Agriculture is a sector that is still important to Malaysia's economy


  • Business
  • Monday, 30 Sep 2013

THERE’S a prominent gynaecologist I know who’s now taken to delivering kids – as in baby goats. No, he has not changed professions and become a veterinarian instead, he does it for leisure – he has a goat farm where he spends his weekends.

Dr Aziz breeds goats – he has about 300 of them in an idyllic setting, which includes a nice stream where you can bathe in clear water. And he is into a sort of integrated farming with fruit trees such as durians and mangosteens, and fish ponds.

Dr Aziz’s wife, an architect, has built a quaint looking bungalow, from recycled wood, for homestay.

The products from their 10-acre intensive farm are goat meat, goat milk and milk soap, fertiliser from goat dung, ducks, geese, chicken, and fruits from their orchard (see www.glamgoat.com).

Dr Aziz is not only a top-notched gynaecologist of international reputation, he is also a passionate man who has fallen in love with modern intensive farming.

I have had the privilege of visiting his farm. In some ways I aspire to a life like that, back to nature, one with the land – that sort of thing. But I could not help thinking of it as a source of livelihood as well.

Dr Aziz hires some people to look after his farm, providing employment for perhaps half a dozen people. There’s no reason why it could not become a business.

Just about a 45-minute drive from KL, located at the tranquil Kampung Sungei Lui, Hulu Langat, is Cafe Lui (www.luifarm.com), a restaurant serving good ikan bakar or grilled fish that my family and I were delighted to chance upon.

The fish served at the restaurant comes from the owner’s own fish farm. The owner, a former soldier, has now become an aqua-entrepreneur who breeds among others, thousands of kelah, the best fresh water table fish in Malaysia. When served in restaurants in KL, kelah is sold for up to RM1,000 per kg.

No, I am not trying to tell you all to become weekend goat breeders or fish farmers or restaurant operators in rural areas, but the point that I would like to make is that the agricultural sector can be attractive and income generating.

Vibrant sector

In fact we have to make it as attractive as possible if we want to revitalise agriculture and make it a vibrant sector of the economy.

According to the statistics department, the contribution of agriculture to the gross domestic product (GDP or the sum of goods and services produced) declined from 28.8% in 1970 to 7.3% in 2010. But in poorer states such as Perlis and Sabah, agriculture’s share of GDP can be as high as 25%-30%.

That decline is a normal phenomena in the cycle of development. For instance, the contribution of agriculture to the GDP of developed countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan is only between 1% and 3%.

But in terms of employment, a lot more people are involved in agriculture. In 2010, agriculture, forestry and fishing accounted for 13.3% of total employment of 11.1 million. In contrast, the much-touted manufacturing accounted for 16.9%, not that much more.

While the importance of agriculture is declining, it is still important to the economy and deserves attention because of the large number of people dependent on it.

We need agriculture for the sake of food security and easy supply of essential food, especially rice, in which we are still not self-sufficient.

However, the challenge is that we don’t have any particular competitive advantage.

Over and beyond what we need for food security we need to focus on the areas where we have competitive advantage in terms of the agricultural produce. We are in the process of doing detailed studies on this.

One major finding in agriculture is that over 66% of people in agriculture are over 50 – the young simply do not want to be involved. Our great challenge is to see how to get the young into agriculture.

21st Century Villages

We are experimenting with a number of ideas. The Government is setting up pilot “21st Century Villages” which will have modern amenities such as broadband so that the young have at least some of the things they are used to having in the urban areas.

Overall, the 21st Century Village is an experiment using four different models.

For the first model, called Rimbunan Kasih, the state governments work closely with the private sector to develop a modern integrated fertigation farm.

Each development will have a housing and farm component. These will allow for the employment of at least 100 able-bodied Malaysians in rural areas with a minimum salary RM1,500 per month.

The model focuses on looking into accelerated building methods, through which we can put up both houses and integrated farming developments, in a few days through prefabrication.

We are experimenting with systems where water can be used for fish culture and the waste-water from there used to irrigate selected growing areas. These can be combined with animal farming, using the waste from there as manure, too.

