Yes, you read that right. Dead plants are the latest products that social enterprise The Asli Co. is rolling out, alongside their existing products of handmade soaps and succulents in cement pots.
These products are all handmade by Orang Asli mothers, and Jason and Xin, the duo who started The Asli Co., provide the raw materials and tools for them.
But before we get into why they’re now selling dead plants, here’s how this social enterprise got its start.
The Root Of The Problem
Jason and Xin are no strangers to the startup world; among other experiences, Jason started his own translation and proofreading agency, Proofreading Panda, and Xin is the VP of Product Development at Flexiroam.
In their free time, they’ve been volunteering to build houses for the indigenous people (Orang Asli) of Malaysia with Epic Homes since 2010. Collectively, they’ve now built over 30 homes.
While volunteering, Jason and Xin found out that approximately 50% of Orang Asli kids drop out of school because their parents cannot afford it.
“One of our single mums has 4 kids and earns just RM250 a month. Giving each kid RM2 per day for school recess can be quite a burden. We believe we can impact lives and help them escape the poverty cycle if we can just keep their kids in school,” Jason told Vulcan Post.
So, the duo decided to start an initiative that would help stay-at-home mothers earn a sustainable income through handmade products to ensure that their kids stay in school.
The Asli Co. began R&D work with the mothers in November 2018 and started selling products in January. It was officially registered as a company on April 23, 2019.
Today, it works with 5 mothers in total: 2 from Kampung Orang Asli Serendah, who make cement pots, and 3 from Kampung Orang Asli Sungai Buloh, who make soaps.
Some of these mothers previously worked at factories that were far away from home. Once they had young children, it was impossible to maintain the job.
“Two of the mothers we’re working with have special needs children, and giving them the opportunity to work and earn from home keeps them close to their children while making a decent income,” Jason said, adding that there were 4 more mothers who were undergoing training with The Asli Co.
14% to 20% of a sale that The Asli Co. makes goes directly to the mothers for their handcrafted goods.
“We believe we should pay our ladies fairly, to ensure that it would be a viable income for them, therefore we pay them up to 4 times the minimum hourly wage,” Jason shared.
The Seed Of An Idea
The Asli Co.’s idea of selling succulents in cement pots grew from Jason and Xin’s hobby of collecting succulents.
Later, they realised that these plants had amassed a growing following. “Millennials love plants that are low-maintenance, and succulents only require watering twice a month,” Jason explained.
So, it was only natural that they thought of capitalising on that trend with their social enterprise.
To accomplish that, they needed a volume of pots, and their next idea would kill two birds with one stone.
Rather than source pots from elsewhere, they asked their Orang Asli friends to make them, which would give them additional income as well as reduce the plastic waste around the village.
“Moulds for cement pots were plastic cups that were readily available in their kampung as they are discarded near the waterfall attraction nearby,” Jason explained. “Currently, we also source discarded plastic cups from Tealive and also from friends. Once the cups have been used as moulds, we collect the plastic and recycle them.”
The idea of selling succulents in cement pots helped them gain traction, but then came the customer feedback.
Apparently, customers were worried about their plants dying. Jason and Xin shared this information with the Orang Asli, and were surprised when they later presented a zero-maintenance alternative: two species of dead plants.
One is from pokok bertam while the other’s name remains unknown, with Jason and Xin nicknaming it the ‘Trumpet Plant’. Since these plants are already dead, there is no need to water or place them in the sun, thus solving the pain point of customers.
Growing In Quantity And Quality
The main challenge The Asli Co. faced was maintaining the quality of its products while ramping up production to meet demand.
“We have to be constantly hands-on with training and quality control. When the going gets tough, we have a constant reminder to ourselves that the reason we’re doing this is to be able to work with more mothers and families once we grow,” Jason said.
To capture a wider audience, Jason believes that they need to produce more products. “In 2 years, we see ourselves having a range of 20 handmade products by Orang Asli,” he said.
Already in R&D are candles, bath bombs, bubble tea cup holders, hair removal wax, crocheted accessories (some in the form of plants), and jewellery from Job’s tears.
He also stated that they can scale quicker by partnering with collaborators who are experts in their field to teach Orang Asli new skills.
“Currently, we have one very motivated mother who loves working at bazaars. We’d love to identify and train more community leaders like her to multiply The Asli Co.’s workforce and beneficiaries.”
- You can read more about other social enterprises we’ve written about here.