The accidental farmer entrepreneur
When Nisa Usman first joined Wild Asia Group Scheme, she had no idea what she was getting herself into. Five years and a global pandemic later, the mother of four is now an RSPO-certified farmer, an organic vegetable grower and a mushroom ‘entrepreneur’ all rolled into one.
Independent smallholder Nisa Usman’s story began at Kg Paris, one of many settlements dotting the Kinabatangan district of Sabah. A two-hour drive from Sandakan, Kg Paris has a population of about 700, made up of indigenous Orang Sungai. Nisa’s family cultivated cocoa, rice and corn for subsistence before switching to oil palm in 2000.
“It was a steep learning curve. We were given oil palm seedlings from the agricultural department and had to learn through trial and error,” recalls Nisa, who was born and bred in Kg Paris. Due to her family’s financial struggles, she dropped out of school after sixth grade (primary school). Now a mother of four, Nisa inherited the 5-ha family farm in 2003. To reduce farming costs, her husband and two sons pitch in and do all the work, from keeping weeds at bay to applying fertilizer and harvesting fresh fruit bunches.
Nisa signed up for Wild Asia Group Scheme (WAGS) in 2017 when her son, Sabre, joined the Wild Asia team as a technical staff.
“I thought why not, since we can learn new techniques to improve our production,” says the 47-year-old. Within a year, she gained her RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) certification.
“Through WAGS, we learned to manage our farm sustainably, from farming without chemicals and improving yields to reducing operating costs and protecting our environment,” says Nisa. Her monthly yields average five to seven tonnes compared to one tonne, prior to joining WAGS. Nisa switched to using mill wastes like empty fruit bunches and decanter cake as organic fertilizers. “By cutting back on chemical fertilizers, we saved about MYR7000 a year.”
But it was the WAGS BIO initiative, launched in 2020, that truly fired up Nisa.
WAGS Bio is essentially a production system designed to help farmers adopt chemical-free agriculture and regenerative practices. It’s based on the premise that healthy, nutrient-rich soil leads to healthier palm trees that are resistant to pests and diseases, and produces higher yields. Its overriding objective is to demonstrate environmental sustainability and profitability, social inclusiveness, and improved livelihoods for small farmers. WAGS members have the option to join the BIO project so Nisa leapt at the chance to acquire new skills and explore avenues for extra income.
Nisa’s family has always tended a backyard garden to grow food for self-consumption.
“But I didn’t know about organic pest management or how to prepare organic fertilizers,” says Nisa. Through BIO workshops, she learned to make compost, fruit enzymes and fish fertilizer to create microbe-rich soil, and caught on to the benefits of intercropping. She also received free farming tools like mesh netting to protect her seedlings and water tank and hose for farm irrigation, courtesy of Yayasan Hasanah Special Grant.
“By applying skills from the BIO training, I created a thriving organic garden that yields fresh, pesticide-free vegetables for my family,” adds Nisa, who planted on a small, 30m-trial plot. “Organic fertilizers release nutrients into the soil slowly so we don’t see the effect overnight compared to chemical fertilizer. But it’s good enough for me”
Four months later, Nisa harvested her first bounty of cucumbers, luffa, brinjals (eggplant) and ladies’ fingers (okra). The harvest was more than adequate to feed her extended household of 10 people. This year, Nisa began planting pineapples on the same trial plot.
In 2021, under another WAGS BIO initiative, Nisa started intercropping oil palm with ginger. She applied palm oil decanter cake, rice husks, chicken manure, homemade fruit enzyme and fish fertilizer to nourish the soil. Her first harvest yielded 20kg of ginger.
“I think the yields could have been higher but I didn’t maintain the ginger beds; the weeds were out of control,” Nisa chuckled sheepishly. “It was a lesson learned. I believe our next harvest in April 2023 will be much better.” She sold half the harvest and made RM180, and kept the other half for her kitchen pantry.
“By applying skills from the BIO training, I created a thriving organic garden that yields fresh, pesticide-free vegetables for my family,” adds Nisa…
Becoming the “Mushroom Entrepreneur”
In November 2021, Nisa and a group of WAGS BIO farmers took part in a BIO workshop that touched on growing edible mushrooms as a means for earning supplemental income. The workshop was led by mycology and plant pathology expert Dr Rakib Rashid from Universiti Malaysia Sabah’s Faculty of Sustainable Agriculture.
She picked up tips on how to grow healthy oyster mushrooms from ready-to-fruit mushroom blocks. Wild Asia connected the farmers with a mushroom block supplier and helped to deliver the blocks to the farmers. Nisa started with an initial 200 mushroom blocks. Within a week, she had her first harvest, sold the mushrooms and made a MYR1000 profit.
“I was surprised at how easy it was to maintain the mushroom blocks. We just need the right temperature, humidity, air flow and lighting conditions for them to flourish,” says Nisa. Emboldened by the outcome, Nisa designated a ‘space’ in her house for her mushroom venture and added more mushroom blocks. Today, she grows 700 mushroom blocks and rakes in about MYR2000 a month from sales. She earned the moniker “the mushroom entrepreneur” (usahawan cendawan) in her community.
In August, Nisa joined the second mushroom BIO workshop, also led by Dr Rakib, to learn DIY methods for mushroom blocks, using palm wastes like empty fruit bunches and sawdust as substrates.
“Making our own mushroom blocks – that is my next ‘challenge!” says the spirited lady.
For now, Nisa has become the de facto advocate for WAGS BIO.
“There’s always something new to learn from the project and I’ve so much more to learn,” Nisa enthuses. “I hope the project will keep going for as long as possible. I want to be involved (in the WAGS BIO programme) forever!”