A PASSION TO HELP
WHEN it was set up four years ago, Earth Heir was focused on assisting artisans from various countries to market their products.
It has worked with 500 artisans, mainly from marginalised groups in countries including Cambodia, Thailand, India and Indonesia.
The social enterprise sells handmade items such as scarves, pashminas and clutch bags produced by the artisans to help them achieve a sustainable livelihood.
However, in 2015, Earth Heir changed its direction and started working with local artisans after winning the British Council Social Enterprise Award.
It was an eye opener for managing partner Sasibai Kimis, who admits that her knowledge of Malaysian traditional products — at that time — was limited to batik and songket. Even then, she thought people only wore them at events and weddings.
“When we won the award, we were asked to create five new Malaysian products. It was then I realised there are many talents in the country. This year, we plan to go to every state and find artisans’ creations that we can sell. Of course, you can find some of these crafts already in the market but we are often told the designs are hit-and-miss. We work with artisans to create crafts that are well-designed and well-made.”
Earth Heir is working with three women groups in Terengganu and one in Selangor. It is also working with individual artisans in Malacca, Sabah and Sarawak.
Sasibai says, ideally, there would be a social cause related to these artisans. In addition to helping them make a living, Earth Heir wants people to be aware of the stories behind the products.
“It is a way of preserving the Malaysian heritage. Most of the time Malaysians don’t appreciate their own crafts. When I visited museums during my travels abroad, I didn’t see anything from Malaysia on display. The art and culture of this country is largely unknown because we don’t talk about our heritage.
“Earth Heir wants to share with the world the beauty and diversity of local craft. We also hope that eventually the artisans are able to sell their products without going through us. If they make money from the craft, it may boost the interests of the younger generation. Now, the young think that they cannot make a living from making handicraft.
Sasibai says it is a challenge to get Malaysians to buy local crafts because they always complain about the price, saying that it is too expensive.
“It takes an artisan two weeks to make a mengkuang bag. Buyers have to pay a fair price for the artisan’s effort, skill and time. They should think about these factors when they buy handmade crafts.”
Raising awareness on the social cause of each product has not been easy for Sasibai. She almost gave up due to criticisms of Earth Heir’s mission.
“We did get a lot of media publicity, but not a lot of sales. I have worked for three years without a salary. We ploughed back whatever money we had into the company. It was only last year that I earned a salary since we had large orders from companies.
“My family members think I’m wasting my life. They said I should get a regular job and donate to these causes. But I want to help these communities and donations are not enough. I hope to empower them to manage on their own.”
She is also frustrated that Malaysians are willing to buy expensive imported goods without knowing the stories of the people who make them. However, they are not eager to do the same for local products.
“Some expensive imported products are made by those working in an unsafe environment,” adds Sasibai, citing the collapse of Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh four years ago as an example.
More than 1,100 people died when the building that housed five factories manufacturing US, Canadian and European clothing labels collapsed. Until today, more than 300 are still missing.
Handmade crafts are Eath Heir’s business crux.