The Green Revolution brought the last wave of innovation in farming. Pesticides and genetically-modified grains increased productivity across the world. That was 50 years ago.

Today, agriculture is no longer an engine of growth in some countries. But for Malaysia – one of the largest exporters of palm oil in the world – it is still an important part of the economy. Which is why the government is now bringing the latest technologies to its paddy fields.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we’re able to understand what is the inventory level of rice?,” says Ahmad Helmi Abdul Halim, Senior Director of Corporate Market Strategy at MIMOS. He is the official leading Malaysia’s plan to use sensors and data to grow the economy.

The first pilots

The government has chosen four key sectors to pilot use of sensors: agriculture, transportation, manufacturing and healthcare.

The first project has already started. “We are using IoT to detect the right time to pollinate oil palm flowers,” he says. Sensors will also be used to monitor the health of fish in breeding ponds and automate irrigation. By simply turning on the water valve at the right time, farmers can increase rice planting seasons from twice to three times a year, Helmi estimates.

The next pilot will be in transportation. Malaysia hopes to use Cyberjaya as a “living lab” for this sector, he says. The city wants to position itself as a global technology hub. IoT will be an “ideal technology” to implement there since it cuts across many areas, including devices, data, apps and cloud technology, Halim adds.

Healthcare is the third area. Here the government is driven by the “shift of the society from healthcare towards wellness”. With wearable devices coming to shelves, “there’ll be a requirement for us to measure health parameters, like heart beat, amount of exercise and number of calories,” says Helmi.

Finally, the government wants to make manufacturing more productive, specifically in the automobile, electronic and timber-based industries.

The key targets
The government has set concrete targets to make all this happen. The country has to produce RM9.5 billion (US$2.25 billion) in income from IoT by 2020 – this is at least a 500% increase in revenue from 2014, Helmi says.

In the next five years, productivity in each of the four sectors has to increase by 20%; 14,000 new jobs and 200 companies have to be created.

To hit these numbers, the government has to coordinate “all the pockets of initiatives that are currently being driven by multiple organisations” – both in the private and public sectors. The government has set up an “industry think tank” where agencies, business and academics have monthly brainstorm.

The government will work with the makers community and vocational universities to align their ideas with its own plan. It will also help bring their ideas to the marketplace. MIMOS recently launched an IoT innovation lab where it will share technologies and ideas with entrepreneurs. Prototypes that are viable for the market will be brought to venture capitalists, Helmi says.

But key for innovation is sharing data. “This is what really defines IoT because without sharing data, application and service developers cannot be nurtured,” Helmi believes.

Therefore, his immediate priority is getting buy-in from agencies across the government to publish their data. “Key thing is that we have to get the patron for that,” Helmi says. He started with the four sectors, and so far the health, industry and public works ministries have committed to introducing IoT in their plans. The Ministry of Agriculture is yet to confirm, however.

Currently, Helmi is spending most of his time now on educating ministries on what IoT is and how it will impact the economy.

Malaysia’s ambitious plan to boost its economy by 500% will put its civil servants, citizens and entrepreneurs to the test. But Helmi and his team is working to pull all the pieces together and keep the wheels rolling.