Two Malaysian women in are setting standards for the growth of sustainable social enterprise in the country.
May 7, 2016
Deborah Tobin – Kuching, Borneo
Kuching, Malaysia – Tanoti House, one of the largest and most successful social enterprises in Malaysia will be expanding and refining thanks to recently announced national government support. The project, called Borneo744 will transform former government warehouse spaces in Kuching into a hub for artisans and budding entrepreneurs.
According to Social Enterprise Malaysia, a website that connects Malaysian social enterprises, “social enterprises bring together the self-sufficiency of for-profit businesses and the incentives of market forces to bear on global social problems in such a way that neither pure capitalism nor pure charity has been able to match.”
Tanoti House is an award-winning organization that aims to preserve the ancient art of songket weaving while improving the lives of the weavers.
Songket weaving is a complex traditional textile art believed to have been practiced in Malaysia since the fifteenth century. The weaving produces a brocade fabric with patterns formed by metallic silk or cotton threads.
The fabric was favoured by royalty in the past and passed from generation to generation as treasured family heirlooms.
According to June Ngo, one of two directors of the company “today it is mostly worn as traditional Malay ceremonial costumes during royal installations, weddings, the birth if a child and Malay festive occasions and formal state functions.”
Ngo’s work with Tanoti House, although intensive and hands-on, is as a volunteer. Her day job is textile educator and designer in the Department of Design Technology at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) in Kuching.
She said, “the art of songket is in jeopardy of disappearing. Even though the craft has a long history in the Malay Archipelago, the number of weavers has dwindled recently.”
Among the reasons for the decline of the craft, Ngo lists limited usage of the fabrics, mass production of brocades, high price and lack of interest in the weaving by a younger generation that sees the process as tedious
Songket weaving is mind-numbingly slow. It takes approximately 2-3 months for a skilled weaver to complete a piece of traditional songket sarong, with the piece processing at a rate of 2 cm a day. Because the weaving is so time-consuming and labour intensive, the costs for the pieces are high, limiting the market to corporate and fine art collectors.
Tanoti was preceded by another project in Kuching. In 2008, in recognition of the potential for the loss of songket, Queen Tuanku Nur Zahirah of Malaysia established a foundation called Yayasan Tuanku Nur Zahirah’s (YTNZ) whose goal was to revive songket weaving, improve the lives of the weavers and broaden the usage and the market for songket products.
Ngo was instrumental in getting the project started and kept it running with support from the royal foundation for 4 years.
Over 20 young women joined the project from rural villages in Malaysian Borneo. Some came as skilled songket weavers and others as beginners to the craft. The skilled weavers mentored the new recruits.
The weavers lived and worked at Tanoti and were provided with salaries and benefits and the opportunity to learn a skill that they could transfer to other settings if they wished.
As the reputation for the Kuching weavers grew and demands for their work increased, Ngo and her colleagues conducted research and development projects to find new and less time consuming, less expensive songket projects and markets for those projects.
In 2012 the regular five-year rotation of the monarchy took place in Malaysia and the queen no longer had the mandate to fund the Kuching project
Ngo made the decision to carry on the project but knew she would need support. “I know my strengths and skills in the creative side of things, but I needed someone to do branding and marketing. “
Ngo worked desperately to preserve the project, aware that the loss of funding meant a loss of livelihood and home to the young women who had worked tirelessly to make the project a success.
She approached an old high-school friend, Jackie Fong. Fong was an investment banker who Ngo hoped might steer her towards potential funders. Fong was intrigued by the challenge and stepped up with personal funding. She decided to direct profits from her recent successful hotel startup to finance Tanoti. She said that Ngo “romanced me into the business.” The new organization, Tanoti, was established on May 1, 2012.
The business model was one of social enterprise. The main goals were to preserve the weaving and the cultural heritage of the weavers while operating as a business.
Fong described the business philosophy of Tanoti. “Running a profitable business does not have to come at the expense of the weavers’ welfare. Investing in our employees makes sense because it ensures high standards and strengthens the local industry.”
Fong and Ngo strongly believe that the foundation of the philosophy of Tanoti House is that the weavers are provided with transferable skills.
“We don’t want them to be just weavers. We want them to be artisans. Eventually, if they decide to move somewhere else to work from home as independent contract weavers we will continue to provide them with work as long as they continue to meet our quality standards.”
Fong and Ngo also believe that diversification is the key to the future success of marketing songket. They are carrying out research and development in-house, experimenting with different ways of producing a heavier brocade for interior design products and lighter fabrics that are more modern and wearable than traditional songket that they hope will catch on within the fashion industry.
They also work closely with clients to help bring their vision into the songket design. Ngo explained “along with making traditional products like sarongs, we are also coming up with new products. Songket is expensive because of the complexity of the product. We are trying to reach out to a younger market and making it trendy and more affordable. Smaller pieces for fashion usage.”
Kal Joffres is a co-founder of Social Enterprise Malaysia. He said that “Tanoti is one of the largest employers of songet weavers in the country. They keep that craft alive in a very important way and they are doing so sustainably. Historically these types of cultural initiatives have been funded by government or by grants. They have not been sustainable because at some point that money ends or gets cut. Tanoti is continuously and sustainably employing these weavers.”
Ngo and Fong envision Borneo744 as a place where weavers and their families can work together. They want to venture into batik, hand-screen printing and basket making. They want to be able to employ men as well, and provide family housing. Ngo said “the weavers are our gems and the heart of the company. It is important that we also provide jobs for their husbands.”
She spoke with warmth about the organization. “Tanoti is more than just a business. It’s about the young girls that we have trained. It’s a big achievement, actually. These young girls have been weaving with us for years. Working together with us for so many years. The turnover of staff is low. Some of them have left and then they come back again. Mostly, when a weaver leaves it is because they get married and want to start families.”
Fong enthused that “the Tanoti story is about heritage preservation. But more than that, it’s about empowering women and rural community building. All these elements came together by chance. We decided to start this business out of a state of panic and emergency. Along the way, we realized that we are doing much more than that. The girls get to continue weaving, to practice their skills. This is a skill that they can carry for the rest of their lives. They can practice weaving and earn a viable income. Not just with us, but with anyone else, or at home. This is something that they appreciate as a career or a choice of vocation.”
Through the Borneo744 project, Tanoti will benefit from government funding which will renovate the warehouse space and build a jetty to make the project more accessible to the public. After that, it will need to support itself. Fong, who left investment banking six months ago, has the easy confidence of a woman with a solid track record of success.
“I am a believer that something always comes from something. If you don’t do it you will never know.”