Vanilla cultivation may be one of the latest trends in agriculture, as sales of high-value vanilla crops rose to RM6 billion in 2018 globally. In fact, SEA alone handles more than RM 600 million in vanilla.
This is according to Cairo for AgricultureVanilla plantation in Penang. However, they face a small problem: Malaysia’s climate is not a suitable environment for growing vanilla plants.
“One of the biggest challenges we face in growing vanilla here in Penang is that the plants themselves need a cooling period,” explained Ezra, managing director of the farm at the Vulcan Post.
“They need to adapt to the environment because it is very delicate compared to other plants and it takes time to stabilize in order to grow healthily.”
Hence, the farm based in Penang is using agri-technology solutions to represent Malaysia in entering the vanilla growing market.
Control the weather
The Kairos began their farming journey in Sarawak by growing mushrooms and bananas, which played a role in how they got into vanilla cultivation.
The team noticed organic waste from the farm’s expired stems of mushrooms that were left aside, and attempted to convert them into vermicompost. Vermilion compost is where worms can use green waste to produce water-soluble nutrients that can be reused as an organic fertilizer and soil conditioner.
The Kairos team eventually used it to grow vanilla, which was a surprise to them. When testing their vanilla capsules in a Japanese seasoning company, the product was praised for the quality of world trade; The Land of the Rising Sun wanted more of it.
“Unfortunately, our production in East Malaysia is not able to meet the demand from Japan. That is why we have started cultivating vanilla on a larger scale with the land donated by the Penang government,” Ezra said.
In order to make Penang known as the center of vanilla plantations in Malaysia, Kairos needed a farm with artificial intelligence to control vanilla production. But being one of the pioneers in this method of growing edible flowers, they lacked knowledge of how to construct related techniques.
Another challenge was the infrastructure that was new to the market at the time. Therefore, the technology team had to go through a strong trial and error to enhance the automation required for their smart farms.
With the help of researchers, an automatic sprinkler system has been established. It will be activated when the weather is very hot and the humidity is very low.
On top of remote farm weather control, this technology also prevents water wastage as it is only activated when vital conditions are met.
Additionally, we are exploring spectrum to control pests and fungi, which will also help plants thrive. But we believe that healthy plants need enough rest, so we do not overwork the plant unnecessarily, ”added Ezra.
The team is also collecting data from the sensors on the farm so that partners at University Science Malaysia can analyze and interpret the information. These researchers will then come to strategic and operational decisions to further enhance the farm.
More pods with technology
By relying on traditional farming methods alone, the average yield that a 2-acre vanilla plantation can generate is around 700 kg of treated pods. Kairos Smart Farm is able to raise that by up to 43%, and even more, from 6 acres of land.
Their products come in the form of vanilla extract and pods, which are commonly requested by food and beverage establishments such as bakeries and fine-dining restaurants. Except for food and drinks, they also have clients from the beauty sector who use vanilla extract for luxury cosmetics and fragrances.
In addition to supplying vanilla products to these industries, Kairos is also an exporter to Japan and soon China. The latter is currently testing the vanilla quality.
Ezra hopes, “Apart from foreign countries, we also aim to supply local food manufacturers that order a few tons of vanilla pods per year.”
“With the size of our current farm, we aim to produce 1 tonne of vanilla pods per year, with revenues of approximately RM 1.5 million.”
Going forward, Kairos plans to develop their farm into an ecotourism center consisting of a farm-to-table café, Aquaponics outdoor farm, etc.
If their farm is able to grow and export on a large scale with more farms to follow, then we can see the possibility of vanilla becoming one of Malaysia’s main exports to benefit the economy. This is likely to be a growing industry to watch out for in the coming years.
- You can learn more about Kairos Agriculture Here.
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Featured Image Credit: Chief Minister of Penang and Ezra Tan, Managing Director of Kairos Agriculture Corporation