Drones, clones and chocolate seen buoying palm oil planter

A worker collects palm fruit at a local palm plantation in Shah Alam outside Kuala Lumpur in this file photo. — Reuters picA worker collects palm fruit at a local palm plantation in Shah Alam outside in this file photo. — Reuters picKUALA LUMPUR, Oct 30 — One of this year’s best-performing Malaysian palm oil plantation companies is looking to drones, clones and even other crops to overcome challenges from labor shortages and price volatility.

“We started mitigating that risk two years ago – we went all out for mechanisation,” said Peter Benjamin, chief executive officer of United Bhd.

“That has helped us cushion all these labor issues. It also helped us a lot as far as the recovery of the crop is concerned.”

Palm oil companies in , the world’s second-biggest grower, have been grappling with a tepid rebound in production from the 2015-16 as well as an industrywide shortage of skilled plantation workers. Futures rallied 15 per cent this half on lower-than-expected supplies.

Output in most of Malaysia probably peaked in July while production growth is also slowing in Indonesia, according to Godrej International Ltd. director Dorab Mistry.

United Malacca shares have climbed 11 per cent this year, compared with the 2.6 gain in the Bursa Malaysia Plantation Index. The stock is the 7th-best performer in the 40 company index.

A lack of plantation workers means fruit can’t be harvested on time, lowering extraction rates and oil quality. United Malacca uses mechanical grabbers to collect fruit bunches, a typically laborious task in hot and humid conditions. It’s also mechanized fertilizer and herbicide application while drones are used for aerial surveillance.

The company is also boosting output through clones and hybrid varieties that yield more oil, Benjamin said. It’s planted about 1,000 hectares in Indonesia with clones and will plant another 6,000 hectares with clones and hybrids over the next three years.

While the programme is initially expensive, “the higher yield and oil extraction rate offsets whatever cost you put in the beginning. The payback is faster,” Benjamin said.

The grower expects to boost yields to an average of 19 metric tonnes of fresh fruit bunches a hectare in 2018 from 17 tonnes this year and to 24 tonnes by 2025. The cost of production is expected to be about RM1,500 to RM1,600 a tonne by the end of April.

Huge potential

United Malacca plans to diversify into crops including cocoa, coffee, coconut and stevia in Indonesia, Benjamin said, as it seeks to mitigate risks from being an upstream business and capture rising demand for those commodities.

The company acquired a 60 per cent stake in PT Wana Rindang Lestari to help widen its earnings base and reduce its dependency on palm oil.

The company started with 460 acres of rubber in 1910 before diversifying into palm oil in 1966 and remains an industry minnow with 49,000 hectares of land in Indonesia and Malaysia, about 70 per cent of which is planted with palm oil.

That compares with a combined plantation area of about 1.1 million hectares at Sime Darby Bhd and Golden Agri-Resources Ltd, about the same size as .

United Malacca is also betting that its young trees will boost profits into 2019, according to Benjamin. Oil palms typically start producing fruit at the age of three, with yields peaking when trees are between 10 years and 18 years old then gradually declining, he said.

Most of United Malacca’s trees are about nine to ten years of age, he said.

Production that was curbed by El Nino will fully recover and return to normal next year, Benjamin said. 

Fresh fruit bunch output will increase by 12 per cent to 15 per cent in the year ending April 30, with an 8 percent to 10 per cent increase across its Malaysian estates and 16 per cent to 18 per cent growth in Indonesia.

Earnings this will be “reasonably good” as the rise in output will cushion the impact of softening prices in 2018, he said.

Benjamin expects futures to hold at current levels in the next few months and average between RM2,600 and RM2,700 a tonne this year.

Prices on Bursa Malaysia Derivatives closed Friday at RM2,817 a tonne. — Bloomberg

Source: The Malay Mail Online

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