High Time for Mechanised Oil Palm Harvesting

MUCH hope has been placed on increasing the mechanisation of palm

fruit harvesting techniques and reducing foreign labour in the country’s

robust oil palm industry.

Unfortunately, efforts to introduce a

workable and efficient mechanised harvester remain futile, leading to

deep dependence on foreign workers among many oil palm estates

nationwide.

Labour for harvesting is now the biggest constraint

to the future competitiveness of the nation’s key plantation sector.

More so when there is an immediate need to address the acute labour

shortage in the sector following the freeze on Bangladeshi workers and

reduced labour supply from Indonesia.

It is also ironic that

Malaysia, renowned for its highly advanced research and development

(R&D) into oil palm planting techniques, seems to be a bit hesitant

to undertake intensive R&D commercialisation to come out with

efficient mechanical harvesters for the industry.

Having said

that, at one point there was a motorised harvesting pole (MHP)

introduced for harvesting oil palm fruits. While the gadget holds

potential, some say much research on its real use needs to be done.

Priced

at RM5,000 per unit, the gadget apparently is too expensive, especially

for smallholders. Other minus factors include the five-metre maximum

reach which is too low, covering only 40% of the planted areas, and a

short lifespan about five months.

Perhaps, by making some

adjustments, i.e. making it more affordable by pricing it below RM2,000,

doubling its reach from the current height, and extending its lifespan

to over two years, the MHP could turn out to be a useful and efficient

gadget for harvesting.

Some trial results have shown that with

mechanisation, the workforce for harvesting could be reduced by half,

land-to-labour ratio could be doubled, productivity tripled and the

harvesting cost cut by 75%.

Productivity could be increased

depending on the crop yield and the estates’ topography, whether flat,

undulating, hilly slopes or in peat areas.

Plantation workers

(harvesters), therefore, could get more income while the estates could

boost production besides reducing the high cost of production due to

significant labour reduction.

However, some feel that

commercialisation efforts should not be institutionalised in the R&D

establishment. Commercialisation and marketing of R&D findings are

specialised areas and cannot be left to scientists alone.

Perhaps

another way is to encourage the Government and industry players to set

up a dedicated mechanised harvesting fund for the oil palm sector.

One

international palm oil expert even suggested collection of industry

funds and inviting bids from the world’s leading robotics institutes.

Then Malaysia can select maybe two to compete in designing the best and

most efficient mechanical harvesters.

It is high time local

industry players looked seriously at mechanised harvesting to boost the

country’s average crude palm oil yield which has been stagnant at only

four tonnes per hectare for the past 20 years.

Source : The Star by Hanim Adnan

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