Till this day, Heineken Laluan can still recall his retired parents’ reactions when he announced he was quitting his teaching job to look after them, as they were both unwell at the time.
“I remember they were angry. They were scared that I wouldn’t be able to find a way to support the family and take care of myself at the same time,” he said.
Then, in November 2017, Heineken, 35, had an idea – why not sell fresh produce from farmers and items foraged from the jungle by the locals using social media?
He started a Facebook page called Timogah, a Bidayuh word that means “famous”, initially targeting consumers like housewives living near Kuching.
“We started buying in bulk and offering fruits and vegetables that are unique to Borneo, along with seafood like lobsters,” he said.
When Heineken was planning the expansion of Timogah, he realised that there were some issues affecting both farmers and consumers.
“I was concerned that due to the messy supply chain, some food producers were not getting their fair profit,” he said.
He explained that it was not easy for farmers living in rural areas and small-time sellers in the tamu (market) to figure out how to market their products.
“I realised that some people were acting as the middleman for these farmers but only to cheat them because of their lack of knowledge about the business,” he said.
According to Heineken, the geographical gap, and lack of understanding and communication between urban and rural folks also contributed to the issues faced by some farmers.
This also meant that some farmers failed to take advantage of the increasing demand for local produce in Borneo and he felt that the farmers were being left behind while others profited from their produce.
“Consumers are also affected as they may end up having to pay more for some produce or not even getting the items they need. They could also end up with products that are not fresh and of low quality,” he said.
So Heineken came up with a new business model and established the website Timogah.com. It’s an online platform for farmers to sell their produce directly to customers. By having contact with customers, the farmers can manage their own production to meet demand.
“We also help to bridge the gap between farmers in rural areas and those in the city. So farmers can find out for themselves about the state of the market. They can plan to grow or gather what are in demand. We see this as a way of reducing wastage as well,” he said.
The new Timogah handles the logistics. “We use different modes of transportation, from motorcycles in the city to lorries for the farms. If we have to go deeper in some rural areas to get the produce, we’ll use a four-wheel drive,” he said.
The company offers same-day delivery in Kuching from Monday to Saturday, and charges RM5.90 per delivery. It also delivers to other areas like Miri in Sarawak, Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia.
Sometimes it takes plenty of communication to carry out an order, he said.
“For example, a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur contacted us to ask for live sago worms. We had to tell the restaurant that some of the worms may not survive the delivery,” Heineken said.
Other unique items offered on Timogah include terung Dayak (a type of brinjal that grows in the wild), buah dabai (local black olives), bambangan (wild mango) and umbut tebus (a type of lemongrass found only in Borneo). Heineken claimed there are over 100 items on the website.
The company has about 100 regular customers, and caters to 50 vendors, ranging from farmers and butchers to local sellers. Need a specific paste for laksa Sarawak? Timogah has it.
Heineken also travels to meet different communities in Sarawak to introduce them to Timogah. He will usually be asked to offer training, including on how to start an e-commerce business.
In one community, he met a family who now supplies bamboo shoots.
“They live close to the jungle and can earn extra income by foraging for rebung (bamboo shoots). They are able to collect up to 500 pieces in one week. It’s a popular item on our website,” he said.
“Bamboo shoots always sell out fast because it’s quite difficult to get them anywhere else in the city. I’m happy to be able to help that family earn some money.”
Heineken said the lack of Internet access in some areas in Sarawak is a major challenge. In some rural areas, farmers sometimes have to rely on another person from a nearby village to connect with customers on Timogah.
“Our farmers have to update the site with the latest pictures of their produce but have to find someone with a mobile phone with Internet connection just to upload the images,” he said.
Heineken said he often reaches out to the local council and authorities about the lack of Internet connectivity which is affecting the farmers in rural areas.
The site itself has so far received grants from the Sarawak Ministry of International Trade and eCommerce (MiTEC) and the Sarawak Shell LiveWire programme in 2018.
Moving forward, he and his team of three full-time staff are developing a Timogah mobile app which will be ready later this year. The website will also include more features like recipes and tips on how to prepare food using the produce offered. Ultimately, he hopes to expand Timogah’s platform to cover more areas.
“We want to be a company that can contribute to the growth of the local digital economy and expand the farming industry in Sarawak,” he said.
Even his parents are no longer upset with him.
“My mum likes to come along whenever I travel to give talks or training. She’s no longer angry with me,” he said with a laugh.