Bringing the Unique Rice Varieties of Borneo to the World
The four co-founders of Langit Collective met when they were doing work for an NGO in Borneo. While there, they were introduced to the rural communities and the different challenges they faced. Most of the villagers were subsistence farmers who grew very good crops, mostly rice and vegetables, but they had difficulty with market access and were taken advantaged of by middlemen.
“Before we started Langit Collective, we were working with an NGO and part of our work was to go to a lot of these rural communities to build basic infrastructure projects. We found that the farmers had limited access to the market, due to their remote locations,” said Melissa Lim, one of the four co-founders of Langit Collective.
How It Started
Melissa and her friends spent a lot of time in Long Semado, located in Lawas, Sarawak and loved the taste of the delicious rice. They found out it was an heirloom rice variety grown by the indigenous Lun Bawang community. They wanted to be of value to the community and thought about how to bring the delicious rice to market. That sparked the idea for the social enterprise.
At the end of 2015, they decided to try out their idea by selling the heirloom rice to their friends, and managed to sell 30kg in just two days. That was when they set up Langit Collective in 2015, starting with three farmers of the Lun Bawang people, after much persuasion.
The founders joined the four-month Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MaGIC) Accelerator Programme for local social enterprises to learn how to create a framework for their new initiative.
“We started with the idea, then went on to starting the operations, establishing supply chains, arranging the logistics and applying for licenses. We didn’t want to be an NGO because it was not very sustainable, and we found a better option in the social enterprise model,” said Melissa.
“The communities we worked with are a part of the approximately 1 million smallholder farmers that cultivated about 75% of the agricultural land in Malaysia. They were still part of the B40 category, which was very unfair because they were doing most of the work but getting minimal income from it,” said co-founder Chan Zi Xiang.
Over the past 5 years, Langit Collective had been building the market access and working on the fields to bring up the supply and capacity of the farmers. The villages and farms had great potential with their amazing rice and crops, but what they produced was mainly for their own consumption. In actual fact, their rice and crops had economic potential.
“So we thought about taking this great agricultural produce and making them into products that could generate economic income for the communities. This would create a better future for the rural folks,” said Chan.
“Our offerings include heirloom rice of the Adan, Salleh, Sia’, Keladi and Rumie varieties. We also promote ground ginger from Keningau, Sabah, and pepper from Serian, Sarawak,” she added.
As the project progressed, more farmers joined the initiative. By 2020, they had expanded to work with 69 farmers in three regions.
In 2019, Langit Collective organised workshops for farmers in two villages in collaboration with JustLife. Over 100 farmers attended.
“We gave them an overview of organic farming. We told them about what the market wants and values. We also got a local expert to explain about pesticides and how they can affect farmers. This is because some farmers use it, but don’t understand the effects and impacts,” said Melissa.
Growing the Social Enterprise
The progress was slow because of the difficulty in access and the high costs involved. However, the founders of Langit Collective were able to accomplish enough of the groundwork and community work for the community to be able to accept what they wanted to do.
Nonetheless, the founders faced multiple challenges. There was a lack of financial capital, mentorship and visibility for the work that they had done.
“PUSH came at a good time and we could leverage on the programmes they provided. We were also able to network with other social enterprises and NGOs to collaborate to help the rural farmers. Now we are looking at increasing our impact and building a more sustainable food ecosystem, by incorporating the wisdom of the indigenous communities in the rural areas,” said Chan.
Langit Collective is a part of the Pemangkin Usahawan Sosial Hebat (PUSH) programme, and supported by the Economic Planning Unit (EPU), the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) and MaGIC. PUSH is a scale-up programme with an ambition to grow social enterprises and increase their social impact through a personalised capacity building and skills development training.
In the future, Langit Collective would like to replicate the model that they have built in Long Semado in other villages. It is a very regenerative style of farming and producing food. Hopefully, they would be able to expand their reach to more villages in Sabah and Sarawak in the next 5 to 10 years.
In early 2021, they started construction on a community milling centre in Long Semado. It was a dream come true, which would enable them to centralise a lot of the operations. The milling centre would also help the farmers to achieve commercial quality in their products. Previously, farmers would process their harvested paddy into rice at home with their own milling machine, which was smaller than a washing machine.