How Malaysia is supporting innovation from the ground up

By Sean Nolan

Sharmila Mohamed Salleh, CEO, Yayasan Inovasi Malaysia shares how the organisation is enabling grassroots level innovation and supporting marginalised groups.

The film ‘The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind’ tells the true story of a young boy in Malawi who built a windmill out of spare parts. His invention did more than spin, it generated the power to help his family sow crops amidst a devastating drought.

Innovation can provide a shimmer of hope and opportunity when citizens face difficult times. Yayasan Inovasi Malaysia (YIM), an agency within the country’s Ministry of Science Technology and Innovation, helps direct funds and support to grassroots inventions that can make a difference.

Sharmila Mohamed Salleh, CEO, YIM highlights how the organisation is supporting low-income and excluded groups. She also shares how it is supporting Malaysia’s vital agriculture sector.

Innovations for those in need

A report from the World Bank stated that slower income growth among low-income households and younger workers has created feelings of being “left behind”, Sharmila shares. She highlights two innovations supported by the agency that can help these groups.

Firstly, Sharmila discusses an invention that allows users to easily print designs onto clothing while in their homes. It was distributed to citizens with disabilities and those in the bottom 40 per cent of Malaysia's earners to create business opportunities and increase their household income.

This created 12 new entrepreneurs and increased their income by RM 48,000 (US $10,935) within 4 months, Sharmila shares.

The Flexsilk printing table.

The design of the printing table means it takes up less space than similar tools, and is user-friendly for those in wheelchairs, she adds. This development and distribution of the invention came after a grant from YIM in 2020, Sharmila says.

Second, she highlights an innovative mushroom seed production facility, which received RM 230,000 (US $52,403) in support from YIM. The business produces high-quality seeds and low-cost fertilisers that reduce the decomposition process by 50 per cent, she explains.

Sales from the facility have reached RM 10,000 (US $2,278) per month, and the company helped the local community by creating many new jobs, Sharmila says.

Mushrooms from the Kokulac facility. 

It is important to support low-income and excluded groups as the salary growth for younger and less-educated employees consistently lags behind others. This signifies “a growing wage divide and wage stagnation for the youths”, she warns.

But innovation can be the key to helping these groups. The agency works with over 6,000 innovators across the country to turn grassroots inventions into commercial products. This will then raise the socioeconomic standing of excluded groups and low-income households.

Growing a brighter future

YIM works closely with Malaysia’s agriculture sector to make the work of farmers more efficient and sustainable. For example, the agency supported the development of an aquafarm, a combination of a fish and vegetable farm.

The nutrient-rich water that runs through the fish farm flows to soilless vegetable crops, reducing water consumption by 90 per cent by eliminating the need for sprinklers, the agency’s website explained.

The farm’s design also means it doesn’t require fertilisers or chemical pesticides. This is useful as Brunei and other areas of Malaysia once banned the import of crops from the region due to the large amounts of fertilisers that farmers were using.

The farm became a tourist attraction as a result of its unique set up, allowing visitors to tour and study its workings. Tourism, alongside its fish and vegetable products, helped the farm earn RM 97,225 (US $22,151) in 2020. The farm also inspired 20 young entrepreneurs to start their own aquafarm ventures, Sharmila highlights.

Another example of the agency’s work within agriculture is its support for a crab farm. YIM helped these farmers to increase their harvest with IoT devices, which collect data on the crabs.

Langkawi Crab Farm.

Using the IoT devices resulted in a 35 per cent increase in yield, while reducing the workload by 60 per cent, Sharmila highlights. This helped the farm financially, supporting the group involved who are in the bottom 40 per cent of Malaysia’s earners.

Agriculture “has been the backbone of the Malaysian economy” for many years, Sharmila says. The agriculture, fisheries and forestry industries employ around ten per cent of the country’s workforce and account for eight per cent of the country’s GDP, she adds.

Yayasan Inovasi Malaysia will continue to provide relevant grants, helping to promote a culture of innovative thinking and entrepreneurship. This is in line with Malaysia’s long term goals to create a “highly knowledgeable, multi-skilled, and creative” workforce that can compete globally by 2050, Sharmila summarises.

Images courtesy of Yayasan Inovasi Malaysia.