The Guthrie Foundation's new fellowship is aimed at finding ways to get the best out of what oil palm can offer.
OIL palm is a crop of a thousand uses, says Kumpulan Guthrie Berhad chairman Tan Sri Dr Wan Mohd Zahid Mohd Noordin.
And it was with this in mind that he decided to set up a special post-doctoral fellowship programme to promote research through the Guthrie Foundation.
Yes, keeping a watchful eye on productivity, the oil extraction rate and other matters related to the daily operations of the company are important.
But Dr Wan Zahid feels strongly that ways to enhance knowledge in the industry as well as diversify the use of oil palm should be explored.
“We do give out scholarships for people to do PhDs and other programmes, but that's rather mundane. We must do something else that will also benefit the industry and others,” he says.
So he approached scientist Tan Sri Dr Augustine Ong, former director-general of the Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia, who gave him a list of people with strong backgrounds in research and development.
They met up and put forward many fascinating research ideas but Dr Wan Zahid eventually opted for something pragmatic – zero waste.
Two areas of research, namely energy farms and palm puree, derived from processed palm fruits, were subsequently identified.
The first is based on the fact that Malaysia has a total of 4.17 million hectares under oil palm, producing about 90 million tonnes of biomass yearly in the form of fronds, empty fruit bunches, fibre and shell.
“We produce a lot of these fronds. We throw away the branches and shell. With research, we can convert them into energy,” he explains.
As for the second, he points out that palm puree is very rich in Vitamin A.
“Instead of letting it go to waste, we can turn it into food,” he says.
The Guthrie Scholar Programme was launched by Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak in April. The duration of research is approximately two years and will commence in September.
For this programme, the Guthrie Foundation will collaborate with Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) and Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM), recognised for their achievements in research on palm oil.
MPOB will oversee the energy farm research and UiTM that on palm puree.
Dr Wan Zahid, who is also a former education director-general, expects many to benefit from it.
“For example, UiTM can bring in their students to understudy.... Who knows how many PhD (holders) we can create from there?” he says.
Dr Wan Zahid will continue working with the group of experts that helped identify the areas of research.
The panel includes Guthrie group chief executive Datuk Abd Wahab Maskan, United Nations University-International Institute for Global Health director Datuk Dr Mohamed Salleh Mohamed Yasin, and MPOB deputy director-general (services) Dr Salmiah Ahmad.
Some of the others are UiTM deputy vice-chancellor (research, commercialisation & innovation) Prof Dr Rahmat Mohamed and Academy of Sciences Malaysia senior fellow and council member Dr Yong Hoi Sen.
Applications for the fellowships have been received from 16 countries, some came from as far as India, France, Russia and the United States. However, only two ones will be selected.
Short-listed applicants will be asked to fly in to be interviewed by the panel of experts next month.
Candidates for palm puree research must be knowledgeable in food analytical chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, food processing and engineering while those looking at energy farm study must be conversant with bioprocess engineering and related science and technology for economically viable renewable energy production.
Dr Wan Zahid added that the ideal candidates must be scholars who have done much research.
“They must have proven records of expertise and published papers in refereed journals,” he says.
Dr Wan Zahid also describes the collaboration with the panel of experts as a “smart partnership”.
“We don't have the expertise but we have the resources, so it's a matter of marrying our resources with their expertise,” he says.