How Malaysia is stitching together a vibrant agritech tapestry 

By Jaz Low

Yvonne Yong, Director of the Ecosystem Development Division at Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation highlights the key role of the organisation in empowering agriculture technology. 

The famous Chinese poem “Min Nong” narrates the practical hardships faced by peasants and praises the fastidious care they shower onto their crops. But while farming used to exclusively be a manual labour enterprise, modern equipment has taken the humble agriculturalist’s hands off the toil of growing and preparing food.

Leading this shift is the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC), which prides itself on driving digital investments in the agritech space. The organisation matches technology providers with farmers and offers the latter microfinancing schemes to implement these solutions. To help them work with shiny new agritech tools, digital training programmes are also in session.

Yvonne Yong, Director of the Ecosystem Development Division at MDEC shares agritech case studies and how the organisation is planting the seeds for a strong Malaysian agritech ecosystem.

What agriculture technology is all about

Agriculture technology refers to tools such as Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, and Big Data to enhance efficiency, increase yield quality, grow farmers’ income, and reduce operational costs.

The Agriculture Association of Kuala Langat uses smart sensors to control and automate irrigation and the application of fertiliser to chilli plantations.

With linked mobile apps, farmers can control these variables remotely. It only takes a few taps for them to determine how much fertiliser they want to sprinkle over the fields, or when they wish to quench the thirst of their crops. This saves them lots of trips to the field, Yong notes.

The adoption of tech yielded encouraging results, reporting an improvement in productivity and income by 20 per cent, and a decrease in operational cost by 30 per cent.

“More importantly, farmers are seeing a significant increase in the overall quality of chilli yield. This will have the most positive impact on their livelihoods in the long run,” Yong says. The principle is simple – agricultural inputs influence the standard of outputs, which have a resultant effect on price.

Similarly, Malaysia’s fisheries use automated pH controller systems and dissolved oxygen meters to create the most conducive environment for marine creatures to thrive. Meanwhile, automation in poultry farms dispenses a mixture of water and vaccines in the right quantity and at the right times.

“This allows farmers to cut back on labour costs, which make up the bulk of their expenditure,  and reap larger profits,” Yong says.

MDEC’s role in advancing digital investments

But getting to this stage is no easy feat.

MDEC speaks with farm owners and farmers’ associations to understand the problems agriculture players face, which can include staffing and production. Some examples include struggling to employ sufficient farm hands for chicken feed preparation or being unable to grow meatier and juicier tiger prawns.

MDEC then picks its projects based on three factors: technology readiness for adoption, scalability of the technology, and how reliant the country is on imports for that particular food product.

In addition, MDEC works with technology providers on the ground to run pilot tests on their digital solutions. Given their official appointment as Strategic Technology Validator by the Malaysian Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industries, it is the agency’s responsibility to determine the feasibility of tech projects and catalyse their adoption.

With a bird’s eye view of the agritech scene, MDEC finally assumes the role of a matchmaker. “We observe the synergy between both parties before linking suitable partners up,” Yong explains.

Digital training for farmers

But leaving farmers to figure out the unfamiliar world of agritech by themselves would be unfair. To guide these tech rookies along, MDEC trains farmers on how to work with their new toolkit.

MDEC runs theory lessons that showcase pictures of the systems that farmers will be operating and informs them about standard operating procedures when interacting with the machines.

But while a picture may speak a thousand words, nothing beats trying these tech solutions in the flesh.

To this end, practical lessons provide farmers with the opportunity to step out of the classroom and go down to the fields, where they can push buttons and pull levers on the actual equipment they will be using.

So far, over 1,500 farmers have benefitted from MDEC’s one-week course. “Farmers may have their reservations about tech, especially when this is their first break away from long-held traditional practices, but we are here to help,” Yong assures.

Microfinancing schemes and international collaborations

Money is the other concern for digital adoption. To address this, MDEC works with several financial institutions to help farmers secure the funding they need.

As a driver of agritech and a partner to the banks, MDEC provides credibility to farmers who want to take on loans, assuring the banks that they have a concrete plan in place for the agritech project and good uses for the money.

One of the eligibility criteria for these microfinancing schemes is for farmers to attend and complete digital training. “This displays their commitment and interest toward implementing tech solutions,” Yong elaborates.

Beyond national borders, MDEC is also looking forward to collaborating with agritech actors from other countries.

They recently wrapped up a pineapple plantation project with South Korea’s National Information Society Agency, where the site was located in Malaysia’s Selangor Fruit Valley.

The chemistry between the two agencies was in full bloom. “We provided the land and pineapples, while they brought in their fertiliser systems, irrigation, and pest detection solutions from South Korea,” Yong shares.

The agriculture ecosystem is made up of many different players and components, which can be likened to individual threads of fabric. But MDEC is a talented seamstress. The organisation will continue to facilitate partnerships in the name of promoting digital investments, weaving together a cohesive and beautiful tapestry that is the agritech scene.