Business

Malaysia's environmentally sustainable 'smart villages'

  • 26 September 2012
  • From the section Business

At a Malaysian village in eastern Pahang state, an experiment is changing the way some poor people live.

A farmer picks off the wilted leaves from a potted plant. It doesn't look much like harvesting, but he is growing rice without soil.

Each rice stalk is grown in a plastic pot with a smart valve that allows the right amount of nutrients and water fed to the crop.

The technology can turn anyone into a farmer.

"The system is pretty much automatic. You just need to aerate the plant, the water is piped in so it will grow by itself," says the Padang Rumbia farm manager, Tik Din Yet.

Opportunity

The plastic pots have transformed this village, which used to be a swamp area where little could grow. Today it is a self-sustaining farm containing berry and mango trees, vegetable plants and a rice crop.

Image caption Benta village, the first government-funded experimental farm to help those living in the countryside

The water is recycled from fish tanks to feed the plants. Even the chicken waste is used as fertiliser. Nothing is wasted here.

Anuar bin Mohd Yassin's family is among the 50 chosen to live on the experimental farm.

The father of four lost his job as a mechanic eight months ago. He and his family were forced to move back with his parents. But this project has given him a job and a free home.

"At least I have shelter for my family now and I'm thankful to god for this opportunity," says the 42-year-old.

The idea is part of a charity project by a Malaysian company called Iris Corporation Berhad to help the poor to provide for themselves.

The Padang Rumbia experiment shows that I can create a sustainable village out of nothing, says the managing director of Iris, Tan Say Jim.

"Just give me a piece of flat land, make sure there is water there and I can build you a housing community with comfortable homes and provide employment," he says.

Future expansion

The results have impressed the government. According to the United Nations, two-thirds of the poorest in Malaysia in 2009 lived in the countryside. That is why officials now want Iris to replicate the model on a bigger scale in five states.

The first one funded by the government is being built further north of Pahang state in the Kuala Lipis countryside in Benta village.

It is a relatively quiet construction site. The only heavy machinery are two diggers. That's because the houses are being built with pre-cut Styrofoam panels with the hard coating on top. Developers say is just as strong as brick.

Since the material is lightweight, much of the construction can be done by hand. The company says six men can build a three-bedroom home within 10 days.

It cuts construction costs by half - making it more affordable for governments to build, says Mr Tan.

Image caption The houses are built using Styrofoam with a hard coating on top

"We have not invented new things. We have just integrated disparate technology that has been around," he says.

'Not perfect'

Under the 23 million Malaysian Ringgit (£4.6m; $7.5m) contract, Iris says it will build 100 homes in the village and a commercial-sized integrated farm to provide a reliable food source for residents.

It has also pledged to hire one family member from each household to work on the farm. They will be given a monthly salary of RM1,500 (£302; $488), well above the poverty line.

Already, Mr Tan says there is interest in these villages from other developing countries in Africa.

But he says the programme is not yet perfect and is still fine-tuning the model.

Back at Padang Rumbia village, Mr Anuar's family crowds around a small dinner table. His son holds the palm of his hands face up and recites a Muslim pray before they eat.

Tonight's menu is not from the farm but a cheap take-away consisting of deep fried fish, vegetables and rice. Mr Anuar can still afford it.

Image caption Mr Anuar and his wife still have to find work outside the farm

Income from the farm work is enough to feed his family, but not much more.

"I need at least double that amount to survive," he says.

Both Mr Anuar and his wife still have to find work outside the farm to make ends meet.

The village is not yet self-sustaining, but company officials believe the potential is there.

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