Food for all

Salha Bevi Leyakat Ali

Attracting youths to join the agriculture and farming sector by equipping them with technical and vocational education and training (TVET) can help address food security issues and rising produce prices.

Calling on the government to do more to promote the sector, Bumiputra Private Skills Training Institution action committee chairman Nordin Abdul Malek said through TVET, youths will learn how to produce crops and breed animals that can become a crucial source in our food supply.

Recently it was reported that the price of imported white rice and mutton has been on an upward trend.

Padiberas Nasional Bhd (Bernas) announced that the price of imported white rice had increased by 36% to RM3,200 from RM2,350 per metric tonne from Sept 1.

The hike of rice prices was driven by falling harvests due to climate change and a weakening ringgit, while mutton has become more costly because of higher costs of operations and animal feed.The Indian government, aiming to ensure its domestic availability of food and vegetables, has already imposed a 40% export duty on onions.

“Now, more than ever, we must prioritise TVET and highlight its role in ensuring the nation’s food security,” Nordin told StarEdu.

While aknowledging that plenty of funds has been pumped into enhancing the training capacity of the public sector, Nordin said the problem is that school-leavers are just not interested in these courses.

Mohd Aminudin Mohd ZaibaniMohd Aminudin Mohd Zaibani

“It was reported that some 70% of candidates offered seats at Youth and Sports Skills Training Institutes (ILKBS) for TVET courses for this year’s first academic session had rejected their offers,” he shared.

Malaysia, according to the Unesco-Unevoc International Centre for TVET country profile, has a low youth involvement in TVET.

Only 5% of those aged between 15 and 24 were involved in the sector in 2021. This increased slightly to 6.1% in 2022 but the country still ranks at the bottom when it comes to youth participation in TVET (see infographic).

This, said Nordin, could be due to a lack of interest in TVET, particularly in agriculture, farming and fisheries.

“Many are not interested in the agriculture and fisheries sector because it is considered dirty, difficult and dangerous (3D),” he said.

To address this, he said TVET needs to be brought back to primary schools and introduced in kindergartens to spark an interest in the field among children.

“Children in kindergarten should be learning how to grow plants and to do things with their hands.

“It is time to revisit past practices where it was compulsory for every student to undergo a hands-on skills programme,” he said, adding that the Malaysian Skills Certificate (SKM), which is currently only offered in the Upper Secondary Vocational Programme (PVMA) and at vocational colleges, should be made available at all schools.

“The government should give private training providers more opportunities to be part of the national TVET agenda through the provision of initiatives and incentives, and create an ecosystem for our graduates to thrive.

“We can make sure the graduates are resilient and suited for the challenges of the times but if they are not given the necessary support, they will not succeed,” he said, adding that many TVET graduates face problems renting or purchasing land for their businesses.

The role of varsities

Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) Agriculture Faculty dean Prof Dr Loh Teck Chwen said varsities need to pay attention to food security issues because they know the challenges that affect the well-being of the rakyat.

“We need to learn from the Covid-19 pandemic and the Ukraine war experience, which saw a shortage of raw materials and the fluctuation of prices.

“To prevent these economic problems, we need to ensure food security issues are swiftly and effectively addressed.

“Universities need to help the government think of solutions in terms of food production, productivity and safety,” he said, adding that varsities are involved in TVET through the provision of courses, the implementation of grants for aquaculture and crop planting, and urban agriculture extension projects in urban areas and villages where the community is introduced to agricultural activities so that they can have some extra income and improve their standard of living.

At the recent National Food Security Conference 2023, Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin reminded varsities to free themselves from unproductive approaches and academic theories.

“In the context of higher education, we must ask, ‘Why are our universities unable to present effective solutions in this regard? Where is the mistake?’

“‘Why are we still unable to train and produce modern farmers and food production industry operators who are able to meet the demands and needs of the country?’” he said during the conference held at UPM last month. While the nation is able to produce a diverse range of food crops, livestock and seafood, there is a need to further empower smallholders, and small and medium-sized agribusinesses, in order to increase their productivity for inclusive growth, said UPM Institute of Tropical Agriculture and Food Security (Itafos) director Prof Dr Mohd Rafii Yusop.

