My name is Wan Siti Nur Aishah binti Wan Zuki and I come from a family of farmers in Kelantan, Malaysia.
Back in the 1980s before I was even born, my grandfather was given the title “Kelantan’s Best Farmer” in recognition of his success in adopting conventional agriculture and promoting it among local farmers by setting an example. 10 years ago, “Kelantan’s Best Farmer” died in the hospital after decades of suffering from skin rashes and chest pain.
Doctors found toxic substances in his blood and speculated that he might have ingested some of them while he was farming. Indeed, he never complained about the use of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilisers on his fields. And this was the irony; the one who was supposed to feed others ended up poisoning himself in the process, and most probably he wasn’t the only one.
Kelantan isn’t the most affluent state in Malaysia. We don’t have in our largest city, Kota Bharu, two identical towers standing tall and proud to awe the world. Lying next to the South China Sea means that when you’re celebrating Christmas, we’re most probably busy preparing for the annual monsoon downpours.
Every now and then, we get hit by a huge flood and experience property damages that take years to recuperate from. Our farmers today mostly practise conventional agriculture, just like my grandfather, and most of them take farming instructions from agricultural extension officers that seek to carry on the Green Revolution.
While safety regulations regarding chemical use are tighter now than before, farmers still tend to err on the side of “more is better”. As a result, many agro-ecosystems are destroyed and pest and disease outbreaks have become more common as of late.
Like all other 23-year-old, soon-to-be university graduates out there, I want to change the world. You’d have to blame my Aunty Salwati for planting that idea in my head. With her help, I’m setting up an enterprise to build a supply chain for organically grown rice in Kelantan. We’re calling it the “SRI Lestari Centre.” (Lestari means sustainability in Malay).
As the name suggests, I am building the business on the premise of SRI- System of Rice Intensification. To give you the gist, SRI basically implies carefully selected seeds, younger seedlings transplanted with more space between them, less water, more compost and regular weeding. As a result, using fewer or no conventional inputs, farmers can expect to double their yields after one season of proper management of water, soil and crop quality.
So what’s the catch? Under SRI, farmers need to be observant and diligent because they are acting as managers of an ecosystem of insects, worms, birds, microbes, weeds, crops and farmers themselves, in order to synergise beneficial interactions between these organisms.
Basically, we’re offering a more complex job description to local farmers. Instead of taking orders, like an assembly line worker, from somebody who probably stops by only once a month to check on their work, we are training local farmers to be entrepreneurial and innovative. We give them working theories of SRI and IPM, and they tell us if the theories are working or not.
In other words, we provide the bullet points and farmers write the descriptions.
In that spirit, SRI Lestari Centre aims to support local farmers who dare to take that first step towards producing safer and healthier rice for local consumers. So far I have been working with Aunty Salwati to encourage more farmers to switch to organic farming by giving them technical training and guiding them from seedling preparation, transplantation, water and pest control, weeding, composting and harvesting.
Our priority has been to increase the number of farmers who practice organic farming or SRI, regardless of how much land they own. We’ve asked each farmer in our network to try organic methods on at least half an acre of land and throughout the process, we’ve been putting together on-the-ground mini-workshops based on the Farmer Field School approach.
Basically we just have a lot of fun making ambiguous-smelling compost and weighing our yields after each season. The mentor-mentee system has worked wonders and after slightly more than 1 year of training farmers in SRI, we now have 25 farmers who can confidently pass the knowledge onto the next batch of farmers.
Now that we have gathered a critical number of farmers who are committed to growing rice using SRI, we need to think about processing and marketing to truly make SRI a sustainable venture. This is why I’m applying for this grant of US$5000 – I would like to use it to put our organically grown rice on supermarket shelves and in restaurant meals.
Our plan is simple: SRI Lestari Centre would be a one-stop milling, packaging and marketing hub that serves all practitioners of SRI in Kelantan. We’d buy unmilled rice from local farmers at RM2.50/kg as opposed to RM1.25/kg that they would normally get should they sell to conventional buyers.
We could afford this higher margin because organically grown rice in Malaysia can fetch up to RM10.00/kg as opposed to RM5.00/kg which is the average retail price for conventionally grown rice.
To ensure our success in capturing market share, we are targeting organic retailers and restaurants in major nearby cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Georgetown and Ipoh.
We are also harnessing the growing reach of social media among Malaysian youth to raise brand awareness, partly because most of them don’t actually know we have locally produced, organically grown rice, and I’m sure a wise person once said: “You can’t love what you don’t know.”
How would we spend the money, then? Here’s a simple breakdown:
Social Security (4 pax): US$1000
Promotional Materials (Social Media/ Outreach Events/ Marketing): US$500
Supervision/ Logistics/ Transportation: US$500
Maintenance/ Contingencies: US$200
Our business model is unique in our approach to introduce inclusivity in our corporate ownership structure. For every 50 tonnes of rice sold to SRI Lestari Centre, a farmer would gain a 1% share in the company. At the moment, we would cap this form of corporate ownership at 30%, equivalent to 1500 tonnes of rice. However, our main purpose is to allow farmers to have decision-making powers regarding the setup of the supply chain.
To measure our success, we want to look at the increase in farmers’ incomes by selling unmilled rice to SRI Lestari Centre due to lowered input costs and higher purchase prices, the return on our sales at SRI Lestari Centre which is estimated to be as high as 30%.
In addition, we plan to run a survey after gaining success in our first cycle in order to see how many farmers would like to participate in the upcoming cycles.
My grandfather would probably be proud of me and Aunty Salwati, knowing that we’re keeping farmers from suffering from the same fate as him. Together we’ll fight for a better future.
Blogpost and picture submitted by Liang Chun (Kelantan, Malaysia) – liangchun.lim[at]sciencespo.fr
The content, structure and grammar is at the discretion of the author only.
This post is published as proposal #413 of “YAP” – our “Youth Agripreneur Project”.
The first selection of the winners will be based on the number of comments, likes and views each proposal gets.
As a reader, you can support this speaker’s entry:
- Leave a comment (question, suggestion,..) on this project in the comment field at the bottom of this page
- Support the post by clicking the “Like” button below (only possible for those with a WordPress.com account)
- Spread this post via your social media channels, using the hashtag: #GCARD3
Have a look at the other “YAP” proposals too!
As a donor, support young agripreneurs and sponsor this unique project. Check out the side column for our current sponsors.
“YAP” is part of the #GCARD3 process, the third Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development.