Penang Vanilla Smart Farm Exporting Products

Perhaps one of the latest trends in agriculture is vanilla cultivation, where sales of high-value vanilla reached RM6 billion in 2018 worldwide. In fact, SEA alone has processed over RM 600 million in vanilla.

This is according to Kairos Agriculture, a vanilla farm in Penang. However, they face a small problem: Malaysia’s climate is not a suitable environment for growing vanilla plants.

“One of the biggest challenges we face growing vanilla here in Penang is that the plants themselves need a cooling period,” explained Ezra, managing director of Vulcan Post.

“They have to adapt to the environment because they are quite sensitive compared to other plants and take time to stabilize in order to grow healthily.

Therefore, the Penang-based farm uses agritech solutions to represent Malaysia in its entry into the vanilla growing market.

Weather control

For now, only pollination and harvesting is done manually / Image credit: Kairos Agriculture

Kairos started their farming journey in Sarawak by planting mushrooms and bananas, which played a role in how they got into growing vanilla.

Noticing the organic waste from the farm’s expired mushroom logs that were left out, the team tried to convert them into vermicompost. Vermicompost is where worms can use green waste to create water-soluble nutrients that can be reused as an organic fertilizer and soil conditioner.

The Kairos team eventually used it to plant vanilla, which, to their surprise, worked. After testing their vanilla pods in a Japanese flavoring company, the product was praised for its global commercial quality; the land of the rising sun wanted more.

“Unfortunately, our products in East Malaysia are unable to meet the demand from Japan. That’s why we started growing vanilla on a larger scale with land granted by the government of Penang, ”said Ezra.

In order to make Penang the center of Malaysian vanilla plantation, Kairos needed an AI farm to control vanilla production. But being one of the pioneers of this method of mass cultivation of the edible flower, they lacked knowledge on how to build the relevant technologies.

Another present challenge was the infrastructure which was new to the market at the time. So the team partnered with researchers – one being University Science Malaysia (USM) – to improve the automation required for their smart farm.

With the help of the researchers, an automatic misting system was set up. It would be activated when the weather is too hot and the humidity is too low.

Vanilla plants / Image credit: Kairos Agriculture

In addition to remotely controlling the weather conditions of the farm, the technology also prevents water wastage as it is only activated when vital conditions are met.

“In addition, we are exploring the spectrum to control pests and fungi, which will also help plants bloom. However, we believe healthy plants need enough rest, so we don’t stress them unnecessarily, ”Ezra added.

The team also collects data from the farm’s sensors so USM partners can analyze and interpret the information. These researchers will then make strategic and operational decisions to further improve the farm.

More pods with technology

Their pods are in demand from Japan / Image credit: Kairos Agriculture

By relying only on traditional farming methods, the average yield of a 2-acre vanilla farm can generate around 700 kg of dried pods. Kairos Smart Farm is able to increase this by up to 43%, even more with its 6 acres of land.

Their products come in the form of vanilla extract and pods, most often requested by F&B establishments such as bakeries and gourmet restaurants. With the exception of F&B, they also have clients in the beauty industry who use their vanilla extract for high-end cosmetics and fragrances.

Besides supplying vanilla products to these industries, Kairos is also an exporter to Japan and soon to China. The latter is currently testing the quality of their vanilla.

“Outside of foreign countries, we also aim to supply local food processing companies that demand a few tons of vanilla beans per year,” Ezra hoped.

“With the current size of our farm, we aim to produce 1 ton of vanilla pods per year, with a turnover of around RM 1.5 million.”

The vanilla themed cafe for a farm-to-table experience / Image credit: Kairos Agriculture

In the future, Kairos plans to develop his farm into an ecotourism hub that will consist of a farm-to-table cafe, an open-air aquaponics farm, etc. For now, they already have a vanilla-themed cafe available on their land.

If their farm is able to grow and export on a large scale, with more farms following, we could see the potential for vanilla to become one of Malaysia’s top exports for the benefit of the economy. This will likely be a growing industry to watch for in the years to come.

  • You can read more about Kairos Agriculture here.
  • You can read more about other startups we’ve covered here.

Featured image credit: Chief Minister of Penang and Ezra Tan, Managing Director of Kairos Agriculture

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Jothi Venkat

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