In a country where bananas and papayas are the staples, one man hopes to make fresh figs a regular snack.
Apart from freshly plucked figs, he plans to sell fig juice, fig gelato and ice cream, fig jam, chocolate-coated figs, dried figs and even fig tea.
Shamsul Akmal Shamsudin is quite enamoured with this member of the mulberry family. “Once you get into figs, you’re hooked on it,” he says with a laugh. “It’s something you cannot explain. Once you start collecting it, that’s it,” he adds to emphasise his point.
Shamsul’s first introduction to figs was during a visit to a nursery in New Zealand where he was actually looking to buy a climbing rose. “I saw some fig trees and remember a friend once told me I should start collecting them,” he recalls.
On the spot, he bought three fig plants and went on to buy hundreds more in his travels around the world. His job in logistics at Malaysia Airlines did take him places.
Today, he has about 2,000 fig trees on two acres (0.8ha) of land near Kuala Pilah, Negri Sembilan that he also plans to turn into an eco-tourism attraction.
How he got started
Shamsul, 47, planted his first fig trees in the backyard of his home in Tampin.
“I first planted them in pots but I later learnt that figs must be cultivated in a greenhouse to flourish. I built a small one and I soon saw what a difference it made to have control over temperature and water. Figs need high temperatures and inside the greenhouse it is really, really hot,” he explains.
Of course he knew next to nothing about cultivating figs at that time so to learn more, he joined a Facebook group comprising people who were enthusiastic about the plant.
“I picked up a lot of knowledge and got many new ideas from the group. Some of them had already been cultivating figs for two or three years and they were happy to share their experience and knowledge and even their trials and errors,” he says.
Soon Shamsul’s backyard quickly filled up with fig trees and he knew then that his hobby had become a passion. He realised he loved working with figs so much that he wanted to do it fulltime.
In November last year, having served Malaysia Airlines for 20 years, he gave notice that he wanted to opt for early retirement. He finally left the company in February to concentrate on developing a business related to figs – his new found love.
Shamsul set up Saf Fa Fig Garden to focus on the fig business.
The fig farm
On his two-acre farm outside Kuala Pilah, Shamsul has built 15 greenhouses, each measuring 20ft wide and 100ft long (6m by 30m). They stand side by side, like army barracks.
The greenhouses are home to some 2,000 fig trees and saplings of almost 500 varieties.
Outside his office is a covered work area where three employees are busily preparing soil with a balanced mix of minerals that are vital for the saplings to grow. The saplings are allowed to germinate inside small cups before they are sent to the greenhouse.
In another covered area are about 20 large drums of water that Shamsul describes as his “insurance against water shortage”. Figs need a constant and consistent supply of water, he explains. Neither can they survive too much water but growing them in the greenhouse ensures that this does not happen.
“We now have about 500 varieties of fig trees but this is just our trial period. Our objective is to identify the fruiting pattern and culture of each variety so we can decide which saplings are the best,” he says. “We will then select the very best ones.”
For him, this is just the start. He plans to open another four acres (1.6ha) next year for more fig cultivation. “We expect to have another 4,000 fig trees on the new site,” he says.
Perhaps to prove his conviction that figs will find a following in Malaysia, Shamsul offers up a plate of the fruit for us to sample.
It is not easy to describe the unique taste and texture of fresh figs. They are lusciously honey sweet with a texture that combines the chewy flesh with the smooth skin and the crunchy seeds. Each variety has an exquisitely delicious flavour and texture with subtle differences inside.
“Panache France and Croatian Dalmatie are my signature figs. They come from Europe and they are of the premium variety. At our farm, we will focus on cultivating these two species,” he says.
Shamsul says there are other fig farms where the “common varieties” are cultivated but he intends to stay focused on the premium stock.
For now, Saf Fa Fig Garden sells its produce only through social media platforms such as Facebook. “We sell only to friends now, but we will eventually market it properly and sell to restaurants and hotels,” he says.
He says the Malaysian climate is ideal for cultivating figs. In Europe the fig fruits only in the summer months, severely limiting the harvest but in hot and sunny Malaysia, figs fruit all year round.
Shamsul explains that in Malaysia, figs also grow faster. “A small tree of about a foot tall will grow through the roof of the greenhouse in just four months,” he says. “It also starts fruiting at that age. It takes two to three years to start getting fruits from the mango tree but it takes only three to four months for the figs.”
Shamsul’s fig farm is not the first or only one in Malaysia. Many other enterprising individuals have already successfully begun their own fig farms.
