Social Enterprise

They've Proven That M'sians Will Pay RM100 For A Simple Shirt, If It Saves Corals

Author’s Blurb: One of the only memories of corals I have is when I was at Pulau Perhentian many years ago, where we were constantly reminded not to step on or break them while on a snorkelling excursion. As I grew older, I also learnt how corals were on track to becoming 90% extinct by 2050 if nothing was done to save them.

Educating people was the first step of action Harris Hisham took after making scuba diving his career in 2013.

“I’ve always been passionate about protecting and conserving our ocean and educating my students on the importance of the ecosystem,” he told Vulcan Post.

“But after years of just teaching, it felt like I needed to do more to protect our environment besides just educating them in my diving course.”

Inspired by the business model of brands like 4ocean, which collects trash from coastlines and oceans with the purchase of its bracelets, Harris came up with Sea Bells.

It’s a social enterprise selling fair trade T-shirts made from organic cotton, and each purchase means a coral is saved.

Harris chose T-shirts as they’re an easy-to-wear, everyday clothing item, making them simple to market and sell.

Buy A T-Shirt, Adopt A Coral

Aside from taking inspiration from 4ocean, Harris admitted that he hadn’t really carried out any market validation here.

However, the growing number of social enterprises in Malaysia makes him and his team believe that they aren’t alone in protecting our planet socially and environmentally.

Thus far, even his customer base reflects this.

“At first, we were expecting the people buying our shirts to be the ones who are environmentally conscious, but I was surprised that half the people who bought it didn’t know much about coral rehabilitation projects and were interested to support the cause,” Harris said.

“In Malaysia, the awareness is increasing compared to a few years back, but they just don’t know how and where to start, and most don’t even have time to start contributing to our planet.”

For these people, Sea Bells acts as a middleman.

With each purchase of a RM100 Sea Bells T-shirt (of which there are currently 3 designs), you adopt a coral which will grow up in a Pulau Tioman coral nursery, which Harris and his team care for.

As a customer, you’ll get a coral adoption certificate, a picture of your coral, and Sea Bells will update their social media with videos and pictures of the nursery monthly.

Damaged Corals Go To Rehab

“The magical thing about coral is when it breaks, it could grow back if it’s nursed properly,” Harris shared.

So, Sea Bells collects these damaged coral fragments from snorkelling sites or the beach, and ties them onto recycled glass bottles attached to a cement block.

The team has to consider the right depth and location to ensure proper nursing of the damaged corals too, though their way is only one of the many ways to rehabilitate coral.

The Sea Bells team tending to the coral nursery / Image Credit: Sea Bells

“We will maintain the nursery monthly by brushing and scraping off the bad algae around the bottles that might restrict the corals’ growth.”

“The damaged corals only have a 50-50 chance of surviving, so if let’s say one of the corals didn’t survive, we will look for new fragments and replant it,” Harris stated.

What’s needed to maintain the coral nursery are scuba tanks, scrapers, extra cable ties, and a bunch of divers.

“Since I teach diving and spend most of my time on the island, during my free time, I would do some ‘gardening’ with a bunch of friends on our Kebun Karang,” Harris said, adding that his friends liked to call it Kebun Karang Pak Harris.

Out of curiosity, I asked what would happen to the coral nursery if the T-shirts weren’t consistently being sold, and Harris told me that maintenance would still go on with or without sales.

He may be running a business off this, but his reasons for starting Sea Bells had always been clear: to learn more about corals and contribute to their conservation.

A Passionate, Long-Term Investment

Sea Bells was started with the personal funds of Harris and some of his friends who believed in his cause.

Meet the people who help out Sea Bells / Image Credit: Sea Bells

While they’ve now sold over 150 T-shirts and replanted over 150 corals since starting in August 2019, Harris admitted that financially, it’s not going to plan.

However, he added, “I would see this as a long-term investment, and as long as I stick to my goals which is to rehabilitate damaged coral reefs, I am right on track!”

To spread awareness of their cause, he does a lot of direct marketing himself through meeting new people on the island almost daily.

This doesn’t mean that he’s underestimating the power of social media though, as he uses it to educate on ocean awareness and encourage eco-friendly lifestyles while making conservation look cool.

“We might experiment more on social media ads soon and if permitted, we might join a couple of events and open our own booth just to spread more awareness on the brand and cause,” he said.

Come October 2020, Harris is hopeful that they’ll be releasing new T-shirt designs too.

In a couple of years, he’d like to expand his Kebun Karang to different beaches and maybe even islands.

He’s content with where they’re at right now, but added he won’t lie that selling more T-shirts would make him happier.

“But I have to stick to my goal which is to rehabilitate damaged coral reefs. No point selling thousands of T-shirts but have my nursery fail miserably.”

Bottom Line: I’m glad that Sea Bells presents a more accessible option for people like me who appreciate our oceans but can’t do much for them at the moment, as we’re stuck in the city and can only offer money, not time.

  • Learn more about Sea Bells here.
  • You can read about other Malaysian startups here.

Featured Image Credit: Sea Bells

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