FOR some time now I had meant to visit the Malaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA) and meet the chief executive, Datuk Nageeb Ahmad Abdul Wahab.

MPOA is the leading association of plantation owners, with 120 members who represent or own 1.8 million hectares and 242 palm oil mills. Members include Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd, Genting Plantations Bhd, United Plantations Bhd, and many of the government-linked companies (GLCs) such as Sime Darby Plantation Bhd, FGV Holdings Bhd and Boustead Plantations Bhd. It was formed in 1999 to group many bodies so that the industry could speak as one. The topic would be on all major crops grown by the members, including rubber, although most of the issues are on oil palm and palm oil production.

For the first time in many years the association has a CEO who is experienced in the plantation industry.

Nageeb, 64, has been in the industry for 40 years. He had started in Kuala Lumpur Kepong in 1979, and served on several estates including in Pahang, and moved to Island and Peninsular for three years. He then joined Kumpulan Guthrie and he was seconded to Thailand in an associated company doing processing of rubber. He worked there for 11 years and rose to be the managing director. When Guthrie was merged with Sime Darby, he was head of plantation operations in 340,000ha, 14 oil mills and two rubber factories. He retired from Sime Darby in 2017 and joined MPOA.

His role is to serve the interests of the members. What it does also has to benefit the stakeholders including the employees, as well as the nation, and this can only be done if the industry can prosper and grow. Nageeb has said that he would take up the job only if he could get the support of the members as well as the chairman, Datuk Franki Anthony Dass, and it helped that both were working together over many years in Guthrie and later in Sime Darby.

One sign of change in MPOA is the move to the glass-clad UOA Business Park near Shah Alam, close to the Federal Highway, a symbolic break from the past, and going for all that is new that can help with progress. Nageeb explained:

“I have a team and we know the issues faced by our industry. Now for oil palm alone it earns over RM60 bil a year by producing nearly 20 million tonnes of crude palm oil. The country gains especially on taxes, and if we add the downstream work, the revenue would be even higher. Rubber would add to that, and some are made into finished goods here.

“We need to work closely with the government to see that it understands our problems completely. The shortage of labour accounts for a loss of about 10% of our crop in Peninsular Malaysia, and perhaps double that in Sarawak and Sabah. Fortunately, we have a minister who is listening hard, and with her colleagues in the relevant ministries, they have been able to cut the processing time to allow our workers in. This is a big improvement. We also ask to be consulted before new directives are made, as often they can have unintended effects.

“On the internal issues, members try to raise their yield per hectare. From my experience it is possible if you get some basic things right, such as planting with the right material, and giving each tree a good start. We plant cover crop to enrich the soil. And we must apply the fertiliser in the right dosage.

“We need the management staff to have a high level of professionalism. Some companies conduct courses, such as at Kuala Lumpur-Kepong. Sime Darby Plantations has its training centre on Carey Island, where it trains girls as well, and now one of them is an estate manager. It is a major step, and we can expect more of that. Overseers and supervisors will need to be trained too, as many older ones have retired. We trained workers, either as direct labour or through contractors, but having done that we must be allowed to keep them. They are forced to leave after some years, so we lose their skill and productivity.

“We are not helped by the low prices of CPO in the last year. Many companies reported a loss in some quarters, which might not have happened if we had raised our yield. On the other hand, it is likely that some growers did not apply the full amount of fertiliser needed, and the palms will not do well and the effect on the crop is likely to be seen this year and next year.

“On the other hand, there are companies which have provided for the lean times and they put in more research trials, such as on water management. They are likely to get high crop even in the dry months which come more often now. We have a research sub-committee meeting with the research centres, including MPOB (Malaysian Palm Oil Board) and we hope to see progress. Pollination with a fresh batch of weevils can be another study to help us find a way to raise yield. Now members are interested to use new technology including sensors, electronics, and microbes as they may hold many of the answers to reach our full potential.

“One of the areas for research is mechanisation, and the hard part is on harvesting. We have no answer yet. It is not that we are not trying, but it looks like for many years more we will still need to get foreign labour. The government can help if it allows the import of workers from many countries. For now some states do not allow this.

“There are also issues from external sources. For example, competitors would try anything so that the demand for palm oil would fall internationally. So MPOA will have to be communicators too, and show that our products are healthful, and we keep raising our standards to allow no room for criticisms such as on the environment. Members work towards getting the MSPO certification in the field and in the mill. We work closely with other agencies and producers of palm oil, including in Indonesia. It is using more palm oil as biodiesel, and taking it away from the normal market, and that has done much to ensure the prices do not fall any lower.

“In my job I am helped by my role as the chairman of FELCRA Bhd, which is a government agency which manages over 200,000ha of oil palm and rubber, many of them belonging to smallholders. It keeps me directly in touch with the industry problems. At the same time that makes it much easier for me to get in touch with the higher-ups in government when I have a point to make.”

Nageeb has the experience and the passion to lead his teams and rally them when he must, so that he can be effective in the job he is given to do. Clearly all his peregrination in his career has prepared him to meet the demands of the job. He thinks hard and makes his moves. He is in his element.

Mahbob Abdullah is a former planter

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