A ‘farming influencer’ in the making
When Sabah oil palm farmer Norella Ambang started sharing her farming journey via TikTok and Facebook, little did she know she’d become the inadvertent influencer.
An influencer – “a person or group that has the ability to influence, affect or change the behaviours or opinions of others,” – Cambridge University Press
Like most active social media users, smallholder farmer Norella Ambang loves sharing her everyday life events with friends and family via social networks, from home gardening and hiking to whipping up tasty meals. So when she signed up for Wild Asia’s WAGS BIO workshops, she posted her stories on Facebook and TikTok.
And voilà, her FB and TikTok engagements spiked up.
“The posts that snagged the most reactions are about DIY (do-it-yourself) bio juice (fruit enzyme fertiliser) and home composting,” says Norella, whose TikTok and FB followers totalled over 3,000. “I talked about how to make enzymes and compost from kitchen wastes, apply them to oil palm and home gardens, and the outcomes. Or, how to use bio juice, instead of chemical insecticides, to deter whiteflies on chilli plants.”
Friends and families flooded Norella’s posts with queries ranging from organic farming tips and step-by-step tutorials, to how and where they can join Wild Asia Group Scheme (WAGS) or WAGS BIO. One friend, inspired by her high-yield chilli plants, splurged on 300 chilli plant seedlings recently to emulate Norella’s success.
Fair to say, she earned the ‘farming influencer’ tag. Unwittingly.
The Jill of all trades
“I just enjoy sharing on FB or Tiktok so we can all learn together,” says the 53-year-old, grinning. “I can figure out what (info) is lacking or how I can improve, from the comments and responses.” A self-proclaimed busy bee, Norella thrives on the challenges of learning new skills, whether it’s farming, navigating social media platforms or creating fun TikTok videos.
“I like to test my ability to learn new things. It’s purely self-fulfillment.”
We met Norella at her family home in Kg Kuala Sapi in the Beluran district of Sabah. About 90km to the west of Sandakan, Kuala Sapi is a village settlement where oil palm farming is a lifeline for many families. From the age of 14, Norella was helping out at her grandmother’s farm, doing chores like weeding and harvesting palm fruits.
“In the late 80s, I used to sell fresh fruit bunches (FFB) to collection centres for MYR50 (US$11) to MYR70 (US$14) per tonne,” Norella recalls. Today, FFB prices average about MYR700 to MYR1000 per tonne. “The earnings helped fund my high school and diploma studies.”
Warm, friendly and quick to laugh, Norella is a full-time nurse at an old folks’ home in Sandakan. In 2011, she and her husband bought a 4.8ha-land in Kuala Sapi to cultivate oil palm. She joined WAGS in 2013 to learn better farm management and received her RSPO certification in the same year. Through WAGS, Norella learned to manage weeds and pests sans chemicals and cut back on synthetic fertilizer use.
“Over time, our crop yields increased from 2 to 7 tonnes, our operating costs dipped and our farm is more productive,” says Norella, of Iban-Kadazan descent.
Although they hired a farm worker to care for their oil palm, Norella enjoys puttering in the farm on her days off.
“Time flies when I’m on the farm! I’ll check the soil health, monitor the growth of the trees and figure out why one tree has lower yields or the leaves look unhealthy,” says the mother of five. As she takes us on a stroll around her lush farm, Norella stopped to harvest some edible ferns like paku midin (Stenochlaena palustris) and paku rawan, an aquatic flowering plant (Limnocharis flava), that grow wild amidst her palm trees. Midin or lemidin, is a popular delicacy that can fetch MYR5 per kg at the local markets, she added.
Her organic farming journey
But it’s her initiation into WAGS BIO that got Norella psyched.
Launched in 2019, WAGS BIO is a production system designed to help oil palm farmers switch from conventional to chemical-free and regenerative agriculture. By adopting WAGS BIO methods, farmers can restore healthy soil using organic matter from the farm, or converting organic wastes into a BIO fertiliser to stimulate healthy soils. Nutrient-rich soils lead to healthier palm trees that are resistant to pests and diseases, and higher yields.
Through BIO workshops, Norella got the hang of making enzyme fertilisers, learned the benefits of intercropping to improve biodiversity, and the use of biochar to create microbe-rich soil and sequester carbon. She promptly applied her newfound knowledge on her oil palm farm and home garden.
And shared her farming adventures on social media, naturally.
“It’s gratifying to feed my family organic food that is rich in nutrients, low in pesticide residues and delivers spin-off environmental and social benefits…”
“We’ve always tended a home garden since I was young,” Norella explains. Adjacent to the family home in Kuala Sapi is a sprawling patch where her family grows a variety of vegetables and fruit trees like chillies, brinjals, pineapple, bananas, rambutans and durians. “But I didn’t know how to make organic fertilisers or sure about natural pest control methods. Of course, I’d look up farming tips on the internet but nothing beats hands-on learning through practical workshops.”
The BIO team introduced Norella to the fertigation method – the application of water-soluble fertilisers through irrigation water, and installed the irrigation system for her chilli plants. Whenever she had a bountiful harvest, she’d make sambal (hot relish) and sell them to her co-workers and friends.
“They say my sambal is more delicious than other sellers’ because the taste reminds them of sambal from their childhood, ” says Norella. “The secret? Organic chillies!” When she posted her chilli story on social media, the questions rolled in – how to reap a good harvest, the type of organic fertiliser, natural pest control, and etc.
Norella also learned to grow edible mushrooms from ready-to-fruit mushroom blocks, as part of the BIO initiative to help farmers generate supplemental income. She sells the surplus mushrooms to her daughter’s friend who runs a catering business. As if she doesn’t have enough on her plate, the enterprising go-getter also markets her own shampoo brand made from bunga telang (butterfly pea flower) extract. “This family venture is a tribute to my late dad who taught us how to use butterfly pea extract to ensure healthy and lustrous hair,” adds Norella, smiling.
Today, Norella manages her vegetable and fruit farm organically, following natural, less interventionist methods.
“It’s gratifying to feed my family organic food that is rich in nutrients, low in pesticide residues and delivers spin-off environmental and social benefits,” she adds. “I’m grateful to the Wild Asia team who always dishes out sound advice and motivates me to farm better and keep improving. I want to explore hydroponic farming next!”
A work in progress
Despite the budding interest in organic farming within her online community, what happens on the ground offers Norella a reality check. To date, she has converted about 40 percent of her oil palm farm into BIO plots, aka chemical-free plots.
“It’s so labour intensive! For instance, if we clear the weeds (with a grass cutter) on this part of the farm, after a few rainy days, the weeds spring back before we even have time to work on the next section,” she sighs. “It’s the same with enzyme fertilizer. If it rains after I spray the enzyme, I’ll have to do it all over again!”
But her operating costs have dipped because she hasn’t bought chemical fertilizer and herbicides for over a year. Her trees are healthier, the palm kernels are denser and the yields are consistent. Whether it’s growing oil palm or food, Norella thinks regenerative agriculture is the way of the future.
“At the end of the day, what matters is we need to commit to this (type of farming) for the long haul,” Norella sums up. “For the sake of our health, our children’s and the planet’s.”