Working on mechanisation in plantations
Mahbob Abdullah 
Jack and his father are trying to help the plantation industry to change

It is always good to see father and son work well in a business, and I could see the pride in the face of Datuk Khor Chen Heng when his son was doing the briefing in front of plantation owners who visited the premises of Eurostar Tractors Sdn Bhd in Kawasan Perindustrian Krubong in Melaka.

Melaka is not noted for being the centre for plantations, but it was to the state that I went with nearly 100 other members of the Malaysian Estate Owners Association (MEOA) to see a special demonstration of mechanisation that is needed by the industry. I saw how Eurostar was trying to help the industry to change.

Even Melaka has changed. I was surprised by the pace of progress, since my visit so many years ago. The river serves tourists with boats chugging past the village packed with wooden houses in the centre of town, and the roofs looked like orange wavelets from my hotel room. The road to Eurostar was past the mosque at Peringgit with its special design, and then we were through to the Krubong industrial estate. Like many other industrial sites I have seen, it has an air of things happening with medium-sized industries working quietly and growing fast.

Khor had started the business over 35 years ago when he decided to sell machines to plantations. From a small beginning, today he has a big area with showrooms for large and powerful tractors, loaders, high-lift trailers, tracked fruit bunch transporters, and excavators. The smallest were the motorised wheelbarrows which looked very good for hilly areas and terraces, and they can be used for manuring or moving bunches to the roadside, saving energy for the plantation worker.

LIke farmers everywhere, planters are conservative, and most would rather buy the brands of machines that they know, so it was a long struggle for Khor to get the customers to see that his tractors and machines are strong and reliable. With European technology, and built in China to save costs, he could sell his machines at a compelling discount.

Khor built his business using technology that suits the conditions of the plantations, so his machines are hardy and easy to repair. He gives the service to keep the machines running by having a warehouse on acres of land, with spare parts arrayed, itemised and ready for order.

I had a quiet word with his son Jack over lunch. He is a young man in his 30s but he has many years of experience in the business as he had joined after leaving school, and took to his duties with zest, learning not only about machines but also about building a young team. He promotes the business by going to the plantations to listen to the managers and owners.

“I do not want to have any dissatisfied customers,” he said.

“I supply the tractors to do the pulling, loaders to put the bunches on the lorries, and grabbers that can lift many bunches at a time from the ground. The grabber saves the worker from using the spike to lift the bunches. We even have motorised wheelbarrows. They are good on terraces and hilly areas for carrying bunches and applying fertiliser. That would save the energy of the worker as well.

“Many of the customers are MEOA members, and some of the big companies too. After my visit to their estates, I come back and discuss with my team and we see what we can do. Our principals do research work as well, mainly in Europe and China. So we keep on growing, and now we have 11 branches in the country. We are looking overseas, exporting to Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Africa. They, too, want to speed up mechanisation.”

To stress the need for mechanisation, the MEOA members spent two days at Eurostar, seeing how each machine can operate, as the drivers show off their skills on the company yard, with Jack on the microphone explaining further on the technical details. The members of MEOA are all too aware of the challenges and are looking for ways to solve these challenges. Joseph Tek, the president, had put a heading on his presentation later on in the briefing room: “Mechanise or Perish.” He said it will not be long before countries near us will have more factories and plantations to create employment for their people so they won’t have to go abroad to work.

However, one aspect which was still a matter of debate and energetic discussion was the use of harvesters and their harvesting tools. KR Thayaprakanthan of Sime Darby Plantations explained how he maximised the use of his harvesters:

“We get the harvester to do only cutting of the bunches from the tree. We do not want him to do other work as well. Others will pick the loose fruit and cut the fronds and stack them. That saves his time and energy, and increases his output.”

It was hard to agree on how much that would increase the output of each harvester, who could get tired faster, and might need to rest from time to time.


Incentive to create next harvesting tool

Rahim Shuib, head of mechanisation department in Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB), had explained in his presentation about the cantas, and how it can increase output even more.

“The cantas is the machine that can work for now. We have improved on the design so that it is easier to handle and it is lighter. As an encouragement, the MPOB is giving a reward of US$1 mil to the inventor who can design a more effective tool.”

Jack was listening with the rest of us in his company’s briefing room, and no doubt he would have his team of young managers take in the suggestions and work on them.

I had never seen a supplier of equipment working so closely with the industry, and here was one that was going at a hard pace to meet the need for mechanisation. Eurostar is also building its brand, and Jack would be the one to visit more estates, getting his company to be well recognised, and in addition he is set on providing superior customer service. I would say Eurostar is very good at listening and taking action.

I hope it can also try for the MPOB prize for inventing the next harvesting tool. Then we can do with fewer workers, and incur fewer losses in the field due to crop not being harvested. As yield goes up, the costs per tonne will go down.

As Tek had said, mechanisation is the key to our future. All in the industry have to work at it. And Jack and his father are doing their best to help.

Mahbob Abdullah is a former planter. Comments: 

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 261.