In today’s day and age, it’s not rocket science to manage a profitable plantation company, however it’s no mean feat either to manage one in a highly labor-intensive industry. In the oil palm industry in particular, all its operations, from planting to field maintenance and harvesting to processing, are highly dependent on manual labor.
Although this creates job opportunities, it does not appeal to local country workers because of the 3D perception - dangerous, demeaning and difficult. The world’s second biggest oil palm producer, Malaysia in particular, is heavily reliant on foreign workers.
One activity that has not changed much over time is oil palm harvesting. It remains the single most important and time consuming activity in oil palm estates in correlation with infield collection and transportation. With progress, came talks of automation and mechanization of harvesting, to be at par with the sweeping new and efficient practices in plantation
It is safe to say the traditional sickle and pole is still the mainstay in most plantation companies globally. An experienced harvester with the sickle and pole is able to cover an average of 2.5 to 3.0 hectares per day with assisted loose fruit collection, provided that the interval between harvesting rounds is at 10-12 days.
In recent times, new inventions have been introduced – the first generation mechanized and electrical cutters however, came with limitations, length or height as it may be, some ungainly weight and / or features, even environmental issues such as noise and sound pollutions and a generally consensus of not being user friendly. Most have not lasted the test of time and soon retired to the store due to lack of spare parts and improper maintenance.
On the positive side, unverified data from these intermittent inventions shows that a harvester can certainly increase efficiency. These early inventions, was capable of raising productivity from 1.5 MT to 1.7 MT to 2.5 MT to 3.0 MT FFB per worker per day – a substantial 100% increase in productivity.
Nevertheless, factors such as variability in the height of the palms, ground and terrain conditions and field layout amongst others, make harvesting the most challenging unit process for mechanization. Thus, is the harvester’s best friend - that elusive dream harvesting tool which can raise his productivity for an all-around better quality of work and life – still a pipe dream?
CHANGING PHASES OR FACES
The dramatic demonstration of the revolution in agriculture propelled by mechanization in first world countries is visible to all. It is predominantly the enormous upsurge in productivity that makes this labor reduction possible. The Industrial Revolution will certainly transform the global palm oil industry, though it comes with challenges. Just as the industry acknowledges that it is impossible to see a sustainable future for the overall oil palm industry without automation and mechanization, the race is simultaneously on, to successfully design and commercialize a highly efficient harvesting tool to enhance workers’ productivity.
The advent of such a highly geared tool for starters will witness a makeover in the role of the traditional plantation worker or harvester – as the job of harvesting takes on new meaning and possibly description. In years to come will it be a shift from less brawn to more brain?
Sustainability and competitiveness of the oil palm industry hinges on extensive mechanization in all the field operations. It was envisaged that this would be achieved through labor saving tools and mechanization to enhance workers’ productivity. The introduction of an innovative, practical and user-friendly electrical cutter would therefore herald the new age in harvesting.
THE DREAM CUTTER … WHAT A HARVESTER WANTS
Sale left his family in the Bangladesh – India border district of Cumilla, as a young man of 22, to come to Malaysia, to earn a living and support his family. Fast forward 14 years on, he is a seasoned oil palm harvester and confident worker. His confidence stems partly for his ability to speak the local lingo, as well as staying motivated to better himself. His “career” in Malaysia has seen him working under difficult conditions for almost a decade, to becoming the key product tester for an established harvesting tool manufacturer.
We asked Sale what would be a harvester’s dream cutter? His invaluable feedback gives a good picture – helpful to the end user and not unexpectedly advantageous to plantation companies. First and foremost, they seek a machine that is light or as light as possible in weight. Inventors in their pursuit to power the machine for a quick and clean cut have been consistently dogged by the issue of the weight.
The second important criteria, is the ability of the tool to reach older palms of up to five to six meters in height. This invariably gave rise to the need for two versions to cater to tall and short palms. Ideally, it should have detachable parts, which makes it safe for transit around the plantation.
A harvester spends an average of eight hours on the estate per day. The electrical cutter must be one that can be economically maintained, with rechargeable battery and a sufficient battery life of up to five hours or one harvesting session. In addition, it would also need to be ergonomically designed to maximize productivity by reducing operator fatigue and discomfort.
As with all high powered tools there is the inevitable vibration. This was a major downside in the first generation mechanized cutters, for there were concerns about the long term effects on the health of the harvester. Newer electrical cutters on trial have been able to overcome this problem.
In order to achieve their sustainability promise, plantation companies also look for green and eco-friendly features in an electrical cutter – one that has zero-carbon footprint through zero emissions and a significantly lower sound level. With that on paper, what can a smart and well trained harvester with a cutting-edge harvesting tool deliver?
Managing Director of Kingoya Enterprise Sdn. Bhd., a premier harvesting tool manufacturer in Malaysia, Mr Yama Yeo said his company has invested heavily to create the ideal electrical cutter.
“We are in for the long haul,” he said.
“The trial is extremely promising and the numbers are impressive. On average, Sale working eight hours a day and was able to cover 10 hectares and harvest approximately 6-8 MT FFB.”
THE TRUE VALUE OF A HARVESTER
A look into the role of a harvester in a plantation would not be complete without understanding his/her true value. Industry expert and commentator M R Chandran explained the true value of a harvester in numbers.
Harvester Output: 1.5MT/Day on average
No of Working Days per Annum: 280
Total FFB Output per Year: 420 MT
Over 3-Year Contract Service of a Guest Worker: 1,260 MT
Assuming an average FFB price of RM700/MT, the revenue generated equals: RM882,000
The skills of a harvester need to be honed and optimized by providing the necessary training to manage and maintain an electrical or motorized cutter. To reap top dollar results, plantation companies also have to do their part in adopting new systems like allowing the harvester to focus primarily on the task of bunch cutting by employing separate assisted units for fruit collection and delivery to the roadside.
THE RACE IS ON …
The global palm oil value chain is estimated to be worth a whopping US$100 billion, with the largest contributors coming from Asia. Thanks to Malaysia’s pole position as one of two, top palm oil producing and exporting countries in the world, harvesting equipment manufacturers and industry related organizations in the country are certainly well placed to develop solutions for the industry globally.
The race is on for a custom made solution for the oil palm industry and the winner will surely take it all.
Gopi Nath Nair, September 2021