City folk help rural economies grow

PETALING JAYA: Four young people gave up the creature comforts of their urban life so that they could devote themselves to improving the lives of rural farmers. Yes, you heard it right.

This is what the four founders of Langit Collective have been doing for the past few years when they set out on a mission to promote agricultural produce by smallholder farmers from Sabah and Sarawak to larger markets.

Langit Collective was started by Lilian Chen, Chan Zi Xiang (Zi), Melisa Lim and Chia Yong Ling, four distinctly different individuals in their 30s but united by a common goal to bridge the economic gap between rural and urban.

It all started when they were working at a non-profit organisation running infrastructure projects like gravity-fed water systems in rural areas in Sabah and Sarawak several years ago.

During their work, they discovered the existence of high quality heirloom rice planted by the Lun Bawang community in the rural area of Long Semadoh in Lawas, Sarawak, a four-hour off-road drive from the nearest town.

Many of the villagers were subsistence farmers who planted rice for their own consumption, and then feeding the excess to their livestock.

This happened as the farmers were unable to convert the excess produce into income opportunities as their villages were in a remote location, said Zi, as Chan is known.

“There was so much good quality rice that just went to waste. Their livestock in the kampung were eating much better quality rice than most Malaysians living in the towns.

“We saw the opportunity to help close the economic divide by offering the farmers an alternative economic model, ” said Zi.

So in 2015, they took 30kg of rice from Lawas to sell to their friends and family in the peninsula and quickly sold that off, said Lim.

“But we knew nothing about agriculture and had to learn from the ground up about agriculture and business.

“I was a chiropractor, Melisa used to work in a production company, Zi was an actuary and Yong Ling was a graphic designer, ” said Chen.

They then got into MaGIC’s acceleration programme and from there received seed funding and learnt how to run a business, said Lim.

“We started with three farmers. Now, we are partnering with 45 farmers. We have since paid collectively RM150,000 to the farmers. These were the potential income they would have lost without intervention, ” she added.

Now, other than heirloom rice from Lawas, the Langit Collective also sells Sarawak black pepper (lada bihis) sourced from a Serian farmer whose pepper farm is only accessible by a 45-minute hike, and sun-dried ground ginger from two women in Keningau, Sabah.

The rice can be purchased online on their website or selected shops. It can also be tasted in restaurants such as Dewakan, Kebaya Dining Room as well as luxury hotels like the Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur and The Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur.

Doing the business meant being up against many challenges such as having to apply for multiple licences to export rice out of Sarawak and spending an exorbitant amount of money on logistics.

“The cost of operation is extremely high. For example, the factories in Lawas refuse to take small orders, so we have to buy boxes in Kuala Lumpur, transport them to Lawas, package the products, then transport them back to Kuala Lumpur, ” said Zi.

They admitted that to this day, they have still not managed to break even.

The Langit Collective team also has to spend a lot of money travelling between Kuala Lumpur, Sabah and Sarawak, which they do fairly frequently. So they would take turns to do so, said Chen.

“We need to be on the ground to know what’s happening and to build the community’s capacity.

“Travelling from one village to another could mean an hour’s walk, but we have to do it to meet the farmers and ensure that the rice grown is chemical free.

“We pick only farmers who don’t use fertilisers or pesticides on their rice as we want to champion organic farming, ” said Chen.

Once the rice is harvested, the team picks up the crops at the farmers’ doorsteps and hires local transporters with four-wheel drives to cart the bounty back to town, where products are packaged before they are shipped to the peninsula.

The Langit team also works to ensure that farmers are paid fairly and that at least 35% of the retail proceeds go directly to the farmers.

For their efforts, Langit Collective is recognised as one of the 10 winners of Star Golden Hearts Award 2019, an annual award that celebrates everyday Malaysian unsung heroes.

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