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The Ginger Girl

20th March, 2019

Thirty two-year-old Justa Dahlan didn’t mean to spend the better part of her life pulling weeds and selling ginger. It all began when a corporate company, Petronas launched its corporate social investment (CSI), ‘Planting Tomorrow’ programme at her village, Kg Pulutan, Kota Marudu back in February 2017.

“The programme which carried out by Petronas in collaboration with Yayasan Sejahtera (YS) aimed to uplift the socio-economic wellbeing of identified rural communities in two phases; providing an alternative water supply solution followed by implementation of sustainable livelihood activities, ginger (a flowering plant whose rhizome is widely used as a spice or folk medicine) farming.

“When I decided to venture into ginger farming seriously that year, it was not my first career choice, but I have no regret. It has brought me to who I am today,” she said when interviewed last week.

Justa attracted New Sabah Times’ attention after social media users circulated a picture of her holding ginger with a caption of ‘Ginger Girl’ earlier this month.

Becoming Ginger Girl

The mother of two grew up in a farmer family.

Being the seventh child of 10 siblings, she witnessed how traditional farming has limited their household source of income.

The hardship taught her to work hard in school, chasing every single opportunity to become a fixed income worker. However, destiny brought her towards a different path.

“Left with not much choice, I got married and become an auntie and help my family, working at the farm.” One of her family’s crops is ginger.

Time passed and her dream of becoming a civil servant was forgotten; but when Petronas and YS introduced the programme, Justa saw a new hope.

The philanthropic body trained participants how to plant Bentong ginger and provided ginger seedlings along with basic necessities required, including wheelbarrow and fertilizers.

They provided marketing skills training too. “For farmers like us, it is not that difficult to catch up with the training,” she recalled.

Through the programme, she has started her own ginger farm. She received 300kg of ginger seedlings which were planted on over one acre land.

“From that seedling, now I am able to harvest double (even triple) in every harvesting season,” Justa disclosed. Justa added she planted ginger twice a year – in the month of February and May. Each session needed seven to eight months for the rhizomes to grow before being harvested.

Throughout the harvesting season, Justa disclosed she managed to earn between RM1,600 and RM3,300 per sale, compared to her previous income of RM150 to RM500.

Her crops are enough to meet local and international demands for the Bentong ginger, which is highly demanded in Chinese cuisine and traditional medicine.

For local markets, her gingers are usually bought by wholesale buyers, Sunday market visitors as well as walk-in customers who are willing to travel to her farm.

The production and income leap over allowed Justa to receive an acknowledgement from Petronas at a special event cum product exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, early March.

“Petronas acknowledged me as the Ginger Girl, a title which is given to a successful ginger producer. That was how my picture became viral,” Justa said.

A challenge worth taking

Reminiscing her early days of planting ginger, Justa said it was physically and mentally challenging. “The biggest challenge was the uncertain weather conditions – especially drought,” Justa said, adding that she felt blessed knowing the programme came with its own water supply system.

It is understood that the crop requires temperature between 25 to 35 degree Celsius and humid climate with annual rainfall of at least 1,300 to 1,500mm.

Her farm which is nestled along the mountain range also comes with few natural spring sources.

Although Justa found relief against the weather dilemma, the pests and disease was not something she can ignore. Fungi, bacteria and heavy rain will spoil the rhizome and leaves. While these issues cannot be fixed, only prevented, Justa said the importatnt part is how she plants and set up her ginger farm.

Meanwhile, ginger’s fluctuating price can also affect farmers income. Raw ginger are usually sold up to RM10 per kg during good days, but priced only between RM2-3 during bad seasons.

The poor road condition which connects her village to the nearest town is another story to tell. New Sabah Times discovered that it took about an hour to reach Kota Marudu town via the village road. Looking forward for the future, Justa expressed that it is her hope to see the road to be upgraded as it will not only benefit the farmers but also the villagers to access the outside world.

Despite the challenges, Justa said she will remain persistent and continue to cultivate the land, as it has not only empowered her to make a better living, but also proven that with the reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more.

“To be honest, I didn’t expect to reach where I am now. I am grateful and well pleased,” she said. She also expressed gratitude for the assistance she received throughout the years, which has helped her to improve her ginger farming techniques and in turn, boost her yields.

Come and join me

Although ginger is viewed as a common agriculture produce for most Sabahans, not many people see that it can become someone’s pot of gold.

“I am the living proof,” Justa said.

Citing her ambition, the positive entrepreneur said within five years from now, she will be able to establish a ginger-based product manufacturing factory.

Her vision is in line with the 2019 State Budget which put Agriculture and Food Industries as one of Sabah’s major development focuses, with a total allocation of RM534.85 million to develop the sector.

She is also looking into producing her own product brand made from ginger. “If I can’t, maybe one of the programme participants here can manage to fulfil it,” Justa added.

Thus, she urges women in Sabah especially in Kota Marudu to venture into agricultural activities in order to make a better living.

“To the ladies out there, every job or profession comes with its own difficulties. But, whatever you are doing, never give up because at the end, what we planted is what we harvested.”

Even though the district was labelled as one of the poorest areas in Sabah, Justa believes that there is hope to develop the socio-economy.

“Success needs sacrifice and we can make it happen.”

As for those ginger farmers, she recommends them to pay attention to improving the quality of the ginger grown on their fields instead of focusing solely on quantity.

“Good ginger means good market.” The Ginger Girl’s ginger is available at 013-5502742.

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