Technology is changing all the major industries with an unprecedented pace. The question will always be: is it for good or ill? I prefer to think for the better, so that I wait enthusiastically and prepare myself for this big shift. In this article, I present my views on how The Fourth Industrial Revolution will transform the palm oil industry in four main components: plantation, mill, sustainability, and markets. I meant to cover three mega trends in this technological revolution: hardware, data, and biology.
It is very likely to happen, whether you like it or not. The question now is: who will be the next leader in palm oil industry? A future oriented group or an entire nation with a progressive view on? Bear in mind that technology is a key element when it comes to David & Goliath business stories.
From a Plantation Perspective
In a post-industrial area, the agriculture land – is left as something of minor technification whereas all the attention is drawn by the factories or mills in this case. Nonetheless, it is already a proven fact that the bulk of oil palm is actually produced in the plantation itself. Moreover, it is widely known that any kind of improvement or upgrade at the mill can bring no more than 15% of efficiencies in terms of Crude Palm Oil (CPO) extraction, whereas technology deployment in the plantation can boost its production up until 50% so far. Indeed, the disparity of tons of Fresh Fruit Bunches per hectare (t FFB/ha) is huge among countries with different socioeconomic backgrounds. I will explore hereafter how to achieve this massive improvement.
Technology deployment in the plantations can boost the CPO production up until 50%.
Big Data & Internet of Things (Internet of Farming)
Big Data will lead vast changes in what we know today as an oil palm plantation. Furthermore, the first term that is required to coin is Profit per Tree (PPT), whereby corporations will look at the trees as production units and will count them as part of their asset inventory rather than number of hectares. Currently, the yield per hectare is a common practice due to its practicality to carry the numbers handy, as we are by nature reductionists. However, the average yield hides marvelous opportunities for improvement since a couple of sick or unhealthy trees “underperforming” might be covered up by the whole average. Put it another way, if we assume 10% of the palm trees are “underperforming” – hundreds at local scale and millions at global scale – then we are leaving a big money and food on the table. In the near future, palm trees will be adorned with small sensors (hardware) which carry an ID tag and equipped with the ability to store a huge amount of data as a kind of “clinical history” including information. Nevertheless, it is not limited to date of planting, GPS location, production, fertilizer dosage & frequency, irrigation, pollination time, events, etc. Imagine a cloud-based healthcare system for trees with preventive and corrective actions, making pinpoint reports for the agronomists where they will have ample information and suggestions to make informed decisions and take care of those trees in need. Needless to say, these agronomic KPIs will change dramatically.
Nowadays, it is possible to monitor whether a palm tree is healthy or it has a deficit of Potassium (K), Magnesium (Mg) or Nitrogen (N) by simply snapping photos of a palm leaf with one’s smart phone as the researcher Maria Alejandra Culman Forero from the Center of Excellence and Adoption on the Internet of Things - CEA-IoT has developed. Additionally, small sensors now allow Agronomists to monitor soil moisture, soil pH, soil salinity, and among others; which can be easily integrated in platforms like Mirsaad developed by Qoudra. In addition, weather stations must be required to be installed throughout the plantation to monitor the temperature, humidity, wind, sunlight, and precipitation. Big Data & Machine Learning will integrate granular data, providing valuable information and suggestions to make informed decisions, to do changes, predict harvest, CPO production and market prices as well as envisage the best time to replant together with the least busy moments for mill maintanence (downtimes). As it happens, precipitation (quantity and season) is a pivotal factor for Fresh Fruit Bunches (FFB). It will be possible to predict the harvest size based on the precipitation and other variables stored in the data log with big data.
Furthermore, drones usage is just around the corner. Agribotix has developed its own Turnkey Agriculture Drone Solutions and integrating FarmLens technology for an overall, accurate, and precise scan of the crop. In their own words, “Now it is possible to program a flight to survey until 160 Ha with few clicks.” Without a shadow of a doubt, this technology will soon be available and fully adapted for oil palm plantation, as Poladrone seems to be working very hard on. Hardware and data collection devices will modify abruptly the information gathered so far in the plantation.
Collaboration & Data Mining
Palm oil mill industry stands out from others due to its low collaboration, perhaps because of remoteness or some other factors that are beside the point of this article. That ought to be past history if corporations want to survive to dramatic changes I will present later on under market section. That being the case, collaboration will be required to maximize efforts in data collection and information usage. Combined intelligence will process the data shared by all the palm tree growers in farming network platforms with the ultimate goal of having more fine and precise information to face challenging and changing situations. With this kind of collaboration, it will be easier to cope with microclimate changes (multiple reasons) and its consequences. For instance, when growers’ data are interconnected from several regions in Southeast Asia, Africa, and, Latin America or globally for that matter; market price prediction will be much easier and accurate. Hence, decisive decisions will rest on the shoulders of executives. Just imagine for a moment, if all the May and October rain pour down in July and one has the power to forecast market prices accurately.
Harvest mechanization will always be a sensitive topic as to whether corporations and governments must protect employment or substitute labour work for machines and robots. I do not want to get across as ruthless or sanctimoniously moral, thus I prefer to leave that discussion open for another good occasion.
Getting back to robotics, Fruit Picking Robots with telescopic booms will co-exist peacefully with orangutans, elephants, and among other beautiful creatures in the plantations. These robots will be equipped with continuous track (caterpillar track), built-in GPS with pre-loaded harvest routes, weight scale, and so on. Harvest data will be uploaded instantly to a cloud-native platform from which all the information will be centralized and integrated with other devices such as weather stations, palm trees sensors, pictures, etc. Altogether, the information collected by different devices will be an ideal tool for agronomists and state controllers, besides being an extraordinary source for management KPIs.
Needless to mention, palm oil industry is a biological based business. It is the reason why Biology and Ecology are always big words in terms of production. I will only touch on Biology very briefly here.
Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) food is perhaps the greatest villain in biotechnology with a high public rejection rate. Things seem to be changing nevertheless, and today Genetic Modification (Gene Editing) such as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is gaining momentum with a decent approval among scientists and public overall. The Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI) led by an exceptional team of forward-thinking scientists including CRISPR innovators such as Jennifer Doudna, PhD, is devoting a big deal of effort in finding breakthroughs on biomedicine, agriculture, microbiology, technology, and society. Even though the IGI does not work currently on oil palm, they have developed CRISPR-Cas Enzymes which allow crops to withstand drought, infections, and other devastating conditions. This is a great opportunity for Molecular Biology Labs working on oil palm to join the efforts of IGI and seek for research collaboration.
Personally, I would love to see Gene Editing for Oil Enhancement (less land, more food) and Biomass Production (more energy sources). It perhaps sounds counter-intuitive, but the beauty of this is to suffice the needs according to different scenarios; whether you need more CPO or you need more biomass for bioelectricity.
From a Mill Perspective
As mentioned earlier, we are highly accustomed to think that factories or mills must be more high-tech than fields and plantations. As discussed above, nothing can be further from the truth and what is imperative now is to fine-tune both in order to maximize the efforts. Naturally, mills have immense opportunities to be re-designed in terms of interoperability.
The likelihood of having Smart Factories or Smart Kilang/Pabrik (for their names in Bahasa) is very high. The real question here is, whether people is ready to go after it or they will wait patiently until the wise market force them to implement it (to be discussed later on under market section). Mills around the world are distinguished by being small kingdoms of their kings. Nevertheless, change is tailgating and speaking loudly; and let me quote the brilliant Eric Hoffer: “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves beautifully equipped to live in a world that no longer exist.”