EVERYONE wants to be given a chance to prove oneself. And Malaysian-born Jim Fah, inventor of the Autopot system, is no different.
It is very frustrating for an inventor if people are not supportive of your product and you are not given a chance to prove that it is a worthwhile idea, he said.
Fah said Malaysians needed to be more receptive to new ideas as well as new and better ways of doing things.
Malaysia is very up-to-date about a lot of things computers, electronics, cars, banking but when it comes to agriculture besides oil palm and rubber, we are primitive, Fah tells StarBiz. The Autopot system is the answer but it is very hard to convert people as there will always be resistance to new ideas. It is the mindset of the people.
So what is the Autopot system? The Autopot system centres on a mechanical device developed by Fah called the smart valve. When connected to a water source, the valve opens to allow water to enter the bottom of the growing container to a pre-set depth.
The valve then closes and no water is permitted to enter the container until the plant has absorbed all the original water supply. Once that happens, the valve re-opens and another supply of water enters the growing container.
The system is a plant-driven system and no other system can be more accurate than one where the plant itself decides what it wants. That is why the system has achieved such good results and why there is no run-off (water wasted), he said.
According to Fah, the Autopot system is an efficient feeding and watering system and provides cost savings in terms of labour and increases yield.
He said workers were not required to water the plants manually as once the system was set up the plants would continue to get what they needed automatically.
The system is also energy efficient as an electric pump may not even be required. The system works by gravity if the water source is located uphill.
Fah said the system was so simple that it could be used in less developed areas without electricity.
The only disadvantage of the Autopot system is that it is so simple it is too good to be true, he joked.
The system is suitable for hydroponics and also for growing plants in containers using various growing mediums and in the ground.
The application of the system is very wide. It can be used for growing tomatoes, cucumbers, kailan, pak choy, flowers like geranium and petunias and even for commercial planting like oil palm, Fah said.
However, his main area of concern in Malaysia is the oil palm business. Fah has developed an Autopot system called the Autopot smart dripper specifically for use in oil palm estates.
At present, oil palms are only yielding about 20% to 30% of the full potential but we believe the yield can be higher using the system as we are able to treat them with fertilisers everyday with no losses or run-offs, Fah said, adding that by improving the physical condition of the plant, its yield would increase too.
He said that by using the smart dripper costs would be reduced as the amount of fertilisers used and the labour needed to apply them would decrease.
With this system, fertigation is no more manual and labour can be channelled into harvesting, he said.
Fah said that by increasing the yield from oil palms the environment would not be damaged further to set up plantations.
The system also helps to reduce pollution as no wastage is dumped into the environment, he said.
Capillary AgroTech (M) Sdn Bhd, the sole distributor of the range of Autopot systems in Malaysia, is now running trials to test the system in two pilot projects the Sungai Buloh Estate, Selangor, and Labu Estate, Negri Sembilan commissioned with Sime Darby Plantations and Guthrie Plantations respectively.
Fah said the trials had been ongoing for about two to three years now but results would only be seen after five years.
The system has already passed the first part of the trial which is the engineering aspect, he said, adding that investigative work would also be conducted during the trials to improve the system.
Fah said the trials were very small scale and more support was needed from the industry as well as the authorities to make the system a success.
He said the government bodies should start concentrating on re- search and development in the sector by providing land or financial resources in the form of grants to set up the trials for commercial application.
The more trials we run, the faster the results and this will benefit the industry as a whole. There is a need for the industry and the authorities to change their mindset and realise that money must be reinvested for research. Do not wait until problems crop up before looking for answers, he said.
The cost of setting up a smart dripper system is about RM3,000 per hectare but Fah is confident the cost can still be reduced. However, he added that a 10% increase in yield would already justify the cost incurred.
According to Capillary AgroTech managing director Chia King Hong, sale of the Autopot growing units like the hanging basket, hydrotray and smartpot in the hobby market is doing quite well and still growing.
The company averages about RM250,000 in turnover yearly but we expect this to double to RM500,000 in the next two years, he said, adding that the company would also be concentrating on securing business from commercial farms and oil palm plantations.
For the local scene, Chia said the company was looking for joint ventures with venture capitalists for projects: starting its own farm concentrating on crops like vegetables and fruits like rock melon, watermelon and papaya.
We want to show people that it is feasible and that going forward the Autopot systems are the future. We also want to provide training on how to use the system, he said, adding that with a better growing technique, the yield and quality of the products would increase, giving them better export value.
The company also intends to penetrate the oil palm industry with the production of oil palm seedlings using the Autopot system.
Fah, who is the managing director of Australian company Agromatic Corp Pte Ltd, started marketing the systems about 12 years ago in Australia.
He said the systems were also being promoted in countries like Japan, Europe, Turkey, Kuwait, Paraguay, Mexico, the US, Australia, New Zealand and Tahiti to the hobby and commercial markets.
Fah said, however, each country had its own problems and would need different applications.
On expansion plans, Fah sees a lot of potential in Indonesia as the cities there are very congested and the systems will be suitable since they do not require much land space.
The demand is there. The challenge is how to get the products across to the country and in what form. In the long term, we may need local involvement in some partial manufacture of the systems there to reduce the cost of getting the systems from Australia, he said.
Some of the past projects of the company included the supply of smart-drippers and hydrotrays to Kumpulan Guthrie Bhd, 20,000 hydrotrays to State Farmers' Or- ganisation Sarawak and the supply of smartpots and liquid fertilisers to Saujana Scape and Greens Sdn Bhd.
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