Syed Salleh Sulaiman transforms his parent’s traditional farm into an agrotech farm that generates up to RM30k per month. The catalyst of his inspiring achievements can be summarised to three factors:
As an agrotech entrepreneur, Syed Salleh Syed Sulaiman has noble goals for his country and countrymen: to help Malaysia with food security through his family plantation, Sulaiman Plantation. His mission is to encourage and teach more Malaysians to become professional farmers and embrace agrotechnology for the farming sector in Malaysia.
Unlike the stereotype of a farmer, 29-year-old Syed Salleh is a university graduate in marketing and uses a data-driven approach to operate his agro farm. He also teaches the younger generation, how to be agrotech entrepreneurs and embrace technology in farming. He learned farming from various agro-based government agencies as well as through apprenticeship with a commercial farm.
Halalop Editor, Shahfizal Musa, spoke with Syed Salleh, about Malaysia’s food security issues and how Syed Salleh is working on solving these issues via his plantation and agro-training of the younger generation via CocoJack, his company that provides training of agrotech farming and agribusiness.
On Sulaiman Plantation, located in Kedah, Malaysia, stretches over 13 acres of land, Syed Salleh grows food crops that are in high demand in Malaysia, and yet are low in domestic supply. He often refers to the Self-sufficiency ratio (SSR) published by the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM) and the Agricultural Ministry to determine which food crops to grow next.
In general, Malaysia has a high SSR due to its commodity industrial crops such as palm oil and rubber, and yet when it comes to food crops, Malaysia does not have 100% SSR for some of its food crops – such as rice, ginger, chilli, coconuts and a few other vegetables.
When the SSR is less than 100%, it means that the country has to import these food crops to meet the country’s consumption needs.
The 2019 self-sufficiency ratio (SSR) agricultural products, Malaysia is low on ginger (16.2%) and chilli (30.8%), and coconut (68.2%). This means the domestic consumption of these agricultural produce exceeds the domestic supply, leading to the need for the imports of these agricultural crops. Syed Salleh grows these three food crops on his plantation.
For example, chili is almost always used to cook all types of Malaysian dishes, and yet the local farms only supply 30% of the produce and the remaining are imported from neighbouring countries.
National food security is when the country produces enough food crops for its nation’s consumption. The issue of national food security is more apparent during the global pandemic as the global food supply chain is disrupted, and food can no longer be easily imported from abroad.
Syed Salleh firmly believes that agrofarming has a bright future for the younger generation.
“Nowadays, you don’t need a big land to do farming. The previous mindset was that you needed a big land in order to make good profits on farming. However, now with technology, even with a small plot of land, you can earn good income from farming multiple types of food crops.”
“For small plots of land, for example, for those who live in urban areas with a linked house, you can plant leafy green crops, such as lettuce, spinach, which has a short crop cycle to harvest and earn an income. This can easily be achieved by using agrotech methods such as hydroponics and aquaponics.”
“My wish for the young agropreneurs is to start growing food crops that are needed for Malaysia’s food security. For example, the Department of Statistics Malaysia has listed 42 food crop items, out of which 24 meets the 100% SSR, and the remaining 18 are short of the 100% SSR, which means these 18 food crops are imported.”
“Our young agropreneurs should grow these 18 types of food crops to supply locally in order to meet the country’s food security needs. Additionally, they should also embrace agro-technology and also grow high-value crops that can be exported.”
“My other wish for young agro-preneurs is to embrace the ‘social farming’ business model now popular in Western countries. Where previously we had ‘commercial farming’ that solely focuses on profit maximization, social farming is also profit-based, and yet it tries to solve the local social issues of the community. For example, solving the issue of local youth unemployment through social farming, or embracing more organic farming and use of organic pesticides and fertilizers instead of harsh chemicals that can harm the environment.”
Syed Salleh didn’t have it easy. Sulaiman Plantation, which he is in charge of now, wasn’t handed to him on a plate. His family had the plantation in Kedah and had allowed him to use only one acre of land to prove his ‘farming worthiness’ before he could take over the entire plantation..
