Promising ‘Pahkak’


Researcher Margarita Naming with the Pahkak fruits and samples of soaps. Photo by ZULAZHAR SHEBLEE

KUCHING: Sarawak Biodiversity Centre (SBC) is well on its way to commercialise LitSara, the trademarked name of an essential oil derived from a plant known to the Bidayuh community as “Pahkak”.

It is one of the first products being marketed internationally by SBC from its traditional knowledge documentation programme.

Among uses for LitSara is personal care products such as antibacterial wet wipes, natural insect repellent, soaps and even as an anti-tooth decay agent that can be incorporated into toothpicks.

Scientists call the plant Litsea cubeba, a small tree belonging to the Lauraceae family. It was “discovered” in 2005.

But its many uses have been known to locals for generations. The Kelabits and Lun Bawang call it “tenem”.

The Bidayuh and Orang Ulu communities have long used the plant for its culinary and healing properties. It can be found nearby at Kampung Kiding in Padawan or far away at the mountain tops of the Orang Ulu homeland in northern Sarawak.

Because of the composition of the essential oil derived from the leaves and fruits are unique to the plant found growing in Sarawak, the species Litsea cubeba has also been granted Geographical Indication and the trees in Sarawak are known as Sarawak Litsea.

For a decade, SBC has been conducting research and development on the plant, extracting its citrusy smelling oil from pea-sized fruits. The key to the project has been interviews with villagers for its uses.

SBC communications officer Asha Devi Kaushal said its participation has been invaluable since the start.

“A lot of the information originates from the indigenous communities. They share with us their information and resources and we see how we can try to move the plant or knowledge up the value chain through research and development,” Asha told Sarawak Metro recently.

Vast potential: Researchers at SBC have found about half a dozen commercial uses for LitSara.
Vast potential: Researchers at SBC have found about half a dozen commercial uses for LitSara.

So far researchers have found about half a dozen commercial potentials for LitSara. Samples of the anti-bacterial wet wipes have been made and distributed under trial programmes and also as SBC’s corporate gifts and goodie bags.

The extracted oil is also undergoing tests as a natural insect repellent.

Researcher Margarita Naming said SBC’s aim was to channel the fruits of commercialisation back to the communities. For instance, locals could supply the raw materials or they could learn to make products like soap and shampoo themselves.

“We are training the community to do the distillation on site at their villagers. The tree is ‘selective’ in terms of where it grows. It won’t be easy to mass productive it,” Margarita said.

Quality: Yeo says the amount produced right now is very limited
Quality: Yeo says the amount produced right now is very limited.

A kg of the “Pahkak” fruit would yield just 5ml of oil, while a kg of the leaves would yield even less at just 3ml, she explained.

SBC acting chief executive Charlie Yeo said the scarcity was good.

“The amount produced right now is very limited. We are getting about eight to 10 litres a year. All the harvesting is from wild sources. It is good to be limited because it is fetching a premium price – as long as you can find commercial uses for it that interests the big producers,” Yeo said.

Since 2001, SBC has been working with 15 indigenous communities at 72 locations across the state. Of these, 47 locations are now carrying out documentation work and activities to conserve the plants locals use.

Some 5,000 plants have been documented to date and more than 1,200 species identified.

Yeo said “Pahkak” was just the beginning, selected to be trademarked because it showed the most potential.

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