Wild Asia, agents for change

Offering free technical advice and training, KL-based social enterprise Wild Asia sets about to promote the growth and use of sustainable oil palm in Sabah’s Kg Toniting.

WHEN it comes to oil palm cultivation, Sugumaran Maniam is a veteran of sorts. His five-hectare plot in Sabah’s Kg Toniting has been churning out average yields for nearly two decades. Coupled with his wife’s income from a full-time administrative job, the smallholder’s earnings provide comfortably for his family of three.

Then in 2012, folks from KL-based social enterprise Wild Asia arrived in Sugumuran’s village, telling him and his fellow smallholders that Wild Asia could help them do better.

“My first question was, ‘why are they telling us what to do?’ Those days, we didn’t know anything about RSPO (Roundtable Sustainable Palm Oil),” admits Sugumuran during an interview in Toniting, a two-hour drive from Sandakan. “I thought they were wasting their time!”

But Sugumuran decided to hear them out.

One year later, in September 2013, he and 41 other smallholders in Toniting became the first independent smallholder group in Malaysia certified under the RSPO Group Certification Standard. To date, there are only eight groups of independent smallholders certified (under Group Certification Standard) in the world, including groups from Thailand and Indonesia.

RSPO was set up in 2004 to promote the growth and use of sustainable oil palm products using a multi-stakeholder approach. Members range from growers and processors to consumer goods manufacturers and environmental NGOs. European countries including Britain, Belgium and The Netherlands have pledged to import 100% certified palm oil by 2015. Today, certified palm oil makes up 16% of the total palm oil market.

But beyond meeting market demands and adopting greener practices, certified growers tend to enjoy long-term increase in yields and productivity due to better farm management, as Sugumaran and his peers have found out.

In Malaysia, there are 192,000 independent smallholders cultivating about 14% of the country’s total oil palm area, according to the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB).

Sugumaran Maniam was initially sceptical about the Wild Asia Group Scheme (Wags) to help independent smallholders improve their farming practices and meet the RSPO certification. He's now one of Wags' ardent advocates.
Sugumaran Maniam was initially scepticalabout the Wild Asia Group Scheme (Wags) to help independent smallholders improve their farming practise and meet the RSPO certification. He's now one of Wags' ardent advocates.

Smallholders are individuals who cultivate land under 40ha in total. Unlike their supported or “scheme” smallholder counterparts such as Felda (Federal Land Development Authority) growers, however, these independent farmers receive limited training, funding and technical support.

A 2008 study shows that independent farmers are less efficient than other producers, due to their smaller plot size (averaging four hectares) and poor agricultural pratices such as using inferior quality seedlings, maintaining old palms and using scant fertilizers.

Lending a hand

This is where the Wild Asia Group Scheme (WAGS) comes in. Wags provides free technical advice, training and capacity building to help small producer groups meet certification standards and access international markets. Through the initial contact provided by MPOB, Wild Asia identified the Toniting group for their pilot Wags project, dubbed the Wags-Sabah, Beluran project. MPOB and Johnson&Johnson (an American multinational medical devices, pharmaceutical and consumer packaged goods manufacturer) funded the pilot.

A new settlement established in the early 1990s, Toniting boasts a population of 420, out of which about 100 are oil palm farmers. They are mainly Orang Sungai and Kadazan who moved from the Ulu Sapi area when the logging companies ceased operations.

“The villagers were given plots of land for agricultural purposes and many started planting oil palm” says Dean Ismail, Wild Asia’s Sabah-based field coordinator for WAGS.

Wild Asia's agronomist Muhamad Iqbal Jailan conducting training for the independent smallholders in Kg Toniting, Sabah.
Wild Asia's agronomist: Muhamad Iqbal Jailan conductiong training for the independent smallholders in Kg Toniting Sabah.

“They didn’t have any planting experience or knowledge and many were just concerned about how much they could earn from selling their crops,” adds Dean who oversees WAGS projects in Toniting, Lower Kinabatangan and Tawau. Other WAGS projects are located in Perak.

Based on WAGS’ initial assessment, the Toniting farmers produce an average of five to 10 tonnes of fresh fruit bunches (FFB) per hectare per year versus the industry average of 30 tonnes per hectare per year.

Like Sugumaran, Linella Pallai started cultivating her 5ha plot in the late 1990s to supplement her husband’s monthly RM500 wage as an estate lorry driver.

“We received subsidised seeds from the government but there was no initial training or advice. A lot of it was trial and error and many of my seedlings didn’t survive,” says Pallai, a mother of five.

Pallai’s farm, like many others, were pretty bare with compacted soil, indicating the practice of “blanket” (rampant) spraying of herbicide, Wild Asia’s agronomist Muhamad Iqbal Jailan observed. Trees suffering from nutrient deficiency were another common problem amongst the farmers. Most farmers lack the know-how like what kind of fertilizers to buy, how to apply them effectively, and how to stack the fronds “correctly” to ensure the organic matter provides nutrients back to the soil.

“Blanket spraying degrades the health of the soil which then affects the palm oil health,” Iqbal explains. “Good ground cover is important to reduce pest attacks too. And fertilizers act as food for the trees,” he adds.

