Agroforestry farm

Rich Farmer, Poor Farmer? Integrated Agriculture in Sapulut

Most Asian parents want their children to become a doctor, engineer, lawyer, or land on other money-making careers. Farmer is rarely on the list, as they thought farmers earn very little. However, the global price hike of food in recent years shows that food is king and agriculture has a bright future. Furthermore, Sabah is not lack of fertile land.

Dr. Richard Gunting and durian plantation
Left: group photo with Dr. Richard Gunting (middle) at roundabout of Nabawan town. Right: his durian plantation in integrated agriculture farm

As a PhD holder in agriculture economy, Dr. Richard Gunting knows the economy of farming. He showed me a simple math that answers why many traditional farmers of Sabah are poor. For example, rubber plantation only generates RM4,800 of income per hectare every year. After deducting the cost such as labour and fertilizers, not much profit is left. Oil palm is RM17,000/hectare per year, decent but we can do much better.

A visit to the agroforestry farm
A visit to an integrated silviculture farm in Sapulut. Left is Ms Wong from media and right is Virgil, the son of Dr. Richard

Let’s look at other crops. Cocoa is twice the income of oil palm. A hectare of durian such as Musang King and Black Thorn can bring you RM155,000 and RM300,000 of revenue per year respectively. Agarwood (gaharu) is also a high-value tree. The strategy is to maximise the value (income) for every hectare of land as well as maintaining the highest biodiversity via integrated agriculture, which creates multiple revenue streams that are more profitable than monocrop plantation.

Timber and fruit trees in integrated agriculture
Example of mixing trees in integrated agriculture. At the left is an agarwood (gaharu), a.k.a. Wood of God, its oil is worth like gold.

To inspire the locals to become ‘Rich Dads’ in farming practices, Dr. Richard is an advocate of integrated agriculture (or integrated silviculture), which can potentially generate 8 times more income than oil palm. Such farm is a mix of trees and other cash crops such as cocoa, durian, agarwood, pineapples, coffee, pandan, vanilla, cempedak, jackfruit, coconut, langsar, tarap and sago. On the other hand, small scale monoculture makes ‘Poor Dads’, the subsistence farmers.

Fruits in agroforestry farm
Fruits from integrated agriculture are another income sources besides food crops and timbers.

Integrated agriculture is more friendly to the nature. A researcher, who has visited the farm of Dr. Richard, was impressed by the biodiversity there, which is 2 to 3 times more than a typical Sabah farm. The forested land has healthier soil and some crops need shade to grow well.

Sapulut River and the agroforestry farm of MunorAulai Guesthouse
Sapulut River and the farm of MunorAulai Guesthouse. Note the river bank is protected by dense wood to prevent soil erosion and pollution.

Besides crops, you can raise poultry, livestock (e.g. goats, pigs) and fishes on idle land that is not suitable for planting (I’m thinking of stingless bee (kelulut) farming). At the moment, Dr. Richard’s farm has a few fish ponds for thousand of pelian (Malaysian mahseer or River Carp), jelawat (Hoven’s carp or sultan fish) and tilapia fishes ready to meet the good demand of market.

Tour package to climb Mount Kinabalu
Fish ponds at MunorAulai Guesthouse
Left: land that’s not suitable for planting is converted to fish ponds. Right: Virgil showed us the fish pond at MunorAulai

Do you know that eight out of 10 poorest districts of Malaysia are in Sabah? Dr. Richard hopes the wide adoption of integrated agriculture will turn the poor farmers into rich farmers in least developed districts. If every farmers know this wealth building formula, they can ‘grow money on trees’. This model works well for native title land, which is usually 10 hectares in size or less. 70% of native land are idle. Imagine the benefits it’ll bring.

Fish pond and dog
Left: thousand of Jelawat and tilapia fishes in the pond. Right: this village dog has been hunting for the fishes in the pond. Yes, dogs eat fishes, and Virgil caught her stealing fishes in a video.

MunorAulai Guesthouse

For the proof of concept on integrated agriculture, Dr. Richard allocates 10 hectares of land in Sapulot (or Sapulut) for this farming technique and build MunorAulai Guesthouse there for visitors to experience farmstay and witness the result of integrated agriculture. Integrated agriculture is supported by WWF and Sabah government. It’ll become a trend because its approaches are friendly to the environment and ecosystems.

MunorAulai Guesthouse in Sapulut
MunorAulai Guesthouse can accommodate up to 25 people. 10 to 12 people is the ideal group size.

When Dr. Richard walked around his farm, a small and colourful Munor, a bird of omen, followed him around and chirping positive messages, so he named the place as MunorAulai (means it’s auspicious by Munor bird). MunorAulai is equipped with toilets, showers (water heater available), activity hall and a simple lounge. They have clean bedrooms (with fan and power point) to accommodate about 12 to 25 people.