The project is managed by the Implementation and Coordination Unit (ICU) where funding for nine pilots sites were made in 2012, with a private sector player – IRIS CORPORATION BHD being engaged to manage and implement this programme for the first five years.

Iris will oversee the construction of an integrated housing and farm infrastructure over 35 acres of land.

It will also source and market the produce over the five-year period. After five years, Iris will hand over the management of the farms to the state government or its appointed agencies and the farm co-operative. The houses in this farm costs RM55,000 each built using the IBS system.

Learning centre

Every Rimbunan Kasih site has a learning centre (equipped with computers and broadband connectivity), kindergarten, resource centre, other amenities (includes convenience store, surau, playground and community hall) and an integrated farm with golden melon, ginger and herbs plantation, fish breeding – red tilapia, keli & jade perch and a chicken farm. The most developed thus far is one in Tanjung Besar, Lipis, Pahang.

Currently, land is fragmented and often not contiguous. We are looking at ways in which fragmented land can be combined to get up to around 30 acres at which point of time they may be quite suitable for integrated farming methods that can give incomes per month of RM10,000-RM20,000.

In the second model initiative, large-scale premium fruit and vegetable farms will be jointly developed by the Rural and Regional Development Ministry and private sector anchor companies.

These companies are already operating under the entry point project 7 (EPP7) of the agriculture national key economic area (NKEA) under the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP).

The Rural and Regional Development Ministry will provide the land and infrastructure costs for the growing of premium fruits and vegetables, while the anchor company will develop and operate the farms as well as market the produce.

Youths from nearby villages or agropolitants will be hired to work at the farms with income of up to RM1,500.

The initial two sites are located in Chemomoi, Pahang and Sedili, Johor.

The third model leverages on existing co-operatives within rural communities to further develop and enhance existing economic activities, eg eco-tourism, plantations and industry support.

To-date, 29 villages have been selected and multiple projects in industries such as madu kelulut harvesting, homestay, fish and chicken farms, and eco-tourism have been approved.

Recently, at least seven villages have begun quick-win projects with the aim of generating revenue in 2014.

For the last model, the Government has competitions and it gives grants to those who come up with good ideas that will work in agriculture.

Some of the winning projects include the rearing of siakap fish using biotechnology security, production of chocolates with local fruit flavours, and an integrated agrotourism project, among others.

Winners to be known soon

For 2013, the competition has been concluded and winners will be announced soon.

As a follow-up to that the Agriculture and Agro Based Industry Ministry has set up a unit so assist the young agri-preneurs. Here agri-preneurs can be matched with the projects already being implemented under the Economic Transformation Programme and if they are not matched, they will be provided with technical and financial facilitation and assistance.

Basically, we are running pilot programmes as experiments and we hope to see a variety of models succeed as different villages will have different needs and dynamics. Obviously some will succeed and others won’t, and from there on we will focus on those that succeed and get prescriptive measures for success in these areas.

In addition, we are trying to learn from other countries, such as Taiwan, for intensive farming and also to meet with international standards for agricultural produce which cover fish and shrimp for instance.

The adoption of MyGAP, the internationally recognised standard will help bring the agriculture produce into the more lucrative markets which, in turn, will help increase the income of the rural population.

In the larger scheme of things, good agriculture does not only provide food security, it also helps to increase rural incomes through agricultural entrepreneurship and close the income gaps within the country.

As part of our overall aim to become a developed country by 2020, the measure of which is a per capita income of US$15,000 (about RM48,500) by 2020, in a sustainable and inclusive manner, it is imperative we focus on the agricultural sector as an integral part of the overall economy.

For that we simply have to find ways and means to put the oomph into agriculture and show the young that the sector has opportunities for those who are interested.

There must be many Malaysians who long for the idyllic life and a decent income. If our experiments succeed, we may be able to provide just that.

Datuk Seri Idris Jala is CEO of Pemandu in the Prime Minister’s Department. Fair and reasonable comments are most welcome at idrisjala@pemandu.gov.my


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