Treasures From Borneo

25 June 2018

Some of Malaysia’s finest food produce are grown in remote farms in Borneo. Two enterprises – Langit and Barefoot Mercy – are striving to get these treasures from the earth to the market.

Langit
Four friends from Kuala Lumpur – Lilian Chen, Chia Yong Ling, Melisa Lim and Chan Zi Xiang – met while working for an NGO that builds basic infrastructure for remote villages around Malaysia. It took them to farming villages far off the beaten track where they discovered many treasures from the earth – the freshest rice, spiciest ginger, darkest peppercorns, and little-known grains such as Job’s Tears – all grown by Malaysian farmers. However, these farmers earn very little for their work, as they have little access to the market and farm gate prices are often very low.

The four friends felt they could do better. Thus, they set up Langit in 2015 – a fair trade enterprise to sell these produce.

Langit founders (from left) Chang Zi Xiang, Chia Yong Ling, Melisa Lim and Lilian Chen.

Langit started out with just one heavy sack of rice from the Sarawak village of Long Semadoh. After completing a water project there, the four filled their bags with 30kg of the highland rice. The rice, planted with minimal chemical additives, has a distinctively fresh and clean taste.

Back home, they put the rice for sale online at a premium price of RM20 to RM22 per kg. It flew off the shelves.

Langit rice in packaged in pouches with batik ties.

“Everyone really liked the rice, and wondered why it’s not so readily available in KL,” says Chen.

It was through this experiment that they discovered an eager market for high-quality food produce, and a particularly enthusiastic one for gift items. In the first year, they sold 200kg of rice, mostly as festive gift packages in cotton bags embroidered with a festive motif, or in wooden boxes. The gift packs were also a hit with tourists seeking out unusual souvenirs.

As their work took them further afield, the team discovered more and more produce, and soon also began selling ginger from Sabah, peppercorns from Sarawak, Job’s Tears (a type of grain) and millet, both from Sarawak.

Langit products in a furoshiki wrap.

Today, Langit works with around 30 farmers, and sells its products mainly online and at pop-up stalls. A chain of organic stores is also keen to carry the rice once it becomes fully chemical-free. Presently, a minimal amount of chemicals is still being used but several farmers have agreed to try forgoing that, says Chen.

“We will start this as a pilot project this year.”

It will be challenging. But Langit is no stranger to challenges. For one, food produce is not easy to market at premium prices, and competition is tough from cheap imports or subsidised produce.

Presently, Langit works with around 30 rice farmers.

The weather can also be a challenge. Chen recalls when unseasonably rainy weather halted their rice supply in 2017; the sun hardly shone long enough to dry the paddy for milling. Farmers were also unable to transport the rice to town as their earth road had turned into a mud trap.

As Langit aims to become profitable within the next year, more challenges lie ahead, but as Chen says, they have no choice but to make it work.

Barefoot Mercy
The non-profit Barefoot Mercy had an uncannily similar start. They are three friends from Kuching who got together to raise funds for basic infrastructure – such as micro-hydro systems to generate electricity – for remote communities in Sarawak.

Barefoot Mercy co-founder Anna Wee

“We felt we had to do something when we learnt about the disparity between the cities and rural areas,” says co-founder Anna Wee, who formed Barefoot Mercy with Elaine Chan and Doreen Ho in 2011. The team started off by distributing water tanks to drought-prone communities before focusing on village-based initiatives.

And just like the team at Langit, it was through their work in these remote villages that they discovered treasures from the earth.

Sold under the label Tucu, the Ba’ Kelalan highland salt is infused with herbs and spices.

One of these, explains Wee, is the highland salt produced in Ba’ Kelalan, a Lun Bawang mountain village. They experimented with infusing the salt with herbs and spices such as lemongrass, pepper and kaffir lime, to make seasoned salt.

Packets of Tucu salt and other products by Barefoot Mercy.

Sold under the label Tucu – tucu means salt in the Lun Bawang language – the salt flew off the shelves at pop-up events and through private sales, at a price of RM28 for a 200g packet of seasoned salt, and RM25 for natural salt. The salt is produced without using chemicals, tastes less salty than table salt, and is said to have a higher level of beneficial minerals like iodine.

Encouraged, the trio began to source more Sarawak produce to bring to the market, and now also carry tuak, honey, gaharu (agarwood) tea, coconut oil and nectar, among others. Sales are still through pop-up bazaars and private sales, and all profits go to their projects.

The team has also begun working with weavers in Long Lamam to create attractive hand-woven packaging for their products, and to provide the weavers with more economic opportunities.

Presently, proceeds from sales raise only a fraction of the amount needed to fund Barefoot Mercy’s projects, but Wee believes it’s a good way to raise awareness. The products help connect people to their stories.

Although the products are popular, Wee points out that they don’t intend to become a business with a permanent sales channel, as supply is inconsistent and dependent on the farmers’ capabilities

“This is purely to fund our projects,” says Wee.

Langit’s products are available on langit.com.my and at pop-up stalls around Peninsular Malaysia and occasionally, Singapore. Barefoot Mercy’s products are available at pop-up stalls in Kuching.

Text by Carolyn Hong
Barefoot Mercy photos by Jee Foong. Langit photos courtesy of Langit.

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