HULU SELANGOR: The adage “teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” holds true for Suraya Abdullah, who not only empowered herself but also impacted her loved ones.
From being a housewife, she went on to earn a steady income by sewing various lifestyle products such as eye pillows, tummy pillows and masks.
“Life was difficult prior to this, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic. My husband, who worked at an oil palm estate, was laid off.
“We had no money to buy groceries and other necessities,” said the 31-year-old in an interview.
Her son, who was in primary school at the time, was on the verge of dropping out due to the family’s financial situation.
Fortunately, her plea, along with those of many other Orang Asli in the village, caught the attention of Lim Xin Yu and Jason Wee, the “white knights” who launched The Asli Co with several villagers in late 2019 to help them earn a living by making succulent pots.
Suraya became acquainted with the social enterprise and learned to sew using a sewing machine to make fabric face masks, which The Asli Co began selling in its online store after changing its business model in the aftermath of the pandemic.
“They came and taught me the methods and gave me the equipment and raw materials to start sewing and earn money.
“From having nothing, now I have learned a skill to provide for my family and send my son to school,” she said.
Suraya said when orders were high, she could earn up to RM5,000 a month.
“The best of all, I can do this on my own time while still look after my family,” Suraya added.
Lim, 38, a designer, and Wee, 36, who was in business development and operation, said they first wanted to help the Orang Asli village after joining a charity group and building houses for them.
“We discovered that many children were dropping out of school and decided to do something.
“So we asked how much was needed to support a kid in school for a month and were told it was about RM150 to buy school supplies and food,” said Lim.
Despite it being an affordable sum, Wee said they wanted to do more.
“How many children can we help if we donate in our own capacity?
“That’s how we decided to start a company,” Wee said, adding that they had only one product at the time and three mothers from the village participating.
Following the pandemic and a change in the business model, Wee said their hand sanitiser and fabric face masks received an overwhelming response through online sales.
“This enabled us to hire more Orang Asli staff, who are in charge of packaging, administration, online marketing, raw material preparation and quality control.”
Currently, The Asli Co offers over 20 products and works with over 65 mothers from eight Orang Asli villages in Selangor, Perak, Negri Sembilan and Pahang, providing them with raw materials, equipment and wages.
As the duo continued to explore new opportunities and expand their product range, Wee said Lim came up with the idea for the lavender eye pillow when her mother had trouble sleeping during the movement control period.
“I discovered it online and attempted to make it for my mother, which worked and helped her sleep better.
“So when we offered this product online in 2021, it was an instant hit as many people were having the same issue due to stress.
“We sold over 50,000 units, providing jobs and income to the Orang Asli women,” she said, adding that it was still one of their top products at present.
Moving forward, Wee said their main concern was consistently providing job opportunities for Orang Asli mothers.
“We want this project to be sustainable over time. We considered this when designing the products, determining pricing and structuring training,” said Lim.
As for Wee, profitability was crucial for any business to remain viable.
“If it couldn’t sustain, the company would fail. We are not looking for donations. We want to be self-sufficient through the sale of our products,” he said.
As a social enterprise, they said the main challenge was keeping a steady flow of work for Orang Asli mothers.
“It is uncertain if they would receive large orders, so consistent monthly earnings is crucial,” said Wee.
To address this, their strategy included expanding the global market reach.
They intended to export their products to countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, providing Orang Asli mothers with a sustainable income while meeting the demands of an international clientele.
Lim and Wee, who have since left their jobs to focus on the social enterprise, also founded Ajar Society, a non-governmental organisation that provides free tuition to Orang Asli children in the villages.
They currently offer classes in Bahasa Malaysia and English with plans to expand into Mathematics and Science in the future.
“This educational support serves to elevate the children’s academic performance while providing them with a conducive environment to complete their schoolwork,” said Lim.
They also urged individuals and corporations to help the Orang Asli community by reaching out and contributing to the improvement of their livelihoods.
For its efforts, The Asli Co is named as one of the 10 winners of the Star Golden Hearts Award 2023.