“Every single one of us is given this earth to take care of it and treat it and everything on it with respect." - Xiao Cheng Wong, CEO of Earth Heir -
From the beginning of civilisation, communities around the world have expressed their culture and traditions through crafts. Passing the passion, knowledge and skills from one generation to the next is indispensable to preserve them. In today’s world of fast-paced mass production and trends, however, many of these skills and knowledge are becoming rare. Malaysia is no exception.
One social enterprise in Kuala Lumpur has made it its mission not only to preserve but to celebrate heritage craftsmanship and that company is called Earth Heir. Everyone who is looking for true quality, believes in fair trade and wants to be part of a movement that fights to preserve century-old traditions, will certainly find it interesting what Xiao Cheng Wong, CEO of Earth Heir shared during our interview.
“Our hope is for artisans to grow to be independent, be up-skilled and develop sustainable livelihoods. This way the artisan sector as a whole becomes a means for economic development for communities." Earth Heir
Can you share with us how you came up with the name Earth Heir for this business?
The inspiration behind our name is that we are all heirs of the earth. Every single one of us is given this earth to take care of. We have to treat it and everything on it with respect and fairly. This philosophy is at the core of our business values and we also wanted this to be reflected in our company name.
What made you join this business? What inspired you?
My parents were craftsmen themselves. Unfortunately, no matter how hard my mum worked as a tailor and my dad as a carpenter, it was never enough. My dad ended up taking a job in construction to pay the bills. It was heart-breaking that despite all their best efforts, some people continued to call my hard-working parents lazy.
Seeing this motivated me to work extra hard. I even got a scholarship to go to a business school, but I felt that businesses and entrepreneurship should be more than the traditional profit-making model.
I could not agree with that approach and looked for more. Finally, I came across the concept of social entrepreneurship. I felt that this hit home for me and also felt that this was my calling at the season, so I prayed for an opportunity to work in this area. After my studies and a short engagement with a startup company, I met Earth Heir’s founder Sasibai Kimis. She was looking for a partner at that time to grow her business together.
Together we started working with many talented local artisans as well as refugees in Malaysia. In the long run, we aspire to grow Earth Heir beyond Malaysia’s borders and give artisans and communities across Southeast Asia a platform to showcase their talent and provide for their communities by selling their handmade products.
Tell me about your biggest achievement with this business so far?
I think one of our biggest achievements is the fact that we have proven that the social entrepreneurship model can work in Malaysia. We are 100% self-sustaining, which means we are able to sustain the business through commercial activities while making impact in our communities. Every time we see our artisans earn a living and provide for their children is a victory for us.
What was your biggest challenge so far?
I think the biggest challenges that we are facing are training, consistency and quality control. Most of our artisans have been trained until we feel that the quality is good and consistent. We teach them everything from how to measure in cm to how to count threads.
Sometimes, however, some of them divert from the standards that we previously agreed on. As artisans, they are very creative people. The key lesson that we need to get across is that consistency in quality is key to having a regular income. Slowly but surely, they are all learning this lesson.
We also share feedback from our customers with them. We want them to feel proud of their talents and the products that they create with their hands, knowledge and skills. The compliments that we are getting from all around the world is not ours to accept. All these artisans are working hard, and we think they should hear them.
Another challenge is that the communities that we work with are scattered all over Malaysia. In order to build strong relationships, we need to regularly talk to them, preferably face-to-face. Unfortunately, that can be a challenge at times – especially during the pandemic, when traveling is almost impossible.
What are you hoping to achieve in the near future?
We are currently working with a network of about 100 artisans all over Malaysia. 40 of them are actively engaged with us. Our aspiration is to grow that network and include more artisans in Malaysia.
How did the pandemic this year impact your business as well as the lives of the communities you work with?
