On The Contrary Automation Improves Employment In Plantation

It is said that one of the negative effects of automation or mechanisation – the introduction of machines or automatic devices into a process, activity, or place – in farming will result in a smaller workforce, hence contributing to an increase in unemployment.

But this is not so in the plantation industry. Mechanisation in the oil palm industry for the past few years in the area of fruit harvesting has seen increased productivity, resulting in an increase in oil extraction rate.

And this could also solve the triple problems of unemployment, underemployment and too much reliance on foreign labour.

The key lies in oil palm loose fruits (LF) scattered on the ground which is one sign the fresh fruit bunches (FFB) on the tree is ready to be harvested. Palm oil fruit grows in dense bunches known as FFB.

LF are also scattered when the bunches fall to the ground during the harvesting operation which involves cutting the FFB, and these need to be collected together to maximise the oil content during processing.

In the past, LF were left in the field due to the perception of their small size, hence, not worth the effort to be collected. It is not that they are not collected at all but the efforts to collect them are lukewarm and not serious enough because the focus is on harvesting the bigger FFB on the palm tree.

But in line with the adage that small is beautiful and precious, and based on many research findings, most detached LF which are from the outer diameter of the FFB contain the maximum level of oil content, up to 40% of palm oil compared to 35% and 29% respectively of the middle and inner region of the bunch.

According to one study, the loss measured in term of oil extraction rate (OER) are significant if LF are not collected and processed – a reduction on OER by between 0.37% to 0.92%, depending on the age of the oil palm tree, if 20 LF per palm are not collected.

In monetary term, a plantation company would make on the average an additional RM 30 million in net profit if estate workers collect six LF per palm. Hence, many plantations have now made it a point to ensure that all LF are collected from the field to maximise their profits.

And here’s where using machines or automating comes in to increase the number of LF collected per hectare, which will have a profound change in the landscape of LF palm harvesting which has remained pretty much the same even after a century since oil palm was first planted commercially in Malaysia.

For a very long time the collection is done manually by hand picking or by using a raking device and the LF are eventually placed into a bag or directly into a container or trailer. This involves frequent bending movement which is a bad posture for the body resulting in backache to the worker.

To worsen matters, debris that accumulate together with the LF contribute to a lower OER as the trash will absorb oil during processing. Hence, there is a need to remove the debris before the LF are sent for processing.

Hence, the mechanisation drive also gives rise to the invention of cleaning or segregating machines to separate the debris from the LF.

To minimise or eliminate all these problems and to increase the collection productivity, various tools and machines, from a simple mechanical picking mechanism to vacuum-type collecting machines using suction technology were developed in the past few years.

And the motorised versions of this picking mechanism have also made their appearance in some plantations, making the collection process of LF more efficient by providing greater output per hectare.

These machines are locally produced which more often than not is the result of collaboration among industry players, academic and research institutes, and the Malaysian Palm Oil Board.

Thus, it is not really a great surprise although a fantastic achievement when FGV Holdings Bhd, for instance, in a filing with Bursa Malaysia on Aug 30, said its plantation sector registered a higher profit of RM421.63 million in the second quarter of this year compared to the RM105.58 million loss recorded in the corresponding quarter in 2020.

This is on the back of an increased OER oil achieved at 20.12% compared to 20.05% for the same time period.

All this means there is now a great opportunity to minimise the dependency on foreign labour by roping in unemployed and underemployed local youths with a new skillset on how to harvest palm fruits using the invented machines.

But they need to undergo training for this new skillset with certification. Along with the certified skills, there must be a rebranding of their job designation and description to reflect that they are not merely fruit pluckers or collectors because they now need to know new things like how to operate the new machines, assemble them, dismantle them and basic servicing of the machines. 

A palm harvesting specialist sounds a good name change, along with a train and emplacement scheme that pays RM2,000 for three months, and RM3,000 after the internship is over.

With hard work, and an inventive mind, the youths recruited can look forward to an income of RM5,000 based on tonnage.

And this development is not limited to the LF alone. With a simple invention known as the flexible titanium rod, harvesting of about 500 FFB on a 32-hectare plantation takes only two hours for one worker, compared to the old method of using an aluminium rod with a knife attached at its end which requires 20 workers for the same sized plantation.

These are the incentives that will bait local rural youths and also the youths of the urban poor who are mostly unemployed or underemployed currently including fresh graduates to take up the call for a gainful employment in a respectable job with decent pay.

In a recent article, Emir Research has pointed out how underemployment has become a structural challenge because it is not being taken into account in the formal sector of the economy.

One way to manage this is to channel the underemployed to the formal sector so that the matter of their employment or unemployment can become straightforward.

With the price of palm oil on the high – average crude palm oil (CPO) price of RM3,268 per tonne against RM2,453 per tonne previously – the timing is right for the plantation industry to introduce this scheme to help the transition of those from the informal sector to the more visible formal sector of the economy.

These changes would also have a trickle-down effect on the small-scale plantation famers and estate owners which will benefit them.

With the recent focus concentrated towards the unmanned collection of the LF, the skillsets of these youths can further be upgraded and upskilled a year or two with the knowledge of robotics and drones where some experts are saying that this will be the future landscape of oil palm harvesting.

Perhaps an institute of palm harvesting technology should be set up to guide these youths for a rewarding and fulfilling career pathway trajectory that will also benefit the palm industry, and the nation in term of achieving the status of a high technology and high-income nation.   

Jamari Mohtar is Director, Media & Communications at EMIR Research, a think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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