This edition of Portraits is brought to you by Nespresso – Made With Care
Meet Sasibai Kimis, Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the award-winning craftsmanship brand, “Earth Heir”, whose journey towards realising her purpose was a road filled with twists and turns.
Her childhood summers in India opened her eyes to the injustice of inequality, and that while she found her life to be unremarkable, it is a life that some dream of. After graduating from college, she felt she could fix life’s unfairness with a dollar sign.
For years she shuttled between high flying corporate jobs, and even managed to squeeze in an internship with the UN Development Program, which turned into a two-year stint in Ghana with a local NGO. A lucrative career with Malaysia’s sovereign fund, Khazanah Nasional, though rewarding, Sasibai felt she needed a greater sense of purpose. It was then she decided to learn national farming in Hawaii, and then onto Cambodia to teach English. It was here that she found her true calling.
There, she met with local weavers who were struggling to sell their crafts. Weaving a whole silk scarf, and just USD1 or less for compensation seemed unjust to her. In a quest to help these weavers, Sasibai brought the products back to Malaysia, where she sold them to family and friends.
Clarity arrived in the form of a mentor. Dr Kim Tan, an impact investor, advised Sasibai that in order to effectively help the women in Cambodia, she had to make it a sustainable business. “I never intended to start a business!” she remarks. But from there, she was inspired, and she asked herself, “What’s the worst that could happen? I fail?” The question was, of course, rhetorical.
She was close to folding when she won the British Council Social Enterprise award. That was followed by a commission from the BCSE to create five new Malaysian products. Gathering artisans from Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia and India, Earth Heir began to gather momentum.
Soon a big order came, and together with an artisan called Kak Nelly, they made 400 bags for a conference. It was a huge feat for the small-time business, but they persevered. “She made eight months’ of income from that one order,” Sasibai says with a smile.
The next step was to set up a physical store. With the funds from the British Council, Sasibai moved the business into a physical space, and Earth Heir established its home here in Malaysia. Interestingly, in this digital age, it was a crucial step for the business. “I think the turning point for us was when we moved here because then it meant that people could actually come to a physical space, talk about the products, what the products were about, who were the communities working, why does it mean something.”
In the early years, marketing ethical fashion was a tricky business. The public at large had yet to understand how it worked. Earth Heir was often mistaken as an NGO. “People were uncomfortable with the idea that you could help people and make money from it, because they felt like we were exploiting the community. I had to tell them no, we’re practising fair partnerships with the artisans. In 2019, we were audited for over a year to be certified as a Fair Trade organisation by the World Fair Trade organisation,” Sasibai explains.
Thoughtful consumption is definitely the name of the game for her. Questions are not only welcomed but encouraged. “It’s important to ask questions about who’s making the products, are they being treated fairly, and to question the impact on the environment, especially at the end of its life. Are you just going to throw it in the landfill, or is recycling an option?”
In 2019, Earth Heir also began to collaborate with other designers. For its MADE51 jewellery ranges, the brand continues to partner with UNHCR in order to help the refugees who can’t legally work in the country. They have also collaborated with the People’s Trust Council (MARA) to provide basic training in design, pricing, efficient production, and quality in states such as Sarawak, Perak, and Pahang.
On some occasions, it would mean that they have to go back to the drawing board. The hard lessons of creation and then ensuring that it sells were often frustrating in process, but the results were worthwhile. “Now they can work with whoever they want because they’ve learned how to make high-quality products. We can’t buy from every single artisan in Malaysia, but if we can empower them to be independent, then they can grow on their own,” says Sasibai.
Another goal for Earth Heir is to emphasise that locally made products do not translate to low quality or cheap creations. “I want to help Malaysians be proud of our own heritage,” Sasibai points out. It is safe to say that this was accomplished, as locals are amazed when they are informed that the items in their hands are made in Malaysia.
This was no small commitment. Certainly, Earth Heir would have made greater profits if they opted to source for their materials from Thailand or Indonesia, but that was not on the mission. “We exist to help local communities, so that they can continue the craft, and the next generation will continue, and our crafts will be preserved. If you don’t support local artisans, then at some point, you won’t have them anymore,” Sasibai asserts. “Our mission is to take care of the people and the environment. If we’re all heirs of this earth, we should live in a way that honours and protects what we have.”
There are instances where a consumer might question their price bracket, pointing out that it was made in a village, implying that it should not retail as much. “Did you know that it takes more than two years for a mengkuang plant to grow, more than a week to process it, and another week to weave the bag? You are paying for two weeks’ (or more) worth for this one bag.” After that brief clarification, most people would gain a new understanding.
Others may point out that there are cheaper alternatives, and to that, Sasibai has this to say: “It’s about our heritage, local communities, and about creating an ethical and fair business.”
For Sasibai, the dawn of a new business model has arrived, and this new way of conducting business is not exclusive to just the social enterprises of the world. “I don’t think the old business model—where not caring for our social and environmental impact was the norm—is going to work anymore,” she remarks. And she’s right; more consumers are taking into consideration how a brand runs its business, treats its workers, sources its materials and many other affiliations.
Now, in the midst of the pandemic, where economic stability is hanging in the balance, it becomes ever more critical to support local businesses and local manufacturing.
If you feel moved to make a change in your consumption, there is no need to jump off the deep end. “Just start asking questions,” is Sasibai’s primary advice. Instead of just going straight to the checkout, take a beat to think of where it was made, who made it, and what materials were used to create it. “You can’t always be the most ethical, but it’s important to have that thought process.”
For others who would like to start a social enterprise, Sasibai encourages them to work with other people first, instead of going into a business on their own straight away. “You learn discipline, work ethics and you learn how to be humble. If you immediately become your own boss, it’s unlikely that you have developed the skills you need to run a business,” she says.
For the eight years of business for Earth Heir, it became profitable in the sixth year. “People always look for the success, but they don’t see how you’ve been slogging away in the background for years,” Sasibai shares. She is not one to think that her current success is hers alone to claim. “No one is successful on their own. People are only successful because of their team, colleagues, family, and the people who make their products.”
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