A few years ago, four young people were thrown into each other's company while working together at a non-profit organisation. The four were tasked with running infrastructure projects like gravity-fed water systems in rural areas in Sabah and Sarawak, an undertaking that soon led to an awakening of sorts.
“Along the way, we realised we were solving one problem at a time, like building water sources to these villages, for instance. But beyond that, what was going to happen? The people there would still be in a very difficult situation.
“Then we realised that a lot of these rural communities have some form of agriculture within their land. So we thought why not try to bring economic opportunities to them?” says Melisa Lim Siew Ming, one of the founders of Langit Collective.
Langit Collective (www.langit.com.my) is a social enterprise founded by Lim and her friends Chen Le Leng, Chan Zi Xiang and Chia Yong Ling. The organisation collects, packages and sells heirloom rice produced by smallholder farmers from the Lun Bawang community in the rural area of Long Semadoh in Lawas, Sarawak to consumers and chefs in Peninsula Malaysia.
The area is a pristine, untrammeled valley reachable only via a four-hour off-road drive from the nearest town, with a community made up of subsistence farmers who plant rice for their own consumption, typically selling off any excess that they produce.
The four were inspired to start the business when they discovered that the farmers there were essentially wasting the rice they worked so hard to harvest.
“The farmers fed us rice five times a day and when we told them we couldn't finish all the rice, they said, 'It's okay, we will just feed it to the livestock.' And for us, it was complete horror – this is when we realised there was an issue of excess. They had too much that went to waste because they couldn't convert it into income opportunities because of their remote location,” says Lim.
The stark reality of the situation also became clearer to the friends when they found out that farmers often had to fork out large sums of money to transport both themselves as well as their rice to the nearest towns. Once they were there, they had to compete with other rice producers and often ended up getting a pittance for their hard-earned produce, which they still plant and harvest by hand.
“It just doesn't commensurate with the work, which is very manual. So a lot of the farmers would rather not sell, because it doesn't make sense, “ says Chen.
Chastened by this sad, vicious cycle, the four friends set about changing this sorry state of affairs.
Rice-ing to the occasion
For starters, the team brought 30kg of rice from Lawas back to KL and quickly sold that off. But then, they realised they didn't know what to do next. So they applied for and got into MaGIC's acceleration programme (the largest start-up acceleration programme in South-East Asia) and basically spent four months learning how to run a business.
Then, just when things were picking up, the friends ran into another roadblock when they discovered they needed to apply for multiple licenses in order to adhere to local legislation.
“In order to apply for the licenses, you need to be quite capital-rich and you need to have a physical premise, which means you need to start paying rental. So all this was affecting our operational cost at the time, because we were and still are such a small outfit,” says Chen.
Eventually, after years of trying to find a solution, the team figured out how to work through the licensing structure in Peninsula Malaysia. In Sarawak, they piggy-back on friends' licenses, shipping their products through them, since their quantities are still very little – only about 10 tonnes collected every four months.
How it works
These days, the Langit team alternates between KL and Borneo, often spending up to a month at a time working on-ground with the 45 farmers they have now signed up (from an initial three farmers). Most of the work involves ensuring that the rice grown is chemical-free, a move that is in tandem with demand they have noticed for organically-grown produce.
“Our business meetings can be a one-hour walk to the next village, so that's why we need to spend a lot of time there,” jokes Lim.
Once the rice is harvested, the team literally picks up the crops at the farmers' doorsteps and hires local transporters with four-wheel drives to cart the bounty back to town, where local ladies package the products, before they are shipped to Peninsula Malaysia.
Preserving heritage seeds and land
In Long Semadoh, padi fields are still tended to according to traditional methods. For six months of the year, the land is allowed to rest and water buffaloes roam the fields, eating the remaining stalks and pooping wherever they please, allowing the soil to be naturally fertilised.
Even though six months may seem like a long time to take a break from farming, Chen says this process actually helps nurture the ecosystem.
“It's about sustainability, the farmers are actually complementing the environment, rather than depleting resources in the name of production.
“And when we compare the yield per acre in conventional farming versus ours, the yield is almost the same! And sometimes ours is better and that's without any chemicals or pesticide. So we're thinking that maybe this can be a model that people can start adapting for the future of food security,” says Chen.
Another important component to what Langit is doing is helping preserve heirloom seeds. The farmers under Langit's care all use seeds that date back generations, something Langit is determined to sustain.
“They plant but then there is no market for it. And hence they plant less and less. So these seeds are at risk of dying off as well, because the planting community is aging.
So it's something that we want to push, because we are running against time. In another 10 to 15 years, we are probably at risk of losing all these heritage seeds,” says Chen.
Variety is the spice of life
Although the farming community in Long Semadoh grow all kinds of rice, Langit Collective only sells a few kinds – vacuum-packed bags of white rice like beras adan and beras salleh, priced at RM21 for 960g and red rice (beras sia) and black rice (beras rumi and beras keladi), priced at RM22 for the same weight. All the rice is polished, as this is reflective of the community's cultural preferences.
“We wanted to celebrate their culture, because this is what they eat. They always prefer polished rice to unpolished rice. And the rice tastes really good, all the chefs we've sent it to say they have never tasted anything like it,” says Chen.
Langit also sells Sarawak black pepper (lada bihis) sourced from a young farmer who lives on a hill in Serian, Sarawak that can only be accessed through a steep 45-minute hike; as well as ginger powder (layo) from the ginger-producing area of Keningau in Sabah.
The rice can be purchased online on their website www.langit.com.my and can be tasted in restaurants like Dewakan and Bobo KL as well as hotels like the Grand Hyatt KL.
The Langit team also works to ensure that farmers are paid fairly, based on a price that both parties agree to from the outset. The farmers are also paid upfront once the rice is collected.
“In Lawas town, they actually sell rice in gantang (one gantang is about 3.5kg). So for one gantang of white rice in Lawas, the farmers get about RM15. But we agreed to buy it for between RM25 to RM27. So it's a price that they're happy with because they don't have to pay for transportation,” says Chen.
The Langit team has spent the last few years laying the groundwork with farmers, developing the building blocks that they will hope will spur their little social enterprise to success. And Chen says even if their business grows, farmers will not have to increase their rate of production.
“For the farmers, they don't have to increase their workload, because right now we are getting those 45 farmers' excess rice. And there are 200 farmers in that region, so if we can get all those 200 farmers then it will be a lot of rice. So we don't need to grow in that sense, but we need to grow our market more aggressively,” says Chen.
This will take the form of talking to more chefs and educating consumers on why their products carry a heftier price tag.
“I think it is important for consumers to know that these are the real costs and prices that a product should be. Because in the production chain, farmers are always in the most vulnerable state - they get paid the least.
“And if you don't give them a good income, they won't produce good food for you. And it's a vicious cycle, people will be eating sub-par food, because farmers are not getting a good income,” says Chen.
Langit's long-term goal is also to help continue the long-standing agrarian culture of the people in Long Semadoh. The area's farmers are now all aged between 49 and 80 and the team has noticed that the younger generation are moving away from the valley, at the behest of their elders who think there is no economic future in the area. But the team is hopeful that this will soon change.
“That's why it's even more important to do what we're doing now. Because if the farmers can generate an income and we can prove that the model works, then maybe the younger ones will say 'Eh, maybe I can come back',” says Chen.
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