“Malaysia ranked 41st out of 113 countries worldwide in the Global Food Security Index 2022, a drop of seven places compared to the previous index.

“Varsities can play a role by helping the public and private sectors adapt to the changing climate, advancements in production and shifting market trends,” he said.

‘Attract young, tech-savvy, talent’

The National Agrofood Policy 2021-2030 (NAP 2.0), which aims to develop a sustainable, resilient and technology-based agrofood sector to drive economic growth, improve the well-being of Malaysians and prioritise food security and nutrition, emphasises the need for youth participation and commitment from the government to increase private investment in high-impact projects.

According to the report, youths have a poor perception of the sector as being labour-intensive and yielding low returns compared to white-collar jobs, leading to their lack of interest in the sector.

In addition, young agroprenuers also face challenges, such as land availability and loan application without collateral, and labour cost competition from foreign workers further drives down farmer’s income, the document read.

One of the thrusts listed in the policy is to attract and retain young, technologically savvy talent in order to have greater youth participation to innovate and modernise the industry.

“The betterment of human capital in the agrofood sector plays a critical role in its long-term development as human capital has the ability to improve productivity and efficiency, drive higher revenue and income, as well as steer innovation and the ability of players to move up the value chain.

“Building strong talents in the agrofood sector is a strong foundation towards a stronger agrofood sector that is able to adapt faster to modern technology and produce food in greater quantity and quality to meet food security and safety goals in Malaysia.

”Working towards better yields

I used to be a preschool teacher with my own kindergarten in Kuala Lumpur. I had more than 100 students but after some issues with my partner, I had to close down the business. I then decided to venture into the food industry, specifically agriculture. I thought food was a good choice because it is something everyone needs. There will always be demand. But I did not know how to cultivate food crops and after searching the Internet, I came across Agro-Entrepreneur Institute (iGROW) at Kampung Gajah, Perak, which offered a three-month course on setting up a farm using the modular system.

After completing the course, I had to find land to set up my farm, which was not an easy task. I found some land to rent but it was expensive. Although the government provides land for food crops to be planted, the criteria to qualify is hard to fulfil. Agriculture provides a good return on investment but the risks are also high. What I learned at the centre was not enough but experience has been a good teacher. Over the past three years. I have started planting brinjal, which died due to disease. Then, I spent another RM8,000 to grow lady’s fingers, which would have yielded an estimated RM200,000 in sales but two days before they were to be harvested, my farm was hit by floods. Everything was destroyed. My third try was with pisang beranang but the trees fell sick due to a parasite that was living in the soil. It was back to doing more research. Now, I am growing pisang tanduk, the banana used in making kerepek (chips), as this is the only variant that can thrive on this land. – Salha Bevi Leyakat Ali, 33, SMS Agrotech Muslim Farming owner.

I have always been interested in aquaculture. My father, a general worker for the district council, ran a small-scale freshwater fish breeding business at our home. It was his side income as times were tough. When I did not get the public university course I wanted after the SPM, I decided to take the SKM at a private TVET college where we were given more than just skills training. We were taught life skills and business studies, and given real-world exposure. The Companies Commission Malaysia (SSM) also came to register our companies.

In 2009, at age 19, I took over my father’s business, after completing my SKM Level 2 in aquaculture. I was not successful initially because I was not serious, and was also very inexperienced and gullible. I made losses until there was no money left. I was depressed for about a month before deciding to pull myself together. I started selling fish at the pasar malam four times a week and at morning markets. I was doing this for about a year and this was where I learned the most about entrepreneurship. Today, I have four fish breeding farms across three states. In a good month, I can make RM10,000 to RM15,000 in profit.

A lot of people in this line have given up and closed down their businesses because the cost of farming fish is too high. Fish food and medication are pricey and challenges such as fish dying lead to poor yields. Climate change is a cause of fish dying, which is a huge problem. Fishery experts need to study the problem and take action to solve this. If the cost of fish food increases, sellers can just increase the price of fish. But if the fish keep dying, then they can’t even sell them. When this happens, the supply of fish will be affected and prices will go up as demand far exceeds supply. – Mohd Aminudin Mohd Zaibani, 33, High Tech Aquaculture founder

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