Bedrooms of MunorAulai Guesthouse
Bedrooms of MunorAulai Guesthouse

You will feel exclusive at MunorAulai Guesthouse because it’s Murut customary to serve their guests with hearts. Murut is the third largest indigenous group of Sabah. Though Murut people are portrayed as the descendants of fearsome headhunters, they are the friendliest when come to hospitality.

Lounge and activity hall of MunorAulai Guesthouse
Lounge and activity hall of MunorAulai Guesthouse

At MunorAulai Guesthouse, you will eat, drink, party and dance like a Murut. The following are my experience at MunorAulai. I felt like I was living in a traditional longhouse of Murut.

Misty agroforestry farm of MunorAulai Guesthouse
Misty farm of MunorAulai Guesthouse. It’s a nice place for a morning walk.

Drinking Party

Tapai, a home-brew Sabah wine made from rice or tapioca fermented in a jar, is the soul of Murut people. Tapai is prepared by the villagers in accordance to their strict customs abiding to all taboo belief being passed down through generations.

Murut has a special way of enjoying Tapai together during social occasions, and it’s an honour to be invited to this hundred-year-old merrymaking tradition. It’s really fun if you have this drinking party with a group of friends.

Tapai drinking challenge
Tapai drinking challenge. Everyone takes turn to sip the wine from jar.

Tapai is served right from the fermentation jar. After unsealed, a marker and a bamboo straw are inserted into the jar. Everyone will take turn to sip tapai until the liquid level drops to the marking. You can take small bites of comfort food along.

Good tapai is sweet and sour, with a bit of bitter taste. Tapai is quite potent. Even after first or second round, it warms my body and I start to get high. Many guests love this unforgettable drinking marathon and bonding experience with their friends.

Cultural Show

A party isn’t a party without dance and music. The local youth and children will perform traditional Murut dance to welcome and entertain the guests. During my visit, my heart melts when I see two of the dancers are only 5 years old. They dress in traditional Murut costumes and dance gracefully under the gong music.

Children and youth Murut dancers of Sapulut
Children and youth Murut dancers of Sapolut

The highlight is the magunatip bamboo dance. Dancers follow the rhythm to place their feet between the clapping bamboo poles and get out before the poles close the gaps. The tempo of gong beating and clapping will go faster and faster, and dancers have to be agile to avoid their feet being trapped.

You can watch this video to see how funny I danced

Guests will be invited to try out the bamboo dance. After some drinking, I was leaping like a headless monkey and being clapped by bamboo again and again. Everyone laugh and we have a wonderful time. Goodness, it’s really a good exercise.


Murut mean it when they welcome a visitor. To make sure the guests are well-fed, Murut host would cook the last chicken they have. They also would not eat before the guests are done with the meals first. I always have a happy full stomach at MunorAulai Guesthouse.

Deer meat and soup
Deer meat and soup

To be honest, their cook never disappoints me. I sample a good variety of delicacies and Murut dishes. Some are fresh fruits and vegetables from their farm. I appreciate their home style cooking with balanced diet, simple and tasty, and in big quantity.

Kinurutuk, a Murut dessert made with tapioca starch, coconut milk, brown sugar and sago
Kinurutuk, a sweet and smooth Murut dessert made with tapioca starch, coconut milk, brown sugar and sago

One of my favourite is the steamed pelian, the most delicious freshwater fish of Sabah. Its meat is sweet, tender and fatty, even the scales are edible. Pelian is similar to Empurau, the most expensive freshwater fish of Malaysia. I love their deer meats too.

Steamed pelian fish
Steamed pelian, one of the most tasty freshwater fishes. Even its scales are edible.

This is just the first stop of my journey in Sapulot. Sapulot was used to be the land of headhunters in the past. Headhunting is long gone, so now we can travel freely in Sapulot. I can’t wait to show you some beautiful places that were once a sacred ground. In fact, many tourists from USA and Europe have visited Sapulut for a raw Borneo experience.

About Sapulot (or Sapulut)

Sapulut is a small district of Sabah interior about 47 KM away from Nabawan town (217 KM away from Kota Kinabalu City. Accessible by paved road). Most of the population in Sapulot are Murut. Sapulot (or Sapulut) means “sticky” in Murut language because the Sapulut River takes longer time to clear when it turns murky after rain.

Location map of Sapulut and its surrounding
Location map of Sapulot and its surrounding

For a tour in Sapulut, you can contact Borneo Outback Tours Sdn Bhd (Licenses: Co. No. 846369-H / KPK / LN:9247) at:
Facebook: orou.sapulot
Instagram: @orousapulot
Phone: +60 19 2277077 (Whatsapp), +60 87 337 277
Address: A-7-2, Apollo Atrium, 89008 Keningau, Sabah, Malaysia

The tourism operations in Sapulot are managed by Orou Sapulot (means the Sun of Sapulot), a community based project to promote tourism and in sustainable manner.

Misty rainforest of Sapulut
Misty rainforest of Sapulut

Photos taken in Sapulut, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

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