THIS year has not been particularly kind to many. The public health scare and subsequent economic burn have set many businesses back and shelved most plans.
But not so for Lau Choon Xian.
When Lau and his father bought out their partners in fertiliser manufacturer Twin Arrow Fertilizer Sdn Bhd last year, he began an aggressive drive to expand the company. Having consolidated their position in the firm, he was now in full control to bring the company where he wanted it to be. And no pandemic was going to stop him.
“I think we are ready to promote ourselves now, ” says the 30-year-old chief executive officer.
His confidence is not without merit. Sales have somewhat doubled this year as they secured large plantation clients like Felda and Sime Darby Bhd and plans are afoot to further grow their capacity.
Lau is also closely following emerging trends in the agriculture sector to better cater to and support the industry. And keeping in tune with developments overseas, he hopes to use their fertiliser products as a means to promote sustainable agriculture.
“Fertiliser is key to farming. If there is no fertiliser, there’s no way to grow plants in terms of mass food production. So we stand in a position to grow the agriculture industry in a different way, ” he says.He adds that the company’s stance in supporting farming hasn’t really changed since the company was founded by his father Datuk Seri Lau Kuan Kam in 1990.
Back then, senior Lau had spent most of his time repairing and servicing trucks in estates. When agriculture started booming in the 1970s and ‘80s, he knew that everyone would be needing fertilisers to grow their farm.
In the 1980s, there were not many choices of fertilisers in the market and most were imported products that were sold at a premium price. However, Lau’s father felt they were not suitable for the Malaysian weather and local conditions.
“We have different types of soil, humidity and plants. So he felt Malaysians were paying a premium for fertilisers that were not suitable here, ” shares Lau.
On a mission to make something more fitting, his father procured organic matters like seaweed waste, fish meal, fish bones and bean waste to make organic fertiliser.
By 1996, chemical fertiliser had swept the agriculture industry off its feet.
“When chemical fertiliser came in, the yield boomed. Everyone started talking about fast yield. But chemical fertilisers are not sustainable. In the short term, it can promote good and fast harvest. But over the long term, there are a lot of side effects like a higher acid content in the soil and the harvest will be reduced over time, ” he says.
Twin Arrow started producing bio-organic fertilisers about two years ago to help planters maintain land fertility. Although the company remains one of the larger chemical fertiliser producers in the country, Lau hopes to educate farmers to switch to bio-organic compound fertilisers to ensure that their land can continue producing good harvest for generations to come.
He notes that Malaysia is starting to catch up on the organic trend as people become more health conscious.
“We want to put ‘natural’ back into the ecosystem. So we hybridise the organic and chemical components and add on bionutrients like good bacteria and probiotics to make our bio-organic fertilisers.
“Organic matter is something that the soil needs, chemicals promote good harvest and bionutrients promote better nutrient uptake. Previously, chemical fertilisers helped the trees to uptake only about 30%-40% of the nutrients while 60% was leaching. So probiotics can promote better absorption, which reduces wastage, ” he says.
Twin Arrow produces about 400,000 tonnes of fertiliser a year. Currently, its organic and bio-organic ranges make up about 30% of its capacity. Lau aspires to increase that to 50% in five years’ time as this would mean that the local industry would have grown more savvy and environmentally-conscious.
He opines that chemical fertilisers will remain key to the growth of the agriculture industry but he hopes that farmers would increasingly mix it with a proportion of bio-organic fertiliser.
Lau acknowledges that the education process among planters will be quite an uphill battle as most of them are used to traditional methods that they’ve inherited from their families.
“Many farmers lack the knowledge or experience. They usually prefer getting cheaper products in the market. But we want to educate them to get the right source of fertiliser and ensure they use it in the right way to promote less leaching. We want to bring down their cost of wastage and also reduce damage to the soil, ” he says.
Over the past few months, the company has been hosting talks and online seminars by the likes of biotech consultants and agronomists to teach farmers about the use of fertilisers.
“We have also spent a lot of money to build our lab and have it accredited to make sure that our customers get quality-assured products. We are still expanding our lab to make sure this industry grows responsibly. We carry out a lot of R&D and ground work to help farmers get the fertilisers that they need, ” he adds.
Lau also intends to bring in new technology to encourage plantation owners to look at precision farming.
“We’ll be bringing in some artificial intelligence equipment to set up data gathering points in the plantations. So this will gather information like rainfall, soil fertility, moisture and humidity so that farmers can identify when they need to apply fertiliser, how much fertiliser to apply and so on.
“This will help them run agriculture in a scientific way rather than just follow practices they hear from family and friends.
“For example, they’ve traditionally applied fertiliser four times a year and at a certain amount, and they just keep doing that. But do they know whether this amount of fertiliser is enough, or is there an overdose? Or when is the right timing? What if you apply fertiliser today and there’s heavy rainfall tomorrow? Then it gets washed off.
“That’s why we want to promote precision agriculture and educate them to get this right. And I think this could be another area of growth for us. This is the worldwide trend. Even if local farmers don’t want to do it in the next 10 years, they will eventually have to follow the trend, ” he says.
Twin Arrow is currently raking in sales of about RM200mil. Its export to markets like Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea and Africa make up 20% of revenue.
The company is also in the midst of building a new production plant in Sarawak, in addition to its two factories in Klang, which would boost production for the Borneo and Indonesian markets. Lau expects fertiliser demand from Sarawak to double in the coming years as mass agriculture is still relatively new there.
Once in full operations, this new plant would be another source of growth for Twin Arrow.
“In the long run, our vision is to be the most professional fertiliser manufacturer in Malaysia. People always think that imported goods are premium. But we believe Malaysia can also produce good fertiliser that suits our agriculture, ” says Lau.
With big plans in the offing, Lau is looking at a possible listing in five years once its current plans and assets have taken off.
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