For a few years, EL Law and his team of agriculturists racked their brains to crack, what he calls, the ‘seven month mystery’.
The biotech entrepreneur had been growing Paulownia trees on his 20 acre plantation in Rembau in Negeri Sembilan. But the species - unique for its fast-growing, hardy reputation that can flourish in harsh environments - wilted and stopped growing seven months into the planting period.
“We almost gave up because we were spending so much money trying to crack this mystery,” says Law.
But the founder and CEO of biotech firm Revongen decided to take the Japan-originated species back to his team of scientists at the lab.
“My team was working on aquatic plants at that time. We did some testing on the Paulownia species and came up with a new clone," says Law. “We planted them in my farm and noticed some managed to grow beyond seven months. I thought, well, maybe we did it!”
“But really only knew the clone was a success as they grew bigger, and when we can make products like these out of them,” says Law, holding a light-coloured refined wood storage box, carved out from a mature Paulownia tree.
Paulownia Could Serve as Malaysia’s Alternative Wood Supply
Because of its fast-growing capabilities (five-year-old growth-to-harvest average cycle) planters around the world are starting to explore the economic value and competitive advantage of Paulownia as an alternative wood supply. “For timber to be harvested, it usually takes 15 to 20 years.”
“You can do with so Paulownia in three years,” says Law from his lab in Subang Jaya, Selangor where thousands of young shoots of hybrid species clones - the RevoTropix Paulownia - are nurtured to acclimatise, and optimise to the tropical weather of Malaysia.
“It costs about RM10 a year to plant Paulownia. They can fetch up to RM100 to RM120 by its third year. So the margins are pretty good,” says Law.
I want to encourage people to plant economically valuable trees like Paulownia on abandoned land
Business opportunities aside, Law was initially driven to invest in Paulownia as he believes the tree may hold the answer to tackling deforestation. “Demand for wood will only increase and this will cause damage to native forests,” says Law.
“I want to encourage people to plant economically valuable trees like Paulownia on abandoned land.”
Due to its ease of growth, they can quickly reforest an area. It has great regenerative capability; Paulownia species is able to regenerate from a cut stump and grow into another mature tree again in a few years.
They are also known to absorb great amount of carbon dioxide compared with other species - thus yielding timber solutions while providing carbon sequestration.
Law set up the Green Afforestation International Network Sdn Bhd (Gain-Green) in 2015 to capitalise on Paulownia’s unique characteristics, and to promote its plantation in Malaysia. “Our aim of setting up this company is to provide the industry with alternative wood, or eco wood.”
“We don’t chop off forests to plant this tree,” says Law. “I’m an activist. I won’t do that. We target idle lands or bushes which are underutilised or lands that do not have trees."
Since last year, Gain-Green has started work with hundreds of planters to utilise idle lands for contract farming under the RevoTropix Paulownia Farming Project, a project by the Malaysian Bioeconomy Development Corporation Sdn Bhd.
In Gambang, Pahang, a 100-acre piece of land had been identified to implement the programme in cooperation with the National Anti-Drugs Agency's Gambang Triage Centre. Meanwhile, another 600 acres of land in Gerik is being developed for the same purpose in cooperation with Yayasan Bina Upaya Perak.
We target idle lands or bushes which are underutilised or lands that do not have trees
Recently, in May, Gain Green inked a collaboration with 163 planters to develop a 978-acre land, secured under the Pinggir Felcra Rompin Plan.
The participants will supply Paulownia wood as raw materials to Gain-Green. The company, meanwhile, will provide seeds, technical know-how and training, advisory and farming design, as well as guaranteed buy-back for the Paulownia trees harvested by participants of the project - providing new streams of income to the community.
“We’ll teach landowners how to farm. They contribute their land, we look for investors to come in to finance the project.”
“It is a three party collaboration. We set up a new company based on a project; the cost and profit will be shared proportionally based on the percentage we agreed on. So, it is a very fair deal.”
The Economic Value and ROI of a Paulownia Tree
Law has big plans for Gain-Green. The company targets to plant 10,000 acres of land by next year - and to do so, he is doubling down on production of RevoTropix Paulownia clones.
“Right now, my lab can produce about 100,000 seedlings a month. We are going to raise it up to 300,000 a month,” Law explains. “With that, we can plant 750 acres of land. This will bring us up 8000 to 10,000 acres a year.”
Gain-Green is also working with corporate companies like Top Glove in Indonesia, and Sime Darby in Kulim, Kedah to plant RevoTropix Paulownia.
The greatest potential for Paulownia timber, says Law, is to fill up demand currently sourced from native forests which are dwindling in supplies due to tightening of logging regulations, and the near exhaustion of these forests.
“We want to export, eventually. But the local market is big too,” says Law. “Remember, Malaysia is one of the biggest producers of furniture - and we are facing wood supply issue.”
Putrajaya imposed an export ban on rubberwood July 1 last year to address the shortage of raw material faced by the Malaysian furniture industry.
Native Forests Continue to be On the Chopping Block
While Paulownia tree is a multipurpose species; wood harvested from it can be used in the manufacture of floorings, paper pulp and musical instruments too, Law believes the secondary market for Paulownia has just as much potential.
This is the future and this is where technology plays a big part. Otherwise, we’ll just end up as farmers
“We have come up with our own products such as water and air purifiers, as well as biochar.” Biochar is a charcoal-like solid made from biomass that is being explored globally for use in filtration, odour control to animal feed and packaging materials.
“We have started to make soap, toothpaste and facial masks too,” says Law. “We don’t want to just sell wood. We always believe in adding value, and we think the value add from secondary products may be even more than wood.”
“This is the future and this is where technology plays a big part. Otherwise, we’ll just end up as farmers.”
In Malaysia, the market for Paulownia is still relatively nascent, says Law, as the tree takes three to five years to mature. “We do export some wood to Japan even though I don’t have much right now.”
“We just want to experience the process, explore the potentials and get feedback from people on our trees.”
“But this also means five years of throwing money into the business without getting any income,” he adds jokingly. ““My friends think I’m crazy but, again, I believe in technology.”