All the while, the farmers thought a “clean” farm with no ground cover was ideal and made their farming operations (harvesting, manuring, and etc) easier, Pallai admitted. Her earnings range from RM2,000 to RM3,000 a month with yields that average about three to six tonnes of FFB a month.        

“I didn’t realise blanket spraying (of chemicals) contaminates the waterway in my farm,” she adds, showing us around her farm. “And since fertilizer is expensive, I only buy it when I have extra cash or when the FFB premium is high.”

Lack of proper storage for chemicals and no safety gear, are also a common problems amongst the farmers, Dean added. Most of them do not keep records of yields and production expenses.

Pallai was one of the few farmers who never doubted WAGS when they were approached, Dean said.

“I felt there was nothing to lose and I wanted to increase my knowledge and learn better farming pratices,” she explains.

Titi Bonsilon is one of the top producers from the Wild Asia Group Scheme of independent smallholders.
Titi Bonsilon is one of the top producers from the Wild Asia Group Scheme of independent smallholders.

Sugumaran’s wife, Annith Sarigoh, works for the Terusan estate, managed by PPB Oil Palms Bhd (a subsidiary of Wilmar International Ltd, Asia’s leading agribusiness group). All PPB mills, including Terusan and Sapi, are RSPO-certified.

“I see the changes in farming practices in the bigger plantations. I believe in the future all the mills will only accept certified crops, even from the smallholders,” says Sugumuran, originally from Sg Petani, Kedah. “So I thought we’d better do something about it.”

Over nine months, WAGS conducted training modules, field visits and regular meetings to track the farmers’ progress. Each farmer kept a logbook to track his or her activities and progress.

“Some farmers are illiterate so record-keeping was problematic. We hired a local guy to help them record their logbooks,” says Dean. “Sometimes we set a date for training and there were many no-shows.”

Nonetheless, the results were palpable.

“I think the biggest lesson I learned was that if we want healthier and more crops, we have to invest time and money into the farm,” says Sugumaran.

One of WAGS’ top producers is Titi Bonsilon who manages a 5ha farm coupled with a full-time position as field conductor at Toniting Properties, an independent small producer in Beluran district.

“Although I had prior planting knowledge because I work in a plantation, I benefited a lot from joining WAGS,” says Bonsilon, 36.

“For example, by switching from blanket spraying to circle or selective spray and controlling the weeds manually (through slashing or grass cutting), my ground cover improved and this has kept my soil and trees healthy,” explains Bonsilon who rakes in about RM3,500 or more per month from his crops.

“I saved a lot of money because my herbicide use has decreased from 82 litres to 30 litres per year.”

WAGS members also learned the benefits of using organic fertilizers like Empty Fruit Bunches (EFB) and decanter cake to supplement chemical fertilizer. The mills provide EFB and decanter cake for free and farmers only have to pay to transport the organic fertilisers to their farms. Organic fertilizer acts like “food” for soil (soil microorganisms) while inorganic or chemical fertilizers act like “food” for the palm trees, Iqbal explained. 

“In less than two years, I am already reaping the benefits from organic fertilizers. My trees are healthy and my yields have increased from 20 to 24 tonnes per hectare per year,” says Bonsilon, father of five.

Ten years ago, Bonsilon’s father couldn’t afford to send all his kids to school when he worked in the logging industry. Bonsilon was the first in his family to complete secondary education.

“Palm oil is our lifeline,” he surmises. “These ‘trees’ helped put my siblings through school and improved our standard of living.”

The road ahead

When the group received their RSPO certification, everyone was pleasantly surprised.

“I was shocked but, of course, I am proud,” says Sugumaran, smiling. “Even the managers at the mill where we send our crops were surprised that we did it.”

“It also means that the mills will not question the quality of our crops,” adds Pallai. “Smallholders here had a reputation for producing poor-quality crops.”

A positive outcome means outgrowers like Toniting Properties (small producers with land size between 50ha to 500ha) have expressed interest to join WAGS and work towards certification, Bonsilon said.

In April 2014, the Toniting group received a cash bonus from the sales of GreenPalm certificates to Johnson&Johnson.

“Since we disbursed the funds, we have been getting calls from other farmers keen to join WAGS,” Dean reveals. “WAGS is committed to providing continuous support to these farmers. We want to empower and train them to be the agents for change.”

Wild Asia Group Scheme (Wags) field coordinator Dean Ismail conducting a discussion with Wags members at a member's home.
Wild Asia Group Scheme field coordinator Dean Ismail conduction a discuss with WAGS members at a member's home.

But Bonsilon still asks: “Our yields have increased and our farming practices have improved. But why is the price of our crops still the same as other smallholders?” This year, Wilmar signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Wild Asia to provide support for WAGS members, including a financial incentive for their certified crops.

As for Sugumaran, he harbours a bigger ambition: “I hope to qualify for MPOB’s 30 Tonnes Club … that’s my dream!” (The Club awards farmers with yields of 30 tonnes per hectare per year. Members enjoy benefits like subsidised workshops and first priority for technical advice from MPOB officers).

Related story:
Moving forward together

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