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Using Tech for Better Results

Sime Darby Plantation Bhd (SD Plantation) plans to widen the use of technology in its operations on the ground to attract more Malaysians to work in oil palm plantations and change their perception of what is often regarded as 3D (dangerous, difficult, and dirty) jobs in the sector. 

With mechanisation and automation, the company aims to reduce reliance on foreign labour and improve its worker-to-land ratio to 1:17.5ha by 2027, compared to the current industry average of 1:8ha. 

This would also lead to better wages for the employees, it added. 

The land-to-worker ratio in palm oil operations correlates with the industry's efficiency and level of mechanisation, potentially influencing the demand for labour. 

Through this strategy, the company has set its sights to attract and employ workers who have the skills to operate machinery as well as those who are willing to learn and work with advanced technology. 

The company held the inaugural "SD Plantation Future Fest 2024" on Feb 23-24 to educate the public on its mechanisation, automation and digitalisation initiatives and highlight the journey and progress it was undertaking to transform oil palm plantations. 

Mechanisation and automation had long been the company's goal to change the age-old method of working in plantations. 

However, the cost to include current technology in its operations was costly, especially when it was not widely available in the country. 

"It is true that things have not changed much in the last 60 to 70 years. I would say that people have been looking at ways to mechanise between the 1990s and early 2000s because as an industry, we know that foreign labour is not sustainable in the long run. 

"However, it takes a lot of money to invest in machines and that was and is going to be a barrier," said chief research and development officer Dr David Ross Appleton.

In the early 2000s, he said different kinds of cutting devices were experimented with, including tractors with robotic arms to pick up the fresh fruit bunches (FFBs). These were built to incrementally improve labour. 

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2019, the company realised that it had to invest in technology to reduce dependence on foreign workers due to the stricter recruitment guidelines.

"Covid-19 was a wake-up call. It showed us that the problem with labour was no longer in the distant future. It is happening now. We then devised plans to accelerate the use of technology in plantations."

How automation improves efficiency 

Chief human resources officer Zulkifli Zainal Abidin said the company aimed to have a 100 per cent local workforce for its non-harvesting work by 2027. 

Mechanisation is among the viable options that SD Plantation is using to attract local youths. 

He said Malaysians would be prioritised to operate these machines, although harvesting FFBs would still be done manually due to its complexity. 

The company has yet to come up with a machine that could ease the process. 

"By 2027, we target to have one man for 17.5ha with the help of automation and it will be done by local workers. 

"To achieve this, we will need to introduce more machines, mainly for fertilisers and pest control. We also will have to look at the condition of the land to ensure the machines can adapt to the different terrains in oil palm plantations, especially for matured crops." 

Zulkifli added that the company was able to mechanise almost all nurseries and immature farms as these areas were more accessible and easier to manage. Mature farms are mainly situated on uneven land.

"We are looking at autonomous vehicles for our plantations. These are for the jobs that cannot be done by humans. 

"We want to have machines that have sensors to identify pests and spray pesticide on the crops. There are various prototypes that are being analysed and they require time to be developed and tested before they can be used on our farms. 

"During events like the Sime Darby Plantation Future Fest, we can show to the public how the industry has changed with the usage of machines. We want to create awareness on this matter and change the perception of 3D jobs."

Collaboration with UM

SD Plantation is collaborating with Universiti Malaya to produce laser cutting tools in a bid to modernise the plantation sector. 

Present at the signing of the memorandum of understanding was deputy plantation and commodities minister Datuk Chan Foong Hin, who lauded the initiative. 

"This needs to be emulated to future-proof the plantation sector through ongoing research, development and commercialisation. 

"Through mechanisation and automation in plantation operations, this sector will be capable of providing high-value job opportunities that guarantee a competitive income," he said in his speech. 

Some 1,800 visitors attended the two-day event, which was packed with demonstrations of best and sustainable agricultural practices as well as new machines in oil palm plantations, talk shows and tours of heritage buildings, as well as soap and candle-making activities using palm oil.

The event had several booths where SD Plantation also showcased the use of palm oil in the food industry and new prototypes and technologies the company was developing to transform work in oil palm plantations.


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