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In Sarawak, technology transforms farming, schools, and daily life

(April 2024) In many parts of the world, doubling GDP every 20 years would sound like a fine achievement. Until recently this was the pace of economic growth in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. But state leaders are confident that the state can do much better. The new target, set in 2023, is to double GDP in the seven years to 2030. Digitalization and a partnership with Huawei will be key to reaching this objective.

“With digitalization, digital transformation, and adoption of digital technologies, we will fast track GDP growth,” says Sudarnoto Osman, CEO of the Sarawak Digital Economy Corporation (SDEC). “And household income, that’s the well-being of the people, we want to triple it up by 2030.”

Huawei provides wireless coverage to rural areas worldwide. Shown here, a rural site in the province of Papua in Indonesia in 2022. 

As part of an ambitious digitalization drive, the government of Sarawak state aims to improve 4G coverage from the current level of 66% to 93.6% of the population by the end of 2024. Through the Sarawak Digital Economy Blueprint 2030, the state government aims to grow a digital economy while fostering an inclusive digital society.   It will be harder than it seems. Sarawak is Malaysia’s largest state with 80 percent of its land covered with deep forests.  A major component of the plan is to build 600 new antenna towers in the state.  By early 2024, nearly 500 of the towers had already been finished.

COVID disruptions left behind a consensus in favor of digitalization in Sarawak, says Sudarnoto Osman, CEO of the Sarawak Digital Economy Corporation  

COVID has been a key motivators in a consensus within Sarawak to get behind the 2030 vision.  Before the pandemic, residents of Sarawak didn’t see much of a point.  As recently as 2017, most of the rural areas in the state only had access to 2G and 3G networks, Osman recalls.  However, by 2020, 4G was much more widely available.

“When COVID came, smack in 2020, Sarawak, was more or less ready for that,” Osman says.  “We already had set up an e-wallet system, and we could check and keep track when people went to dine in and so forth.” In this light, Osman sees COVID as leaving behind a positive legacy for Sarawak.

A Huawei technician setting up equipment inside a cabinet at the foot of a wireless tower in Sarawak 

With an improved 4G coverage, digital transformation is getting under way, sector by sector.  One local industry that is taking advantage of the new wireless infrastructure is farming. The Taman Kekal Pengeluaran Rampagi green house (Permanent Gardens of Production in English, TKPM Rampagi for short) was launched in 2019.  It implements a large number of connected sensors that measure in real time environmental factors like fertilizers level, soil humidity, temperature, and sunlight, that affect plant growth.

Lemons are among the agricultural produce at TKPM Rampagi (Photo extracted from Sarawak Digital Economy Blueprint 2030)

The local media title S-Sarawak  reported recently that TKPM Rampangi now aspires to grow large amounts of food to supply to both the domestic and global market. Operational since 2019, the IoT system in the park includes sensors to monitor the input of fertilizers, temperature, and soil humidity.

 TKPM Rampangi consists of forty green houses that are owned and operated by only fourteen farmers. Since 2019, they have managed to increase yields of quality crops by 20% and to raise their revenue. The IoT system lets farmers monitor and control agricultural activities from anywhere, using a user-friendly smartphone app. The app tells farmers what data it requires, from greenhouse operation records to financial expenses and revenues. Once set up, the app automates large chunks of farm work. As a result of this positive experience, the Sarawak government plans to extend the use of IoT technology to more agricultural sites throughout the state.

A booth for signing up subscribers to the new rural broadband service MySRBN

Education is another early beneficiary of improved connectivity.  In the community of Simunjan, Huawei worked with the Sarawak Multimedia Authority to help provide better educational opportunities to school children growing up far away from the big cities.  (Watch video). And to provide digital skills to adult candidates working in the tech industry, Huawei Malaysia has joined hands with CENTEXS to provide the youth of Sarawak with valuable hands-on experience in up-to-date digital and industrial skills. (Watch video). 

Huawei Malaysia has joined hands with CENTEXS to provide digital work skills to young adults

Huawei is a key partner in moving Sarawak’s vision forward. Huawei has a vast experience in advancing digitalization in remote areas presenting geographical and weather challenges similar to Sarawak.  For instance, Huawei is working with Indonesia to network the country’s thousands of islands, many of which covered in thick jungles. Huawei and the Sarawak State Government first signed a cooperation MOU in 2017. Among key projects covered by the MOU were Sarawak Network and Cloud, Kuching Smart City Master Plan, and MySRBN (rural broadband).

This video shows the impact of network coverage on schools in Sarawak

In February 2024, at MWC (a trade show for the telecom held annually in Barcelona), Nicholas Ma, President of Huawei APAC Enterprise Business, called Sarawak’s use cases “a very good reference for the whole Asia-Pacific” and said that Huawei had collaborated with countries in the region for 20 to 25 years. He added that Huawei’s mission and vision dovetailed with that of the Sarawak government, which is to bring intelligent digital connectivity to every person, home and organization, and to promote inclusivity for people living in remote areas.

Advances in digitalization have been broadly covered in the Indonesian media.  Here are some stories: 

Ruai Sarawak at Mobile World Congress 2024 showcases state digital economy initiatives

The Sun (Malaysia): 

MWC 2024: Sarawak eyes latest technologies to become digital economy powerhouse

The Edge Singapore:

How Sarawak is enabling an inclusive, green and digital economy with Huawei