PETALING JAYA: The issue of food security is an opportunity for agriculture technology (agritech) players to address the needs of farmers and consumers as well as improve the agriculture landscape through technological solutions.

According to Sabah-based agritech startup AgriData Portal Sdn Bhd CEO Matthew Johnny Kulai, food security has become a growing concern among Malaysians, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic. He believes that it can be addressed through “empowering farmers”.

“About 80% of the food consumed in Southeast Asia is produced by smallholder farmers. If we do not empower the smallholder farmers, we will never achieve (food security),” he told SunBiz at the SCxSC Grow Fintech Conference recently.

The company aims to empower smallholder farmers by addressing their access to markets and financing, through technology.

AgriData Portal is made up of two brands – AG Fund, a digital platform which assists farmers with their financial needs and enables them to advance in their operations – and AG-Market, which supplies or distributes farmers’ fresh produce to hotels, restaurants, cafes, supermarkets and end-consumers.

The company is focused on increasing its AG Fund users, enlarging its farmer database and expanding its services to other countries in the Southeast Asian region.

“We’ve been trying to reach out to more farmers by scaling nationwide, increase the database of farmers, supply data of demand and we also want to extend our services outside of East Malaysia and to potentially do a pilot test one or two in other countries within the region,” said Matthew.

He said that Malaysia went through industrialisation earlier compared with other Southeast Asian countries, which meant that it “lost a lot of farmers along the way”.

“Some countries, more than 50% of the employment is in the agriculture sector. The market is much bigger there because there are (a lot more) small farmers in those countries,” he opined.

Meanwhile, Matthew said he is in talks with a Japanese startup which specialises in growing strawberries and plans to be the bridge for local farmers to grow high-value crops in Sabah.

He opined that Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia has not “really looked into high-value crops as much”.

Matthew explained that it is an usual practice to crossbreed plants in order to produce the best produce “in terms of size, sweetness and juiciness”, which is a hybrid seedling. The company aspires to bring the Japanese strawberry hybrid seedling and cultivation methods to Sabah.

“To bring the expertise here to (Sabah), to work with our smallholder farmers because AgriData has a database of farmers. We not only look at which farmers to fund but also potentially how to improve their cultivation method. In Japan, they try to form a new breed that is suitable for the local climate and that is what we want to bring.”

He said that the company is trying to link the Japanese company to the Japanese embassy in Sabah and aspires to be the “bridge to connect the local farmers and the technology” through a joint venture.

Matthew shared that the Philippines would be a potential choice for expansion, followed by Vietnam and Indonesia. He added that the company will look for potential partnerships from existing entities in the country that is servicing a similar sector. He reckoned that expansion to the countries will occur as early as the fourth quarter of this year.

Currently, the company is based on a business-to-business model and offers free subscription services, with over 500 free users on the platform, with 95% from Sabah and 5% from Peninsular Malaysia. Moreover, there has been a few enquiries from Thai farmers.

“I think we’ve barely scratched the surface because on our date database, we have over 30,000 farmers, but (users of) our application is only over 500. There’s still a lot of farmers in Sabah that have not been tapped,” he said.

On outlook, he believes that this year is the most optimistic for the industry, since the last three years.

“I think people realise only after the pandemic, how important food security is. So there’s more and more partners approaching us to solve food security issues,” he said.

Matthew added that there are several projects in the pipeline for the company. It has completed projects with Khazanah Nasional, Think City and Sabah Credit. Currently, it is open to talking with local banks and investors.

It was established in December 2020 and was one of the winners of the RM250,000 Grant Category at MyHackaton 2020 organised by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.