Having been involved in humanitarian missions in several African countries, Uganda, Sudan, and Kenya, has taught Syed Salleh many valuable lessons. He started volunteering work since his high school, and continued on even after he graduated from university.
“When we donate or give charity of the things we love, Allah s.w.t will replace it with something even better, that we sometimes couldn’t even have imagined.”
“When we travel to other lands, we open up our minds to the wonders of God’s creation and wisdom. Traveling really opened up my mind to new possibilities.”
Malaysia has developed agricultural technology for its commodity industrial crops of palm oil and rubber. However, Malaysia’s agricultural food sector is left behind in terms of technology which along with current structural issues are holding back the food sector’s technology progress. These include
1 – Low profit margins earned by farmers, due to middlemen making most of the profits. This is mainly due to the food-crop farmers not getting involved in the processing of the crops, which is of a higher value along the supply chain.
2 – High dependence on low-cost foreign labour. The agriculture sector has the highest number of foreign workers, at 30%, and is labour-intensive.
3 – Malaysians are not interested in agriculture due to low wages, and dirty/hard jobs due to low tech adoption. According to a study by Khazanah Research Institute (KRI), farmworkers only earn an average of RM1,392, lower than those earned in other sectors but only with a primary education at RM1,518.
4 – The food agricultural sector has a low tech adoption, and declining spending on R&D in the sector from a high of 1.88% of Malaysia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2002 to a low of 0.85% of GDP in 2016.
5 – A high-landed area is needed to grow crops enough to earn a sufficient income for farmers. It is said that an investment of RM10,000 is needed for an acre of farmland.
In order to overcome these structural issues in Malaysia’s agricultural sector, experts have discussed the need for more technology and developing a full ecosystem to support the food crop sector including the use of smart technology combined with entrepreneurship supported by the country’s food policy.
(source: The Edge Malaysia).
Syed Salleh’s ambitious goals in the agricultural sector is through two separate entities: Sulaiman Plantation, farmland that embraces agrotech and contributes to the country’s food security and CocoJack, the training arm that teaches people to be agrotech entrepreneurs and embrace technology in farming.
Sulaiman Plantation grows good crops that have low SSR such as ginger, chilli, and coconut, and therefore helps the nation reduce dependence on imports of these essential food items. Other vegetables are also grown on the farm such as leafy greens and okra.
Sulaiman Plantation also uses technology in its farm, such as fertigation, hydroponics, aquaponics, green house, and farm machinery. He also adopts a database approach to farming methods – documenting farming operating procedures into Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). This ensures that the process can be duplicated by all workers, and identify weaknesses to improve.
Syed Salleh also firmly believes in a planting calendar, in order to ensure that there are no surplus crops that would lead to wastes.
For example with the use of fertigation technology, automatic drip irrigation transports and drips water and nutrients to the plants which is measured accurately and can be analysed to measure expected yields of the plants.
With the experience and expertise in agrotech, Syed Salleh also has a training arm, CocoJack, which is a social enterprise registered with MAGIC, as well as working with other government agencies to train young professionals to adopt technology in agriculture and agri-business, where in addition to learning about farming methods, they are also taught about the entire food supply chain and farm finance.
Even during the pandemic, CocoJack has successfully trained a hundred youths, of which at least 25% have started their own farming projects. The ultimate aim of the social enterprise is to encourage the creation of Malaysian professional farmers who are also entrepreneurs.
“We encourage the use of technology and farm machinery in operating agro farms. This will make it easier to attract the younger generation to be interested to do farming. Previously, they will only see the farming work as hard or dirty jobs, but now with the use of technology, they can see that the work can be easily done.”
Farah Ishak is a Content Writer at Halalop. She grew up in the United Kingdom where she obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Management. Later, she completed her MBA and held senior-level positions in Malaysian based MNC. She left the corporate world to be with her young kids. She is passionate about issues concerning Muslim women, Startups and Muslim businesses in general.
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