By THIVIYA SASIDHARAN and CHRISTIE CHUA
Have you ever thought of the processes that occur behind every meal that we have, from the grains in the paddy fields to the rice in our bowls?
The agriculture industry is more often than not associated with getting our hands dirty under the sun. In the past, agriculture practices revolved around hard labour – be it ploughing, seeding, watering or harvesting.
It is not an industry one would typically associate with digitalisation, but how has the world of automation and digitalisation
impacted a traditional sector like agriculture?
Processes within the industry have been revolutionised today with the use of the internet of things (IoT) and big data. An example would be the installation of sensors for temperature, relative humidity and pressure in chicken farmhouses, enabling the system to detect minute changes in the surroundings.
Connecting poultry and data will result in the ability to optimise the genetic potential of livestock such as chickens. Businesses will also be able to predict the time it will take for the chickens to reach the critical weight range that is required by different restaurants, thus maximising efficiency.
Malayan Flour Mills Bhd (MFM) managing director, Teh Wee Chye says that once a business can predict that, the entire planning process to meet customer requirements will become a lot smoother, and that is what the company is trying to achieve in the long run.
MFM started with one core competency – flour milling – but over the years they have evolved to include poultry integration, and are now looking into aquaculture as well.
Expanding into new subsectors enables the company to benefit from the economies of scale, but they realise that to become truly successful, they need to integrate technology, processes and people.
MFM director of business development and corporate affairs, Azhari Arshad says: “Previously, those who possessed the resources possessed the wealth.
“Today, those who possess the information possess the wealth. That’s why we’re very data-driven, and we’re getting our people to accept being data-driven.”
‘Out with the old, in with the new’ is a phrase that applies to processes in the industry as well as the mindset of the people.
Teh says that the key to thriving in the business environment is to remain competitive and sustainable, which is why they decided to lead the change by developing their people.
He states that motivating people and aligning them with the vision, mission and the company’s new strategies are important, and human resources (HR) plays a vital role in changing people’s mindsets and managing these changes.
Believing in the need to put people first and knowing that there was no way they could move forward with a traditional mindset, MFM started coaching programmes for all employees – from the top tier all the way to the bottom.
These HR initiatives are indirectly the driving factors that led them to win the HR Asia Award recently, which named them the best company to work for in Asia for the year 2018.
“Leadership is about influence. It’s about working through people and getting things done,” says Teh. “Our vision is to create pinnacle leaders, who in turn develop other leaders.”
Collaborations for the greater good
In line with developing leaders, MFM is keen on providing exposure of the industry to the young generation out there. They have been actively giving career talks in universities where they engage with undergraduates and academicians on the current situation of the industry.
This enables graduates to realise that there is more to being merely academically-inclined; they must also be tech-driven and go beyond classroom-based learning.
MFM general manager of group human resources, Carol Chan, adds that such invaluable exposure changes people’s perception that things in the industry are done on a small scale in the backyard. “We want to show them there’s a lot more to it, and develop them by providing structured industrial-related programmes,” she says.
Azhari adds: “We realised that we have to get to the future before everybody else – that’s our priority, which is why we identified key institutions in the United States who are champions in their fields and partner with them.”
The company’s collaboration with the Center of Excellence for Poultry Science, University of Arkansas, Fayettevile (UAF) aims to encourage growth and learning within MFM, and on a larger scale, linking UAF up with the region’s premier agriculture university, Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) as a model for strategic academia-industry partnership.
“Through these partnerships, we will bring in things that are still relatively new in Malaysia, courses such as poultry science. These will teach our people new skills, which will create new opportunities for new types of graduates,” Azhari elaborates.
The partnership programme between the universities and their arrangement with MFM has opened up opportunities to students from a range of disciplines that are not from the agriculture field, such as engineers, business analysts, data science analysts, nutritionists, veterinarians, food technologists and microbiologists, which form part of the Industry Revolution (IR) 4.0.
Encouraging creativity and innovation
Carol says that they are always seeking employees who possess critical thinking and problem-solving skills, are passionate, and have the hunger to learn, regardless of which discipline they come from.
“We even have engineers in our purchasing department,” she shares. “They have analytical skills which they may have developed elsewhere, that we can leverage.”
Carol adds that employees should also be technology-inclined and keep abreast with global issues to navigate IR 4.0. Employees should aspire to apply the knowledge they have acquired in the field and constantly leverage technology to the fullest.
The company’s commitment in encouraging critical thinking and developing their people can be seen through their internal practices, such as by cultivating innovation competitions.
Carol shares that last year, MFM saved potentially RM7 million as a result of their employees’ creativity – they created a simple tool that is able to remove the tendon from the chicken fillet, saving critical man-hours and improving fillet meat yield recovery.
“The tool is made using recycled material, and each piece only costs RM10 to produce, but it can save us millions – that’s really amazing,” Carol marvels.
The future of food supply
According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the world will have to produce 70 per cent more food by 2050 to feed a projected extra 2.3 billion population.
However, the total amount of agricultural land in Malaysia is decreasing by the year due to rapid urbanisation and industrialisation.
Azhari explains that this shrinking space is all the more reason to practise business forecasting and proper supply chain management, so that all processes can be optimised.
“We see the direction the country is headed, so we’re pairing people with technology to come up with best practices to achieve that,” says Teh.
Being the company that pioneers most of these initiatives has its ups and downs, but it is worth it in the long term. “We will face uncertainty, but if we do it well, we certainly have the competitive edge,” Teh adds.
Opening up the agriculture sector would certainly increase demand and provide more opportunities. As much as automation plays a huge role, human analytical skills are still the most vital in understanding data, predicting market trends, and optimising technology to achieve desired results.
The saying ‘the company is only as good as its people’ certainly holds true – MFM’s strength lies in its people, and multiple initiatives carried out to increase productivity and create diversity in the workforce would certainly propel it to greater heights in the years to come.
MFM is more than just a typical business, and Azhari sums it up nicely when he says: “We look at ourselves differently. If you ask me if we sell poultry, flour or feed, I’ll say no. We’re actually in the business of feeding Malaysia – we’re the ones who are going to make sure there’s food on the table for Malaysians to eat. That’s our business.”