Digitalisation and industrialisation of agriculture as pathway for youth employment

The grand vision for our agricultural sector will also enable us to make the next jump in moving up the developmental value chain.

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Published in Astro Awani, New Straits Times, Business Today, i3investor.com, The Malaysian Reserve & Focus Malaysia, image by Astro Awani.

One of the ways to address youth unemployment and underemployment is by reconfiguring and integrating agriculture with digitalisation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). In heralding a renaissance to our agricultural sector, digitalisation and the 4IR will definitively provide the kind of employment opportunities and career pathways not seen before.

The grand vision for our agricultural sector in particular and the nation as a whole will also enable us to make the next jump or leap in moving up the developmental value chain, including from the Internet-of-Things (IoT) applications farming to additional high-tech farming – involving more sophisticated and integrated platforms such as robotics both in outdoor and indoor farming from fertigation (combining fertilisation & irrigation) through monitoring to harvesting and sorting as centralised process, moving towards lab-grown and plant-based meats, etc.

Much has been said about economic liberalisation, and trade and investment flows in the context of multilateral arrangements such as free trade agreements (FTAs) that enables nations to plug into the globalisation “force field” that’s ever-reverberating – much like harnessing some electromagnetic (EM) energy and wave through power plants and channelling the harvested electricity through a series of inter-connected power grids. Of course, technology is one of the factors of production and the main driver in total factor productivity (TFP) which is the measurement of output growth from the residue (= innovation), i.e., balance of or not attributable to capital and labour.

A highly-skilled, dynamic and vibrant graduate and youth workforce combined with high-tech application would propel our country into a higher altitude in the 4IR atmosphere and orbit.

This is why technology in the form of digitalisation/4IR will need to be set on the right trajectory as well as fired up on all cylinders by the national strategies and policies.

It means that our existing economic policy orientation and macro-economic fundamentals have to be reshaped accordingly, meaning that agriculture can no longer be conceived as an “unfortunate” trade-off as was the case in the past – when we embarked on our heavy industrialisation agenda – but a necessary component and feature of the high-tech industrialisation drive.

Hence, the introduction of digitalisation and 4IR into our agricultural sector is not only to “save” it from “oblivion” or make it “relevant”, but precisely making that leap forward as the next sector to absorb the pool of graduates and growing number of the unemployed and underemployed youth whilst simultaneously resolving our food security as being conceptualised as a hub (like the centre of a wheel) with the triple nodes/spokes protruding centrifugally (outwards) as food sovereignty (which reduces over-reliance on imports), food sufficiency (in relative terms), and food safety (standards).

To move forward, we need to return to basics, i.e., our agrarian base from which we had initially graduated and progressed or to “mother earth”, so to speak.

And just as there’s the increasing integration and even assimilation of technology into our way of life together with the interaction and interface between human and machine as in the fields of manufacturing (e.g., 3D printing of soft pneumatic sensing chambers/SPSCs for soft robotics to enhance simulation and allow for bio-mimicry) and healthcare (e.g., neurobotics in the form of cybernic treatment), likewise the stage has already been set for the application of technology to soil and plant, and we can’t afford to be left behind (see e.g., EMIR Research article – “Agriculture at a crossroad making that quantum leap”, Business Today, October 27, 2020).

Towards that end, the National Agrofood Policy 2.0 (2021-2030) is calling for the embrace of industrialisation and smart farming – which would open up opportunities for training and employment for the youth as “digital natives”.

At the same time, the government is also on the right track in coming up with a specific, targeted and comprehensive National Food Security Policy – under the purview of the eponymous (i.e., having the same title) Cabinet Committee – to address the need for a long-term food security strategy from all aspects on a sustainable and uninterrupted basis. This include addressing structural shifts involving human resources in the form of youth employment as “… the share of employment in agriculture sector is trending downwards over the years” and farmers become aged (see e.g., EMIR Research article – “Make agriculture appealing for youth, better food security” by Sofea Azahar, Astro Awani, April 15, 2021).

EMIR Research would like to make the following recommendations to complement and supplement the existing and soon-to-be introduced policy measures:

1. The High-Tech Facility (HTF)-National Investment Aspiration (NIA) should be directly extended to the small-and-medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the agricultural sector. As it is, currently the HTF-NIA is only limited to the “manufacturing and services subsectors with high NIA scores” or “SME project participants in key government programmes involved in research, development and innovation for critical technologies identified under national blueprints, from IR4.0-related technologies to green technology and biotechnology, etc.”.

This can also create choice and competition in the market for financing access in the area of smart/precision farming. And perhaps even accelerate the “crowding-in” of such private sector investments and funding for start-ups and newly launched entities – either as subsidiaries of or linked with the existing parent SME agricultural company – as gateway for more graduates and youths to go into smart or precision farming, thereby generating the “multiplier or chain effect”.

In this, the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (Mdec) can play a pivotal and critical role as the key facilitator and mediator – as it has done for its e-Ladang schemes for pilot agri-tech projects in strategic collaboration with commercial banks such as CIMB.

2. Make it mandatory for government-linked companies (GLCs) involved in the oil palm sector to set aside a minimum of certain acres of their individual plantation holdings nationwide for farming activities, and to align this with the creation of employment opportunities and career pathways in agriculture for the youth. The rock melon farm project in Kuala Langat (Selangor), for example, is situated next to an oil palm plantation. The career pathways will be structured in parallel fashion with the oil palm/palm oil business. In other words, just like cadet planters in oil palm (and rubber) estates that are trained and groomed to be estate managers, there should be the creation of the category of cadet farmer to rise to the position of farm manager – with commensurable pay and perk.

Going further, the position of farm manager could be considered as senior executive/front-liner level and not necessarily that of top management. In other words, the availability of such positions – understood as on-site role – should be wider than is the case in a typical (non-farming) organisation. Other newly created categories would be farming technicians, faming engineers, farming executives, etc.

Setting aside a certain acreage for farming activities (food crop) should also be incorporated into the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) standards and criteria for certification (and trade mark use) in the next round of application cycle under Malaysia’s own “National Interpretation”.

As for non-GLCs, tax incentives could be provided such as reduction in corporate tax and listing fees (on Bursa Malaysia) which could also apply to the GLCs.

And this would complement and supplement the other “wing”, i.e., the existing Young Agropreneur programme – from the 11th Malaysia Plan onwards and now – under the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industries (Mafi). According to Mafi Deputy Minister II Datuk Che Abdullah Mat Nawi, the programme provides fundamental skills as well as non-monetary grants in the form of machinery, seeds, animal breeds, fertilisers, pesticides, etc. for youths aged from 18 to 40 years old who are interested in making a career in agriculture. The programme encompassed cultivation, livestock, fisheries, food industries, agro-tourism and marketing. Last year, 6,908 young agropreneurs nationwide received grants totalling RM121.97 million.

3. Mafi should collaborate with the Ministry of Higher Education as well as the other stakeholders (both public and private), including the technical and vocational training and education (Tvet) institutes to offer programmes/courses in agricultural industrialisation and digitalisation. The higher education and Tvet system can also be catalyst towards the creation of new jobs market in agriculture.

In the coming years, Malaysia could well be on a cusp of an agricultural revolution that will transform our economy and ensure food security that has eluded us all this while. We are on our way and the number of agropreneurs should be rising year after year. Industrialisation and digitalisation as pathway for our youth to venture into agriculture as part of a new generation of digital and highly-skilled workforce will complete the policy “picture”.

Jason Loh Seong Wei is head of Social, Law & Human Rights at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focussed on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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