ON Wednesday, the Malaysian Palm Oil Board launched a worldwide competition that offers a US$1mil (RM4.5mil) grand prize in addition to cash prizes totalling US$130,000 (RM585,000).
The objective is to find innovative machines that can improve how work gets done in oil palm plantations.
At the event, Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong said the winning inventions should be practical and cost-effective so that there would be less reliance on labour-intensive methods when harvesting, collecting and handling oil palm fruits.
“If you look now, some are still using manual tools. So we want the new tools to be user-friendly,” he said.
He added that the Government wanted to improve worker productivity in the industry.
On Friday, Mah told reporters that by the end of 2019, it would be mandatory for local companies to comply with the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification scheme, which requires oil palm growers and palm oil processors to meet certain sustainability standards.
This is a move towards branding Malaysian palm oil as sustainably produced and safe.
“We know that certification takes time but we need people to start getting on board,” said Mah during the press conference.
“The ministry will be getting the financial incentives ready in June to help the industry with the certification process.”
The competition and the certification scheme are key moves by Malaysia to address the two biggest challenges faced by our palm oil industry: the need to raise productivity and the allegations that the industry harms wildlife, communities and the environment.
This year is the third time that the International Competition on Oil Palm Mechanisation has been organised, but the 2017 instalment is particularly meaningful because it was a century ago that oil palm was first planted here as a commercial crop.
There will be many other events to mark the centenary.
Indeed, there is much to celebrate considering how much the palm oil industry has grown since 1917.
It contributes between 5% and 6% of the country’s gross domestic product and is a major source of export earnings.
There is no doubt that the industry is a socioeconomic force in Malaysia.
It is important that the palm oil industry remains competitive always and that means it must keep doing better in productivity and sustainability.
Boosting productivity matters because it is the best way to increase output without having to open up new plantations.
And that brings us to the issue of sustainability.
The Government and the industry have long been battling campaigns that accuse oil palm growers of practices that cause environmental and social damage to the country.
There is no shortage of government initiatives on these two fronts.
But such work can be undone or impeded when the black sheep in the industry refuse to change their ways.
The palm oil industry has done remarkably well to become what it is today. To ensure this good run continues, the players must show that they will never sacrifice planet for profit, and that they are always looking to do better.