THE quest for Malaysia’s next golden industrial crop has been endless since the success of oil palm, rubber and to a certain extent cocoa, pepper and tobacco.
Kenaf and jatropha have been the most talked about candidates so far.
Many would agree that kenaf seems to stand out prominently in the eyes of the Government given the amount of incentives, funding and the involvement of many government agencies like the Malaysian Timber Board, the National Tobacco Board and MARDI in undertaking intensive research and development (R&D) work on the crop.
Todate, some RM35mil has been allocated under the Ninth Malaysia Plan for kenaf planting.
More recently, the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation endorsed Malaysia’s initiative by agreeing to test the commercial use of kenaf via funding from the Netherlands-based Common Funds for Commodities.
Kenaf, scientifically known as hibiscus cannabinus, is a jute-like plant from the hibiscus family that can be used as a raw material to make a multitude of products like high quality paper, bicomposites for automotive door trimmings and interior shelving, bioplastics industry, building materials like medium-density fibreboards and even high protein animal feed.
In fact, kenaf planting is heavily promoted by the Government as an alternative crop for the less competitive local tobacco farmers to consider in the advent of the Afta.
The Afta, which comes into effect in 2010, could result in lower prices and a reduction in import duties for tobacco.
Afta, to a certain extent, could negatively impact the competitiveness of Malaysian tobacco planters, whose cost of production is about RM10 per kg, almost doubled compared with their peers in Thailand and Indonesia.
It is also believed that the National Tobacco Board will help tobacco farmers integrate other crops with tobacco with the eventual goal to replace tobacco if planting it is no longer viable.
The East Corridor Economic Region (ECER) which covers Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang todate has a combined allocation of 10,000ha to be planted with kenaf.
Sabah also aims to be a leading kenaf producer in the region, with the focus on processing kenaf into animal feed and fibre. It was reported that over 2,000ha have been earmarked to plant the crop.
But even as kenaf development gains momentum, many are still uncertain about the actual market demand for kenaf compared with jatropha, which is a globally accepted feedstock for biofuel.
Can tobacco farmers actually enjoy the same if not better income from kenaf?
The great task in hand now lies on the shoulders of the National Kenaf and Tobacco Board, which aims to export 50,000 tonnes or about RM15bil worth of kenaf annually from next year when Afta is enforced.