SHAH ALAM: Anja Juliah Abu Bakar has faced failures and setbacks. Her experiences inspired her to set up Blubear Holdings – a social enterprise selling eco-friendly, reusable sanitary products, which ploughs over half its profits into programmes teaching life skills to girls aged nine to 17.
“Empowering girls is so important to me because I also dropped out from college in the 1990s,” said the social impact director of Blubear, who is one of the 10 winners of the Star Golden Hearts Award this year. “I realised I was not good in academics.”
Through crowdfunding, she was able to collect enough money to travel to Britain, where she typed dissertations for students and took care of a Malaysian students warden’s children.
One of the students recommended Anja to her brother’s company back in Malaysia, which was doing training, and she got a job there.
She later joined Lloyd’s Register, a British company providing services to the oil and gas industry.
Meanwhile, she took part-time courses at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia and finally graduated with an executive diploma in Human Resource Management in 2006.
While she was still at Lloyd’s, she began selling washable sanitary pads. The first batch was designed and produced by an ex-convict and drug addict who had a fashion background.
Anja asked her colleagues and friends who had allergies to test them out. They found the pads comfortable, had no allergic reaction and wanted to buy more. But the ex-convict had begun taking drugs again and was back in prison.
Anja then turned to single mothers in Ulu Langat, paying them in cash to produce the pads. By 2012, she was able to leave Lloyds and sell the pads full time.
But by 2014, sales were down because about 10% of the pads had quality issues. That was when she decided to explore the social enterprise model.
“I had learned from a missionary in Sabah that girls there missed five to seven days of school per month because of their menstrual period, and some dropped out,” Anja said.
She sponsored 100 pads for them.
She estimated that thousands of school-going Malaysian girls skip school because they lack good menstrual products. This leads to a high rate of dropouts, early marriages and pregnancy, which limits their career options.
“But I couldn’t donate pads to all of them,” she pointed out. “I still needed to make money.”
In 2015, she was a finalist in the Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MaGIC) Accelerator Programme, where she learned how to use the social enterprise model.
She met her two partners, Fazlina Ahmad Fuad and Hasnur Hanafiah, and asked them to join her in setting up Blubear that year.
Now the sanitary pads are manufactured by a factory, and they also produce maternity pads, nursing pads, baby diapers, pillows, bags and stuffed toys.
Under the brand name Athena Empowers, they partner with companies and sell their reusable sanitary products to fund programmes for underprivileged girls, especially marginalised and indigenous communities.
A minimum of 51% of the net profits goes into these programmes, which talk about menstrual hygiene management, physical and emotional changes, relationships, when to say yes and when to say no, how to set limits and how to protect themselves.
Most of their current work is with the orang asli.
They first tried their two-hour “Create the Creator” module – training the trainers to create their own content – with about 20 orang asli girls, aged 11 to 12, at Sekolah Kebangsaan Asli Bukit Cheding in Banting, Selangor. Their mentor, Plan International, which focuses on girls’ menstrual hygiene management, helped.
“We thought the girls would be shy, but they had so many questions,” Anja remembered. And at the follow-up session three months later, “They were more open and shared about their dreams and what they liked. They had never shared with anyone and were eager to talk.”
Clive Allen, president of the Malaysian Orang Asli Youth Council, has helped connect the programme to orang asli communities in Perak.
“They know how to empower the girls, encourage them to work together, and show their talents,” he said. “I can see the change. They are able to voice their opinions now. Anja has really helped them a lot and boosted their self-confidence.”
Two state governments have sponsored the programme for girls in their states, and a foreign company is interested in sponsoring the programme for girls in India, Anja reported.
But, she says, “I feel we have just started.”
Although they have helped about 1,500 girls so far, she is still not satisfied with the number.
“I want to redevelop and upgrade the content, and see how else we can help,” Anja said. “But, compared to when we first started, I can see the potential.”