Missing out on a pot of gold

<b>One of Sabah's moth orchids</b>: Europeans pay more than 252m ringgit for this species.

Sabah orchid growers dismiss a multi-billion ringgit industry

Every year orchid lovers pay more than 252m ringgit ($74m) for a moth species (Phalaenopsis) at auctions in the Netherlands, according to Kew Gardens. It says that the sales are only a tip of the iceberg in the world trade of orchids. Moth orchids are native to Sabah which has some of the world’s rarest among its more than 1,000 mostly wild species. But none of this money goes into the pockets of orchid growers in Malaysia’s easternmost north Borneo island state. The reason: Their lack of initiatives and enterprise has caused them to miss out on a pot of gold in their backyard.

<b>Chee Thung Phan</b>: <br>Lame excuse.</br>The Borneo Orchids Society of Sabah (BOSS), which has existed for 15 years, is not at all excited by the big money in orchid exports and auction markets or disappointed by its loss. Chee Thung Phan, 67, its vice president, says most of his 60 members are hobbyists like him who grow orchids in their garden just for the fun of it. About 10 of them grow the flowers commercially for the local market.

Mr Chee blames the government for Sabah’s failure to cash in on a multi-billion ringgit orchid industry. “We’re not exporting orchids because we don’t have the financial support from the government,” he tells Insight Sabah.

But that is a lame excuse. Malaysia is the world’s third largest exporter of orchids after Singapore and Thailand. About 90% of the exports come from growers in the peninsular Johor state. They do it out of their own initiatives and enterprise. Their pioneer Wong Kiang Ho, who founded the commercial orchid growers association of Malaysia, started with only two pot plants that a friend gave him. He and the other 105 growers did not wait for financial aid from the Johor government.

There are about 200 commercial orchid growers on the peninsula. Malaysian exports of cut and pot orchids mainly to Japan, Europe and America are worth more than 40m ringgit a year. Thailand exports an annual 208m ringgit worth of orchids from about 4,000 of its commercial growers who cultivate them on 2,500 hectares of land.

<b>Henry Lo</b>: Bleak future.<b>Phalaenopsis amabilis</b>: <br>A wild Borneo orchid.</br>In contrast, commercial orchid growing for the local market has slumped. Henry Lo, 60, an orchid grower and one of the founders of BOSS, says there were 30 commercial growers 10 years ago but only 10 of them remain: two in Kundasang highlands, one in Menggatal, two in Papar and two elsewhere. The reason, Mr Lo says, is that the local orchid business which he estimates at about 100,000 ringgit a year isn’t attractive enough.

“A stalk of orchid sells for 1.80 ringgit or between 12 and 18 ringgit per dozen,” he says. “You’ll be shocked if I say the future for the orchid business in Sabah is bleak.”

Mr Lo says shortage of skilled labour, lack of technical knowledge and suitable land, and the high cost of starting an orchid farm are hampering the flower cultivation in Sabah. He says millions of ringgit are needed for commercial orchid farming.

He cultivates more than 100 species of mostly hybrid orchids at his 1.2-hectare Kinaborneo farm at Kampung Tambalugu in Telipok about 40km from Kota Kinabalu. Ironically, most of these are grown from seedlings and plants that he imported from Thailand and Indonesia every year. He pays about 4,000 ringgit for them. He also grows some Sabah’s moth and giant orchids. Mr Lo supplies his orchids mostly to hotels and florists. He says he started his farm with a bank loan and the money earned from orchid sales is enough to keep his business going.

Yet away from Sabah’s shores, people are warming up to orchids. China and Vietnam are joining the growers and Taiwan has become an important orchid exporter. Foreigners have been doing a roaring trade in Sabah’s orchids; mostly cloned ones produced in Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, Europe and America.

<b>A Borneo slipper orchid</b>: People go to jail for stealing it.

Kew says cultivated orchids, mostly hybrids, account for more than 90% of the world trade. There are more than 100,000 hybrid orchids; and 30,000 new ones are produced every year. None of these comes from Sabah.

Some of the rarest wild orchids such as the slipper orchids (Paphiopedilum Rothschildianum) were stolen by “orchid hunters” from Sabah and cloned. Hailed as the king of paphs 121 years ago, the Sumazau orchid is only found in the rainforests at a height of between 500 and 1,200 metres on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia’s tallest mountain at 4,101 metres.

Three years ago, a Malaysian scientist Lim Sian was jailed four months by a British court in London for smuggling 130 rare orchids into Britain. Six of them were Sabah’s slipper orchids. Since then hybrids of this species have flooded the world market.

At an exhibition of Taiwanese orchids in Kota Kinabalu last month, Kuo Ping-Ming, general manager of A-Think Biotechnology of Taiwan, said Sabah had an advantage over his country in producing hybrid orchids for exports.

“Sabah has plenty of land. The climate is ideal with uniform humidity and the cost of producing orchids here is low,” he said. “In Taiwan, we need a greenhouse to generate heat throughout the year which adds to the cost.”

Horticulturalists say orchids are a perennial plant. It is sturdy and easily cultivated. This is one reason why it is popular. Mr Lo says that cut orchids have a shelf life of two to four weeks.

Deputy chief minister Yahya Hussin, who is agriculture minister, has told Sabah orchid growers to emulate Taiwan which last year exported one million hybrid orchids. – Insight Sabah

– With reporting by Jenney Juanis; Pictures by Henry Matakim

Posted on November 30, 2009

Malay 中文
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