Partnership with ETHZ going forward

“The sun beats down relentlessly and seems to burn through the shirt on your back. Your neck, arms and face fare far worse. Your lips are parched. Your tongue feels like leather. While tending to your fields, you wonder how your crops are going to survive this dry spell.

            This is a common challenge for many small farmers in the Malaysian state of Sabah, where droughts have been prevalent in recent years. Small farmers are especially vulnerable to droughts. In comparison, larger entities such as plantations tend to have more resources and are therefore more resilient.


This resilience within Sabah’s palm oil value chain was the subject of a workshop held December 13, 2016 at Hotel Sabah, Sandakan. The workshop was run by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH or Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule), TFT (The Forest Trust) and UMS (University Malaysia Sabah). About 28 people from all walks of life attended.

The workshop was a platform for people from different nodes of Sabah’s palm oil value chain to share ideas on dealing with droughts. Attending were representatives from local associations, plantations, input suppliers, mills, smallholders and the local government. Bridging these gaps, some of which are due to competing business interests, will hopefully lead to a more resilient value chain by improving local capacity.


Smallholders, in particular, benefited from discussions on water management. While issues such as sustainability may remain distant to them, droughts are something very relatable. The idea of resilience from droughts provides a gateway through which smallholders too can become a part of the global sustainability conversation.

            The basis of the workshop was a study carried out by Dr. Jörin Jonas and Olivia Pfister, researchers from ETH. For about two months in late 2016, Pfister conducted 57 interviews with people from various nodes of the value chain, from nurseries to palm oil refineries. Working closely with ETH were members of TFT’s Rurality Sabah team and Dr. James Silip from UMS (Universiti Malaysia Sabah).


The final report for this study will be released in March 2017. The challenge now is to keep this momentum going and provide more platforms for different players in the supply chain to come together. This would serve as the ground work to increase resilience among smallholders in Sabah. However, TFT doesn’t look to do this work in isolation. Further collaboration and research will be required to help these small farmers weather the climatic turbulence of our times.”

Rudro Roy