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Labour crunch: Malaysia's planters eye robots, drones

October 09, 2022 00:00:00

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 08 (Reuters): Malaysian research student Haziq Ramli wore an outfit resembling a light jetpack, with poles strapped to his biceps, to wield a long pole that clipped the sharp fronds and heavy bunches of fruit from oil palm trees nearly twice his height.

Working on a three-acre (1.2-hectare) family estate, he was part of a team trying to perfect the gadget, called a wearable exoskeleton, that promises to reduce the need for labourers to manipulate the poles, which can weigh as much as 8 kg (18 lbs).

"My arms are supported when I'm holding the pole, I feel less strain and fatigue," said Haziq, who wore sneakers and spectacles.

Plantation firms in the world's second biggest producer of palm oil are stepping up mechanisation to stem losses running into billions of dollars as fruit goes unharvested during their worst labour shortage yet.

"To harvest 10 tonnes of palm fruits a month, we need two workers," said estate owner Hamidon Salleh.

Hamidon, who is also an engineer, said he and his colleagues at Malaysia's University of Technology (UTM) were working with top producer Sime Darby Plantation to test the gadget.

"With this exoskeleton, one harvester can achieve 10 tonnes on his own," he added. "We can do the same amount of work with fewer workers."

Peers of Sime Darby, such as IOI Corp , Boustead Plantations and FGV Holdings are stepping up use of drones to spray crops with fertiliser and pesticide, map estate holdings and monitor the condition of trees.

Sime Darby said it was working with technology partners, but did not identify them. Boustead and FGV did not respond to requests for comment.

IOI said it had doubled its 2022 budget for automation and mechanisation from last year, while greater use of machines such as drones, electric wheelbarrows and motorised palm cutters has helped slash labour needs by a quarter.

Malaysian producers are racing to mechanise as they face a third annual fall in output, along with losses estimated at 20 billion ringgit ($4.4 billion), because of the labour crunch.

Yields plummeted to near 40-year lows in the 2020/21 marketing year, worsening a global shortage of edible oils triggered by the Russia-Ukraine war.

Almost 80% of Malaysia's plantation workers are migrants, many recruited from neighbouring Indonesia to do the back-breaking work of harvesting, but pandemic curbs caused a shortfall of about 120,000 workers this year.

And supply is only expected to dry up further in coming years, making hiring more expensive.

"We've seen that the industry is starting to invest more in mechanisation because of the labour shortage," said Ahmad Parveez Ghulam Kadir, the chief of the state-run Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB). "The trend is rising."

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