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Malaysia firm says high-tech farms can help poor

Thursday - 11/8/2012, 4:51am  ET

By SEAN YOONG
Associated Press

PULAU MANIS, Malaysia (AP) - For one Malaysian widow, moving to this experimental farming village represented hope for a brighter future for her seven children. Her new neighbor, also among the first to settle here, sought an easier life after years of low-paying, back-breaking plantation labor.

The corporation that built this rural community two years ago sees it as part charity, part test kitchen. The villagers _ 80 families in all _ live for free in low-cost bungalows and work on a high-tech hydroponic farm, a setup the company hopes to replicate elsewhere.

"We thought that we should do something different, instead of just donating money," said Tan Say Jim, managing director of Malaysian technology firm Iris Corp. "Even if we give you a little money, you'll still be poor. We wanted to really touch lives."

The government is now involved in a plan to build similar villages across this Southeast Asian country, where nearly one of 10 people in rural provinces lives below the official poverty line.

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The idea for the village began at Iris, a company whose interests range from passport computer chips to agricultural equipment, much of which is in use at Kampung Pulau Manis and a second village set up this year.

Collaborating with a local Islamic bank for charity work, Iris executives brainstormed a plan to develop homes and a farm on 25 acres (10 hectares) of abandoned land that state authorities offered in Pulau Manis district, in eastern Pahang state.

Malaysia's government regularly encourages companies to conduct "corporate social responsibility" programs; in recent years, these ranged from oil-and-gas company BP helping to manage a sanctuary for endangered turtles to toothpaste manufacturer Colgate providing oral care travel kits to Muslim pilgrims bound for Saudi Arabia.

By early last year, families selected by Pahang's welfare and religious authorities left behind their cramped wooden shacks to move into three-bedroom, brick-and-mortar houses built in neat rows on bare land surrounded by vestiges of palm oil plantations. Grocery shops and a school are nearby, but it's nearly an hour's drive to the closest major town.

Iris also constructed plant nurseries where many villagers now tend to cabbage, tomatoes, rock melons, okra, lettuce and chili peppers. Iris sells the produce in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's largest city, as well as in neighboring Singapore.

Iris uses technology it calls the "autopot system." Each plant is in its own pot that regulates the delivery of water and nutrients, using less water than other farming methods. The company says it is "absolutely certain" the villages will be profitable from crop earnings and sustainable in the long term, though it was unable to provide specific projections.

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Among the residents is Faizal Zulkifli, a thin, darkly tanned father of three. His bungalow is almost indistinguishable from his neighbors', with a rust-tainted motorcycle, papaya tree and a clothesline filled with sarongs and sweat pants in his front yard. His living room is sparsely furnished with a worn-out couch and a table topped with baby formula and fruits.

It's far from a luxurious existence, but it's better than what his family had when he worked on a palm oil plantation.

"I remember when we lived before in a house with no electricity, no tap water," he said, carrying his year-old son while taking a break from his work doing farm equipment maintenance.

He said his work is a cinch compared to his old job loading heavy bunches of palm oil fruits onto trucks.

Norlailawati Yusof feels much the same way. She used to work as a housemaid in another Pahang province, earning 15 ringgit ($5) a day. Now she makes three times that much working on Iris' farm.

Norlailawati, whose husband died of pneumonia several years ago, prunes vegetables planted neatly in mechanically irrigated pots inside a plastic-shaded, nylon-walled nursery. She says the morning heat and the menial chores rarely faze her, since she considers it a blessing to be earning a steady salary.

And her present working hours _ seven hours a day, six days a week _ feel less demanding, enabling her to devote more time to her children.

"I don't worry so much anymore," says Norlailawati, who wears a flowing Muslim headscarf and a loose-fitting dress while working. "I can afford to send my seven children to school."

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A few months after the Pulau Manis village was completed, Iris began building a similar village about a half-hour drive away. Early this year, another 50 families moved into the second village, which features space for raising chickens and water tanks where thousands of freshwater fish are now bred.

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