In Penampang, Sabah, Eyes in the Sky are helping local farmers grow crops on the ground. In the same way that self-driving cars can monitor their surroundings, solar-powered cellular cameras generate a detailed portrait of a field, from the richness of plants to the health of the soil. Farming these days – far from the melancholy image of farmers working with their pitchforks – is less grueling but more mind-blowing as advancements in technology attract a new generation of millennials to feed the country. In Leeward Earth, the digital evolution of agriculture is already a reality.

Spearheading the sustainable agriculture movement is the agriculture and welfare company Nutribah, a hanger of the words “nutritious” and “bah” (the colloquial term most commonly used in Sabah which loosely means “d ‘okay’ or ‘lah’). With a new food culture sharpening interest in agriculture, three young people with no farming experience left their cushy way of life to manage six organic farms with a total area of ​​405 ha in Penampang, Lok Kawi, Kimanis, Keningau, Kalabakan and Tawau. Executive Director Preston Sean Soh, who practiced law and ran a business development consultancy in Kuala Lumpur, returned home last year to start Nutribah with his childhood friends Wallace Heng and Izzat Alexander.

“We have always shared the passion of working together through thick and thin. Previously, we worked on digitization, fintech and smart tourism before creating Nutribah. Nonetheless, keen to create value for Sabah and contribute to the Malaysian economy, we turned to smart and sustainable organic farming with the mentorship of a seasoned industrialist. [who only wants to be known as] Mr. John. “

Nutribah was created with a mission to solve nutrient and food safety concerns at the onset of the pandemic. Farms that have been operating using conventional methods for over a decade have all been consolidated to undergo restructuring that also turns organic products into end products for domestic export.

“Nutribah joined the organic sourcing market in July 2020. At the time, market prices for organic produce in Sabah were hovering at RM18 per kg. A year later, Nutribah lowered the market price of organic sourcing by 38%. Currently, we are at the downstream stage of our organic products, namely sacha inchi oil. [extracted by pressing the seeds and flesh of the fruit pracaxi] and kale powder, on a commercial scale through our smart factory, preparing for a national launch by the first quarter of 2022, ”said Soh.

In many parts of the world, agriculture is rooted in the grievances of beleaguered farmers, unsung heroes who battle falling wages and labor shortages as young people move to greener pastures. With that in mind, Nutribah set out to optimize farm returns beyond what humans alone could accomplish, by investing in their key assets: farmers.

Through its Smart Organic Farming Blueprint, Nutribah improves and re-qualifies more than 150 of its farmers by inspiring them to use digital tools such as robotic vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles. Because the entire business ecosystem, from operations to management, is digitized, its employees have acquired digital know-how to accurately monitor and control the environment of their operations. The company’s Internet of Things (IoT) systems not only track real-time data such as readings of soil pH value, temperature and humidity remotely from a dashboard, they also regulate the amount of water and fertilizer distributed to crops, as well as pinching problems. in the bud before it’s too late.

“Our manufacturing plant and our greenhouse for our valuable crops are both integrated with solar panels. Smart organic agriculture extends to identifying economically viable crops and strategically planning for demand generation. In addition, we use the automation of workforce management, marketing and logistics. This has improved communication between our teams in Sabah and Kuala Lumpur. “

A burgeoning local food movement is also helping consumers recognize how accustomed they have become to eating foods far outside of their original range. Respecting the generosity of our land means having to reclaim what grows best locally. For example, tomatoes that were picked four weeks ago in Italy and shipped in a refrigerated truck are unlikely to taste as fresh as those harvested in a few days from a Malaysian farm. Essentially, buying locally – from trusted e-commerce channels like Nutribah that cuts out the middleman – cuts food miles while rebuilding the relationship between farmers and consumers shredded by rigorous industrialization.

The founders fervently embrace this philosophy, supplying fresh produce such as passion fruit, basil, vanilla pods, microgreens, kale and paku pakis (an ingredient popular with tourists) directly to consumers. , grocery stores, supermarkets, restaurants and retail stores. The company also feeds one of the largest aquaculture belts in Sabah, producing at least 100 tonnes of farmed seafood per month, such as the coveted empurau native to this part of Malaysia, grouper, tilapia. and shrimp in Tawau. These aquatic offerings are considered to have a higher nutritional value because they are fed with organic sacha inchi granules derived from sacha inchi nuts rich in omega 3, 6 and 9.

Nutribah has also started caring for people looking for a connection to their food beyond a walk through the farmers market. Attracting the kind of city dwellers who love their unspoiled nature, an all-in-one wellness farm operates from its headquarters in Penampang, with amenities such as an outdoor gym, a hiking trail private, a co-workspace and a restaurant that serves farm-to-plate fondues. More than 10,000 visitors have visited this bucolic haven since its creation in July of last year, which is based on a model of self-sufficiency and a concept of closed-loop agriculture. In this flowery sanctuary, sunlight from solar panels and natural mountain water take care of the plants, while rejected crops are turned into organic food and compost to enrich the soil.

Using food as a prism to explore Sabah’s biodiversity and indigenous culture, Nutribah draws one with wild berries and sweeping vistas of lush orchards outside their window in its other outposts as well. There is an ecological park in Kimanis, a tropical orchard in Lok Kawi, a long farmhouse in Kalabakan, as well as a spa in its aquaculture stronghold of Tawau. Varying its portfolio by venturing into tourism is paying off for Nutribah, which has positioned itself at the forefront of the travel boom in Sabah.

The Nutribah team envisions a future in which farmers are fleet managers, programming and deploying their tools from a central mission control and using the time saved on areas that require special attention. An automated agribusiness could be the answer to a food supply chain that is becoming less and less resilient day by day.

“Adopting smart organic farming practices will not only align with Malaysia’s IR 4.0 vision, but also provide a solution to the growing population demand for food supply without causing massive deforestation, land degradation and other environmental damage. At the same time, it will reduce the staggering RM 55 billion food import bill and redefine a new sustainable economic industry for Malaysia.

Agriculture is a game of biological shifts: today’s yield is the result of decisions made several months ago. The food industry has contemplated nature and found it insufficient – and set to work to improve it. The use of technology isn’t just about reaping the benefits of AI during an industry disruption or designing a path to consumer convenience. In fact, our collective survival rests on the premise of a smart, fast and secure food future.

This article first appeared on October 11, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.

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