While this pandemic is hard on all of us, those with a low income as well as the refugees in Malaysia were hit the hardest. Many lost their jobs. To help them, we started selling PPE gear that was so desperately needed during the phase 1 of the lockdown in Malaysia. This way, we were able to give some of our artisans a job and a way to earn a living. Within just a few weeks, we managed to make our production process so efficient that we are now producing 7.000 masks a week.
What product categories are you focusing on and why?
Most of our products are inspired by what the artisans already know how to make. We start there and slowly innovate our products from there. Additionally, we are also taking our customers' feedback into consideration. Initially our handbags did not have zippers for example – now they do.
Can you tell me more about the communities that you work with? Who are they?
We work with a lot of heritage weavers and a few Orang Asli communities. Soon, however, we realised that many young members of these communities are not interested in keeping the traditions of their communities alive and so it is getting difficult to find skilled artisans who have mastered the art of traditional weaving and dyeing in Malaysia.
The challenge is that producing crafts often does not pay well and so the younger generation often chooses other jobs instead. Other young people are impatient and prefer to earn fast money. Making and selling rattan baskets and bags simply takes too long for them before they see a result and ultimately a pay check.
Can you share some stories that describe the impact that Earth Heir has on the lives of the craftsmen and women?
I have so many stories. It is very hard to choose. I guess one story that I would like to highlight here is the story about one of our long-time artisans called Nelly. She lives in Sarawak which is in East Malaysia. One year was particularly tough for her. After a miscommunication, she messaged us that she did not want to work with us anymore. When communicating on WhatsApp, this happens sometimes.
We wanted to find out what happened because we knew that she was the sole breadwinner in her family and worried for her. I decided to visit her in person. I brought some chocolates. with me. She was so touched by the fact that I came in person to see how she was doing that we reconciled, and we were able to rebuild our relationship with her.
The other story that is very special to me involves a refugee artisan who I invited to my wedding. She did not want to come and politely declined. After my wedding, she came to our office and gave me a hand-embroidered wedding gift for me and my husband.
These stories show that Earth Heir is first and foremost about friendship and relationships.
"Earth Heir is about friendship and relationship not just about business. " - Xiao Cheng Wong, CEO of Earth Heir -
Many of the traditional craftsmen that you work with around Malaysia are quite old already. How do you motivate younger members of these communities to continue the craft and keep the traditions alive?
We are trying to make our products younger so that they reflect the taste of their generation. The idea is to make it cool again to wear handmade products from their communities. We want to show them that this allows them to be unique, while preserving the identity and culture of their community.
The traditions and culture of the communities you work with are your source of inspiration. What is your work process like - from idea to final product?
We work with a lot of different communities across Malaysia including Orang Asli and refugees. All of them have a strong impact on the materials and patterns that we choose as well as the type of products that we end up making and selling.
For example, we work a lot with a traditional material called Mengkuang. It is a type of leaf that is unique to Malaysia and Indonesia.
In terms of motives and patterns, we derive them from the culture of our artisans. This makes them feel connected to the products that they are making and instil a sense of pride in them. We actively ask them about their traditions and encourage them to use it as a source of inspiration.
That is how we learned that some patterns are being passed down from one generation to another. Others vary with every piece. Some communities in Sabah and Sarawak, East Malaysia told us for example that the patterns they make are inspired by their dreams.
Could you tell me more about your collaboration with refugees in Malaysia?
Earth Heir has first engaged with refugees in 2016 through a UNHCR-led global initiative called MADE51. The idea was it to bring beautiful refugee-made products to the global market. After having been selected in Malaysia we sat down with them to learn about their culture and traditions. Soon we settled on Arabic patterns and patterns from the Chin Tribe in Myanmar to produce beautiful and unique jewellery pieces.
More and more people around the world are willing to pay more for good quality products if they know who made them and who benefits from their purchase. Where have you sold your products to already?
We have customers all across Europe including in Italy, Switzerland, the UK and Germany. The products of our Made51 collection were even sold at a fair-trade show in Frankfurt. In Asia, we have customers in Japan, Singapore and China. In the Middle East, some our products made it all the way to Dubai.