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Technopreneurship for social change

Corrected on 9 Oct 2008 at 7pm

[Corrected] Not from a factory assembly line — handmade craft sold by Gerai Orang Asal

ONE necklace was made of igiu and talantang seeds, and another, petai and talantang seeds. The two arrived at the office via Poslaju three days after they were bought from Soning Craft’s online shop. Just as Malina Soning had estimated in her e-mail.

The online shop started business on 28 Aug 2008 and is still in test mode. It is set up on a web-based platform developed by social entrepreneurship venture Elevyn Sdn Bhd.

[Corrected] In Malina’s Rungus community in Sabah, newborns are given an igiu neck ornament to protect them from evil. That wasn’t the reason I chose a necklace made of the same seeds, although there’s no harm in extra protection.

I just liked the look of the shiny blue-grey shell-like igiu seeds, with the long brown talantang in between. I also like the idea that these non-timber forest products provide a glimpse into the culture of the indigenous people who made them. And also their efforts to plant more of such trees to ensure the raw materials do not run out.

[Corrected] Each Rungus newborn is given an igiu necklace
to ward off evil (© Puah Sze Ning / Elevyn)
The information is put up on Soning Craft’s webpage, which has a catalogue of the jewellery, woven products and traditional toys on sale.

Malina has been making handicraft since she was a child, back then to supplement the family income. Today, the mother of two young children has teamed up with her sister, Mazeline, to run Soning Craft. Their store is in the Wawasan Handicraft Centre in Kota Kinabalu. Other than Rungus handicraft, the store also sources works by other indigenous communities, such as the Dusun and Murut.

In 2004, the sisters formed the Sinompuru Women’s Group, which represents 16 single mothers and elderly women from the Rungus community in Kg Tinangol, Kudat. The idea is to help these women, who have difficulty making ends meet, to earn income by organising and marketing their handicraft via Soning Craft.

Handicraft by Sinompuru members is also sold at the Gerai Orang Asal (OA), a mobile stall run by Reita Rahim in Kuala Lumpur. Whenever she is given space for the stall, she grabs the opportunity. She sets up at events like the recent Art for Grabs, Freedom Film Fest and Perjuangan Orang Asal exhibition held at the Central Market Annexe.

But all this pretty much limits Soning Craft’s market to the brick-and-mortar setting in Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur. In an e-mail conversation with me, Malina says they have long wanted to sell their handicraft on the internet. They want to reach a larger market and to share their culture and the sustainable practices behind indigenous craft with the world.

Non-timber forest products like petai seeds are made into
necklaces by the Rungus community (© Puah Sze Ning /
However, Malina isn’t fluent in English, which is crucial if one is to reach a global market on the net. She knows how to log on and correspond via e-mail, having worked at her brother’s cybercafé some years ago. But she knows nothing of setting up a website and the support infrastructure needed to operate an online business.

Enter Elevyn

Malina has known Puah Sze Ning for a while, through the latter’s work with indigenous groups. Puah’s friends, Mike Tee and Devan Singaram, started developing Elevyn in early 2008. Their aim was to document social entrepreneurship projects that use innovative entrepreneurial principles and sustainable ways to address the needs faced by different groups in society.

The idea later evolved into helping marginalised communities earn income through online business. Puah, who eventually became Elevyn’s first full-time staff and field coordinator, suggested that Soning Craft be Elevyn’s pilot online shop.

The inspiration to use the internet to work with marginalised indigenous communities came from one of her visits to Kg Sanguon in the Mangkuwagu Forest Reserve in Sabah, Puah said when I met up with her and Tee recently.

Getting to the village, she recalled, took at least eight hours on an old logging road. When she got there, she found that the village had no piped water and power lines. But, it had internet connection! And that’s thanks to the solar-powered satellite link used in such remote parts for telephone connection.

At about the same time, Puah’s friends from a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Sabah suggested that she visit one of their project sites that produces beautiful handicraft but had yet to find a good way to market it. It got her thinking that the internet could be a good link between such communities and the bigger market out there.

Such an initiative is not new. Many organisations across the globe have set up online projects to raise awareness on fair trade and marginalised communities and worked with them to generate income (such as Traidcraft and Global Exchange). There’s always room for more.

Mike Tee (left) and Devan Singaram decided to leverage on
their core competency when they developed Elevyn
(© Puah Sze Ning / Elevyn)
Mind you, many of the items in fair trade stores are not cheap, but they are not necessarily exorbitant, either. Part of the fair trade philosophy is to establish fair work conditions and, yes, fair wages/prices.   

There are various ways for social entrepreneurship to take place, but for Tee and Devan, it made sense to do something in familiar territory. Each has his own company, Density Professional and iFuzion Interactive respectively, which provides web services. Tee says the decision to develop a web-based platform for Elevyn was basically to leverage on their core competency.

The duo applied for the Multimedia Development Corporation’s Technopreneur Pre-seed Fund Programme at the eleventh hour before the application deadline last year — which inspired the name Elevyn. They succeeded and got RM150,000 from the programme, which provides grants to support the development of technopreneurs and commercially viable information and communications technology projects.

But why an online shop and not, say, an education programme or micro-credit facility like Kiva? Tee says an online shop allows individuals or groups to have a little business going and earn direct income from it.

[Corrected] But unlike an online auction and shopping site like eBay, Elevyn works with NGOs or field partners like Soning Craft to identify causes, which will receive 5% to 10% from the sale.

Soning Craft aims to help Sinompuru raise US$2,500 for school fees, bus fare, books, stationery, uniforms and other education needs for children in Kg Tinangol. Malina says the fund will also be used to help the community in emergencies.

Another 5% to 10% will go to cover the operation cost and the transaction fee charged by online payment system PayPal. The remaining 80% goes to the producers.

Says Tee: “We like the idea that it’s borderless and it’s scalable. You can have sellers and buyers from various places. The model can be replicated across many situations.”

Elevyn field coordinator Puah Sze Ning (with laptop) during one of her
visits to the indigenous community (Courtesy of Elevyn)

Besides the indigenous communities, Elevyn will also work with other groups such as single mothers. The tricky part is that to be able to work with Elevyn, marginalised communities need a computer and internet connection, which most cannot afford.

Tee acknowledges the obstacle, and says that’s why Elevyn works with NGOs as field partners who know the communities’ concerns and can help with the online and courier arrangement.

Sales from the online shop alone will not suffice for the Sinompuru women. But Malina is hopeful that the venture will eventually take off and prove to be a reliable source of income in the long term.

Cindy Tham is business development manager at The Nut Graph. She’s also interested in how different people and organisations promote their ideas, brands, products and services on the internet, whether for commercial or non-commercial reasons.

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