FigDirect Sdn Bhd, based in Perlis, is believed to be the first commercially planted fig farm in Malaysia and possibly the largest outdoor fig farm.
Last month it was announced by Northern Corridor Implementation Authority (NCIA) chief executive Datuk Redza Rafiq that the company will be part of a project that is targeting a superfruits market.
Based in Chuping at the Mas-Mas Permanent Forest Reserve in Chuping, Redza said the superfruits project with FigDirect would cover a 25ha site at the permanent forest reserve and that the objective is to increase production and processing of figs.
“This will expand the agro-based products for the local and overseas markets,” he said.
But the partners of Saf Fa Fig Garden believe they can offer customers a new experience at their farm. They plan to open a café where they’ll serve fresh figs. The café overlooks a postcard scene of herons surveying padi fields for food.
“We want to give our customers an eco-experience as they enjoy our figs and other products (such as fig gelato and fig tea) they may not have tried,” Shamsul says.
“We want to help develop eco-tourism here in Kampung Juasseh. We have an agreement with the NS Daily Farm nearby to refer our customers to one another,” he adds.
Good for you
Apart from fresh figs and juice, Saf Fa Fig Garden will also offer fig soap, perfume, lotions and supplements. Figs are known for many curative properties, Shamsul explains. “They are a good source of potassium, a mineral that helps to control blood pressure. Figs are a good replacement for vegetables.”
Figs are also a sweet way to lose weight as they are fibre rich and it’s not just the fruit that aids health as the leaves also contain anti-diabetic properties. The intake of the leaves in the form of tea and as a salad have allegedly reduced the amount of insulin needed by persons with diabetes who require insulin injections and is a remedy for gout sufferers. (I believe diabetes is caused by a lack of insulin, so how can reducing the amount of insulin in the body help a diabetic?)
A 2004 study on diabetic animals showed an essential compound in fig leaves normalised the values of the animals’ fatty acids and plasma VitaminE values which in turn should allow diabetics to inject less insulin, which is costly and often a life-long chore.
Saf Fa Fig Garden has teamed up with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) in Bangi to conduct research on the properties of figs at a facility in Kuala Pilah called the UKM Biodiesel and Future Crops.
“We also have a facility at our farm dedicated to supplying fig plants for the research. We have already given about 200 plants,” Shamsul says. Under a memorandum of understanding signed between Saf Fa Fig Garden and UKM, the institution will conduct research on the tissue culture and active compounds of the fig fruit and leaf.
Like other fig farmers, Shamsul is hoping that the research will bear fruit soon.
A fruit favoured by ancient civilizations
The fig can trace its history back to the biblical era. The earliest mentions of the fruit can be found in the Bible as well as the Quran. It is believed that it was first cultivated in Egypt, later spreading to Greece where it became a staple food.
The Greeks were so enamoured by the fig that they passed laws to prohibit the export of the best varieties of the fruit.
In ancient Rome, it was almost sacred. Romulus and Remus – the mythical twin brothers who founded Rome – were said to have rested under a fig tree with the wolf that nurtured them.
Ancient conquerors and travellers later introduced the fig to other regions of the Mediterranean before they were brought to the Western Hemisphere in the early 16th century. The Spaniards later took the fig to other parts of the world.
In Malaysia, fig farming is still at the embryonic stage, but the favourable climatic condition is expected to help it to flourish.
Fresh figs do not have a long shelf live so most Malaysians have only tasted the dried ones which are imported from Europe. For the connoisseur, the dried fig does not taste as good as the fresh variety.
Shamsul Akmal Shamsudin, who co-owns Saf Fa Fig Garden, hopes to change that. “Since we are here, we can get our supply of fresh figs to the market within a few hours at reasonable prices all year round,” he says.
In Malaysia, the papaya, banana and many other local fruits are harvested when they are 60% to 70% ripe and are on the shelf when they are 90% ripe. However, the fig will lose its flavour if harvested early.
When he is not traversing the globe in search of more varieties of figs, Shamsul is at his farm, caring for his plants and planning for the future.
“The infrastructure alone costs us more than RM400,000. The greenhouses are not cheap but they are necessary to enable us to control the environment and to keep out pests such as insects, squirrels and monkeys and especially birds because they eat only the best varieties,” he says.
But unlike other plants, the fig tree lives for a century, making the initial investment all the more worthwhile.
The fig is yet to become a regular item on the Malaysian menu, but several enthusiasts, such as Shamsul Akmal Shamsudin, have begun cultivating the fruit in anticipation of a growing demand.
Contact Shamsul at his Face Book page: Shamsul Akmal Shamsudin (Saf Fa Fig Garden)