Mengkuang bags that each take days to weave. Pix by Nazran Jamel
Small mengkuang items made by hand. Pix by Nazran Jamel
Bags made by asylum seekers. Pix by Nazran Jamel
Pouches and accessories in mengkuang and fabrics. Pix by Nazran Jamel

Social enterprise Earth Heir helps marginalised artisan communities in

the country to

make a living, writes Kasmiah Mustapha


Home accessories from Earth Heir. Pix by Nazran Jamel

SINCE early this year, the man has been selling bags to make a living. Depending on customers’ orders, he can make two backpacks a day as well as several pouches. While the number may be small, he is happy because it is the only way for him to support his wife and their baby.

He is an asylum seeker and has been living in the country for three years, while waiting to be relocated to another country. He had to leave his homeland due to threats against him and his family.

Due to his status, he cannot work here legally. Desperate, the man had approached Earth Heir, through the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees, for help.

Earth Heir managing partner Sasibai Kimis says the 30-year-old man had a family-owned business making leather bags in his country. He had been stitching leather bags since he was 7 years old.

“He gave a sample of his work and asked for our help to sell the bags. He is hardworking, reliable and an honest person who is in a situation that is not of his choice. We helped improve the design, change the materials, measurements and functionality,” says Sasibai.

“We have posted pictures of the bags on Instagram to encourage people to buy his environmentally-friendly bags. So far we have orders from friends but I am trying to get large companies to buy, to boost his earnings.”

As orders are still in the single digit, the man provides the material himself and stitches the bags using a donated sewing machine.

Eventually, Sasibai plans to buy an industrial sewing machine and provide him with materials. The backpack is priced at RM298 of which 26 per cent of the proceeds is paid to the man.

The remaining covers design cost and margin (30 per cent), operations (20 per cent), marketing (five per cent), transport (five per cent), batik design (two per cent) and packaging (two per cent).


Earth Heir head of business Xiao Cheng Wong (left) and Sasibai. Both are bound together by a passion to help marginalised communities. Pix by Nazran Jamel

A BIGGER PICTURE

This year, Earth Heir is donating 10 per cent of its sales to the planting of trees and a tiger conservation campaign. Previously, the proceeds were for an organisation which works with sex trafficking survivors.

Sasibai says the goal is to make sure the man earns a fair income from his work. The price is based on Earth Heir’s market research and what it feels is a fair price.

“We want people to buy his products and know the story behind them. When you buy the bags, you help change his life.”

Earth Heir is also assisting a group of artisan refugees to market their products at the international level, as requested by UNHCR. Earth Heir is working with a group of Chin refugees from Myanmar and another group from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Syria.

“We are in the process of finding out their skills because it is not just about making one product by one refugee. We can only work with them if they can come up with products that people want to buy. The issue is not about working with them but getting demand.

“Some of the Chin refugees can stitch sleeping bags and baby slings as well as make backpacks from fabrics. They can also make accessories. Those from the Middle East can crochet, create jewellery and accessories.”

UNHCR wants more people to engage with the refugees but it is hard to convince companies to get involved. They are not allowed to work or earn a living in the country, making it difficult for them to take care of their family.

Some of them do odd jobs but are cheated or don’t get paid but they can’t complain or make a report because they are working illegally.

“We are a social enterprise and our mission is to help the marginalised artisan community in Malaysia. The refugees are a marginalised community in this country just like disabled people or single mothers.

“We are not a benefactor. They are skilled people and we are paying them for the service. The products speak for themselves. You are buying quality products that have a social cause.”

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