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Adie Dali first came across Penan bags during a trip to the morning market in the outskirts of Brunei a few years ago. The meticulous rattan bags stood out in a way that caught his eye as they were crafted and handwoven by Penan ladies from a remote town in Ulu Baram, Sarawak.

Using the bags back home in the Klang Valley, he’d receive many queries from family and friends who wanted one too. Adie would then make trips back to Borneo to source more products and learn about the indigenous Penan community. 

“They help to protect our dying biodiversity and we actually need them more than we think they need us. By fighting for their lands, indigenous people are fighting to save the planet,” he elaborated. 

“Although they comprise less than 5% of the world’s population, indigenous people protect 80% of the earth’s biodiversity in the forests, deserts, grasslands, and marine environments in which they have lived for centuries.”

Moved by the community’s stories, Adie developed a goal to spread more awareness about them and launched a social enterprise, Penan Lab. Today, the brand has its own pop-up stores at hotels and resorts around Penang and Langkawi.

Leave it up to the weavers

Penan Lab got its start online after Adie set up an Instagram account for the business in 2018. The brand began gaining traction, giving him the confidence to focus on this venture full time and leave a financial job at a government-linked company.

Despite getting invitations to sell the bags at bazaars pre-pandemic, Adie was selective and was more dependent on online sales.

In its infancy, Penan Lab only sold bags that were ready-made by the community. Since then, it’s onboarded 4 families in Ulu Baram who will weave the bags according to Adie’s designs. 

Meticulously handcrafted bags / Image Credit: Penan Lab

But that’s about where his involvement in the product design ends, as most of the crafting is left up to the Penan ladies. The social enterprise’s trust comes from the fact that the community has expert weavers utilising traditional skills passed down throughout generations. 

Weavers are paid upfront for their work, and although Adie declined to disclose their rates, he assured that they are paid a fair price.

Once the bags are ready, Penan Lab’s team spends hours making trips in a four-wheel drive on timber roads into the village to collect them before they’re shipped to Shah Alam where the business is based. As logistics to obtain the products and marketing costs are high, the social enterprise has yet to make a stable profit thus far.

However, Adie already plans to donate 10% of Penan Lab’s net profits to The Borneo Project once they reach profitability. These funds will be channeled into the NGO’s grassroots conservation and indigenous-led projects battling climate change. 

High fashion vibes with affordable prices

Taking a look through Penan Lab’s site, the models posing with its tote bags and clutches came off rather high fashion to me. It led to my presumption that Adie was approaching such branding to stand out in a market that already offers Penan bags by other players. Namely, Penan Women Project and The Penan Bags Shop which also work with Penan ladies in Borneo.

Making the traditional fashionable / Image Credit: Penan Lab

While Adie was flattered by this statement as plenty of care is put into the product’s visual appeal, he shared that the high-fashion branding was unintentional and that it wasn’t reflected in the bag’s prices either.

Penan Lab’s maximum prices are RM80 for its clutches, RM119 for bags, and RM370 for a set of 3 large baskets. The current pricing plan is enough to sustain the brand for its fair trade, labour, and logistics required, while still charging consumers reasonably.

To add, Addie shared that he wasn’t familiar with the other Penan bag brands prior to starting his brand, as his main goal was to share his admiration for the community’s craft. “Some locals are proud to parade international designers’ labels on social media, but I want people to start romancing the same ideals with local brands too,” said Adie.

Currently, most of Penan Lab’s customers are ex-pats and those in the T20 category, which is likely due to the brand’s presence in hotels including Angsana Teluk Bahang (Banyan Tree), Penang.

A permanent resident at hotels

This collaboration came about after a recommendation from one of Penan Lab’s VVIP customers, who acknowledged the product’s quality and credibility. According to Adie, it’s common to find fake Penan bags in the market.

“We were invited to have a permanent space in that hotel. Definitely a big honour to us as Banyan Tree is an internationally, highly respected hotel and resort chain in the region, the world even,” Adie proudly said.

Adie likes sticking to monochromatic designs / Image Credit: Penan Lab

Despite having a more premium customer base which is likely older adults, Adie still aims to penetrate a younger target market, as he thinks it’s crucial to educate these consumers as well.

It can be said that the brand is already taking the necessary steps to reach such demographics, as it’s partnered with marketplaces like Poptron which can open it up to a larger audience around SEA.

While online shopping is now the norm, the human touch still plays an important part in the retail experience. Thus, Adie plans to set up at least one physical store in Klang Valley within the next 3 years to engage with more customers face to face. 

However, it would be in Penan Lab’s favour to ramp up its brand exposure and build a loyal customer base first. It could do so by setting up booths at bazaars more frequently once it’s safe again, which can be less capital intensive for the brand.

  • You can learn more about Penan Lab here.
  • You can read about more social enterprises we’ve covered here.

Featured Image Credit: Penan Lab

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Vulcan Post aims to be the knowledge hub of Singapore and Malaysia.

© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)