AYAMANY Sinakalai’s passion for the environment is evident in the way he talks about plantation crops and green products.
The 66-year-old founder of Jesa Enterprise Sdn Bhd is full of enthusiasm as he walks through the manufacturing process of his plates and bowls.
The company produces dinnerware made from palm leaves which are sold under the Fallaleaf brand.
Ayamany’s quest for sustainable dinnerware started while he was actively involved in community work in Petaling Jaya – including community cleanups. Horrified by the amount of plastic and polystyrene plates and cups littered in drains and other open spaces, he knew something needed to be done to tackle the problem right from the source materials.
When he looked back on his childhood days in a rubber estate in Tampin, Negri Sembilan, Ayamany recalls how his grandmother used to wrap his food with palm tree leaves for him to take to school. His food would remain fresh and warm many hours later.
This sparked a curiosity in Ayamany – could he, perhaps, make use of palm tree leaves to make plates? After all, the city was not short on these trees.
In 2006, he embarked on what was to be a long road of research and development (R&D) to make this a reality.
“I know it is a good product that will benefit the future generation. If I own nothing more, at least I can still give this concept to the world,” he muses.
Ayamany sold many of his possessions, used his savings and pawned the family’s jewellery to fund this belief.
He not only wanted to make a sustainable product, he wanted to make sure it was accessible to the market. That means finding a way to make them affordable.
He visited villages in various states where palm trees were in abundance. These leaves, which ranged from 30cm to 2m in length, could be used to make up to eight pieces of dinnerware of various shapes and sizes.
The cost per leaf came up to about 50 sen.
While he was certain of his materials, Ayamany needed to device a manufacturing process to convert the leaves into plates and bowls. Fortunately, he could draw from his years of experience as an electro-mechanical technician working in manufacturing plants doing mouldings for electrical components.
Of course, Ayamany had to also fabricate his own machines as there were none in the market that were available to do what he wanted.
“I had to get innovative. At one point, I even used a cendol machine,” he shares.
The leaves go through hydro-pressure cleansing before they are dried and heat-pressed and moulded into plates, bowls, trays and cutlery.
Jesa Enterprise finally opened for business in 2012 after five years of testing and research. With the help of four rudimentary machines, Jesa Enterprise initially produced about 14,000 to 20,000 pieces of products a month.
In 2016, the company obtained a grant to further commercialise their products. This helped them automate some processes, which boosted production.
Over the years, Fallaleaf has caught the attention of foreign buyers, which buoyed demand for its products. To cope with growing demand, the company recently relocated its operations from its factory in Puchong to its new site in Shah Alam.
Its new factory is equipped with 30 machines which are capable of producing 500,000 pieces of products a month. It is currently only utilising half the capacity.
Passing the baton
Ayamany’s love for the environment is shared by his family, particularly his daughter, Kartigha Ayamany, 29.
Kartigha remembers being surrounded by palm leaves in her schooling days as she watched her father go about turning them into something else. It wasn’t an easy period, she notes.
“Living the pioneer story is not easy. But we stuck through because we are a family,” she says.
Kartigha, an architecture graduate, returned home after completing her studies abroad and joined her father when he started Jesa Enterprise in 2012.
“Going green” was not yet an in-thing at the time but Kartigha was ready to run the race with the company. She mainly handles sales and marketing for the company.
But thanks to growing awareness about the environment, the business has grown a lot since then. This has enabled Jesa Enterprise to expand rapidly in recent times.
Kartigha has been busy meeting potential clients overseas to expand Fallaleaf’s reach. Some large orders are in the pipeline, and if more deals go through, Jesa Enterprise may well maximise its capacity within six months.
She estimates that it will take an investment of about RM2mil to double its current capacity.
With all the right things going for the company at the moment, she has big dreams for Jesa Enterprise.
“She has a lot of plans. She wants to make it trendy to use sustainable plates,” Ayamany beams.
Jesa Enterprise currently turns in revenue of about RM1.8mil. Kartigha aims to bring that up to RM5mil next year.
The company is firming up talks for some fresh capital from a new investor. Should this work out, there could be some funds for more R&D work, which will enable the company to explore making other products using the same palm leaf materials. This includes expanding its household offerings such as straws, making tourism products like bags as well as packaging materials like pallets.
Jesa Enterprise currently has some 27 stock keeping units for its plates, bowls, trays and bakewares. It hasn’t really expanded its cutlery products.
Paving the way
Kartigha hopes their work will inspire more local efforts and initiatives in the sustainable products space.
While consumers in developed markets are more educated about sustainable products, there is still a lot of room for education and awareness building locally. However, she notes that the government is now more encouraging towards such efforts.
At the moment, 70% of its produce are exported to countries such as Singapore and Australia. In Malaysia, Fallaleaf products are mainly sold at niche retailers.
With the European Parliament’s approval to ban a wide-range of single-use plastic items, such as straws, cotton buds and cutlery, by 2021, Kartigha expects orders for Fallaleaf products to grow tremendously, especially in Europe.
And she expects the trend to grow here, too.
“When we started the business, no one cared. Now, everyone is coming to us. I hope we’ll make it big,” says Ayamany.
Scale, he says, would help the company make a bigger impact in conserving the environment.
And if the company secure more investments, Ayamany would like to explore opportunities upstream. By going into plantations, the company will be able to reduce its cost of production as they will be able to set up production within the premises of the plantation itself.
Additionally, there is plenty of potential to tap in the tourism industry. There have been requests for the company to look into products such as bags, handicraft, stationery, and even furniture, made from palm leaves.
“We would like to grow big, sustainably. We want to be a business that represents Malaysia. And we want to build awareness by being a good business. It wasn’t easy but we have had to pave the road for when other (players) do go in.
“And we can be a good hub to teach that skill and product knowledge to others. We have the technology and the tools. Experience has taught us to think out of the box,” adds Kartigha.
Ayamany hopes to share Jesa Enterprise’s processes and skills with the local community. He wants to make the company a community-based operations to add value to the local communities.
He reveals that the company’s operations are currently carried out by a fully-female team.
“We believe in women empowerment,” he says. “And our machines are easy to handle.”
He thinks there is also a role for the government to play in growing this industry.
“The people in the kampungs are growing these trees. But if the government can come in and help grow this crop on a bigger scale, then we can involve more cottage industry in this business. We’ll be able to create more companies with this model,” Ayamany shares.
The idea here is to turn this from one manufacturing outfit into a thriving industry of green products.