.
Special thanks to the following for their contribution to this article:
Azizul Julirin, founder of Kundasang Aquafarm.
Yayasan Inovasi Malaysia (YIM).