SPICES, ranging from pepper to nutmeg, were key to the expansion of world trade a few centuries ago. In seeking these popular and lucrative commodities, countries of Europe launched perilous expeditions led by explorers such as Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan and Francis Drake.
There are different accounts of how black pepper — the king of spices — came to our land. According to one account, the “black gold” was introduced here in the 10th and 11th centuries when the South Indian kings began expanding their empire here.
It is also said that black pepper was brought in by Chinese settlers into a town called Bau in Kuching, Sarawak, in the 1840s.
Regardless of how the crop ended up in Malaysia, black pepper — which is also known as peppercorn — has been cultivated here ever since and is well known for its premium quality, thanks to its aroma and fiery taste.
In the third millennium, pepper has evolved from being just a humble crop meant for domestic consumption, while providing jobs to the rural people, into one of the major contributors to the gross domestic product (GDP) under the agriculture industry.
Its usage has also diversified from just flavouring dishes to also being applied in the pharmaceuticals and cosmetics industry, which sources 98 per cent of its black pepper requirements from Sarawak while the remaining two per cent from Sabah and states in the peninsula, including Johor, Kelantan, Perak, Terengganu and Pahang.
The uniqueness of Sarawak, which has the right latitude, sufficient level of rainfall, and perfect soil profile and topography for planting quality pepper, makes it a suitable home for the plant, which produces five-millimetre seeds used extensively worldwide.
As of last year, Malaysia had 7,375 hectares used for pepper cultivation. The country produced 34,294 tonnes of pepper which contributed RM1.95 billion to the 2019 gross domestic product (GDP).
Although this number is small, only constituting 0.1 per cent of Malaysia’s commodities GDP, it opens up many opportunities for the Malaysian Pepper Board (MPB), a government agency set up to spice up the pepper industry.
In the next few years, the industry should be buzzing with activity, as MPB seeks to expand the land being cultivated and boost the production capacity while also adding more value-added products that could benefit the 30,000 pepper smallholders.
Last year, Malaysia exported about 9,820 tonnes of pepper, generating RM145.6 million in revenue. The markets included Japan, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand and the European Union.
With the right attitude and support from the federal and state governments, Malaysia, which is the fifth-largest pepper producer in the world, aims to penetrate new markets such as the Middle East and expand its presence in current markets such as Japan, China, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea.
MPB to expand pepper cultivation
MPB director-general Stanley Liew said pepper cultivation in Malaysia had shown an increasing trend over the years and the board planned to ramp up the process by inviting international investors.
“We are encouraging investors to come in. In fact, we have already secured a number of requests from investors.
“In my opinion, this is an initiative for Malaysia to grow its pepper plantation area. Otherwise, we risk the industry dying in the next 10-15 years or maybe we would just produce enough for the local consumption,” he told Bernama in a telephone interview.
Liew noted that Vietnam, considered to be a relative newcomer in cultivating this crop, had caught up fast by opening up its land to foreign investors.
Compared to Malaysia, which has grown pepper for almost 200 years, Vietnam only ventured into the industry about 15 to 20 years ago. But today, it is the world’s number one pepper producer, he pointed out.
“They are producing 200,000-300,000 tonnes per annum. That’s 10 times our production, even though our industry is 10 times older,” he said, adding that 60 per cent of land used to cultivate pepper in Vietnam was owned by foreign investors who created more jobs for the locals.
Liew cautioned that China had also ventured into pepper planting. Therefore, Malaysia needs to keep up with the pace so that it won’t be left behind.
He added that on a yearly basis, Malaysia’s pepper cultivation area increased between 100 hectares (ha) to 350ha with the government subsidising the programme for local farmers.
In 2019, MPB was allocated RM10 million to subsidise farmers in new pepper planting schemes and they planted about 350ha of new pepper farms.
“We will be spending slightly less this year, compared with 2019, for the new planting scheme, as we are approaching the end of the 11th Malaysia Plan. Our total expenditure each year is over RM20 million including subsidies, operations and development expenditure,” he said.
Know your pepper and its worth
Liew noted that pepper cultivation generated six to seven times more revenue per tonne compared with oil palm cultivation.
The price for black pepper is currently US$3,000 per tonne (US$1=RM4.29) while white pepper is now trading at US$4,000 per tonne.
“We have one more type of pepper which we call ‘creamy white pepper’ and its price could be double that of white pepper (US$8,000 per tonne) so now we are trying to encourage people to venture into the production of creamy white pepper.
“The creamy white pepper is creamier compared to white pepper and its seeds are slightly bigger. Countries such as the US, China, Japan and Singapore are importing this product,” he said.
Saraspice to get a new look
The board is looking at rebranding Saraspice, a brand owned by the MPB for the last 24 years.
“We are giving a brand new look and a new tag-line for this brand for it to stay relevant in the market. At the same time, we are coming up with a variety of pepper-based products or value-added products apart from our current downstream products — perfume, soap, lotion, black pepper sauce and candy.
“We expect to re-launch the new (packaging) look of Saraspice together with its new product line in the next four months,” he said, adding that the board planned to promote the products both locally and internationally and hoped that it could increase the consumption of pepper.
Liew expressed hope that with the higher consumption of pepper, it could increase the commodity’s price and benefit smallholders.
To date, out of the 30,000 to 40,000 tonnes pepper produced, 30 per cent is consumed locally and another 30 per cent is exported while the remaining is being stockpiled.
“We are going full swing for the industry. We are going to capitalise on the Internet of things (IoT) for smart farming, promoting our products via the e-commerce platform and using influencers. And we even plan to do pepper tourism to give tourists a hands-on experience at a pepper farm here.
“We will expand our current distribution to Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore and globally, with enhanced marketing activities and using social media promotions.
“Our aims are to increase visibility and availability of Sarawak pepper to Malaysians and the world, and ultimately to increase demand for our premium Sarawak pepper, thereby increasing the price of Malaysian pepper and benefiting the pepper farmers,” he concluded.
Internet of things
Keeping tabs on technology advancement, Sarawak will soon be adopting IoT to monitor the pepper farms using smartphones and laptops.
According to Liew, the board is already in talks with a researcher, for instance, on the use of drone services to apply fertiliser.
A proper study needs to be undertaken, for example, on the weight of fertiliser that a drone can carry and spread per hectare and how best it can be incorporated in smart farming of pepper.
“We (also) hope that by doing this, we could attract the youth to use this smart farming method,” he said.
Liew pointed out that the adoption of smart farming had emerged as the best option after the recent turn of events such as the Movement Control Order to stem the COVID-19 infection.
“Farmers were not able to work on their plantations, resulting in a bad seed quality (due to lack of fertiliser and proper watering),” he said, adding that the adoption of IoT could have averted the situation.- BERNAMA