eHomemakers: Eco-Baskets for Change By Kaniz Fatema and Jeremy Yee

eHomemakers: Eco-Baskets for Change By Kaniz Fatema and Jeremy Yee

June 21, 2019 MEDIA 0

eHomemakers:

Eco-Baskets for Change

By Kaniz Fatema and Jeremy Yee

Longevity is not a frequently-heard word when it comes to social enterprises – social entrepreneurship is often considered the domain of the young, restless, and energetic. However, tucked in a serene area of Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, operates a 20 year-old social enterprise called eHomemakers, that specialises in helping disadvantaged women (such as low-income single and disabled mothers, and mothers with disabled children) make a decent living working remotely, through the weaving of beautiful eco-baskets that are made commercially available.

eHomemakers was founded in 1998 by Sheau Ching, a single mother, who wanted to spend more time with her daughter while being able to work from home. After working with the United Nations, Sheau Ching returned to Malaysia and decided to recruit single, poor, and disabled mothers. These women did not have external financial support, needing to survive while continuing to household chores, take care of their dependents, and even nurse their own health issues. eHomemakers gave them the opportunity to earn a decent living while maintaining a work life balance.

Arriving early in the morning in the unassuming quiet neighbourhood, the exterior of the terraced house being utilised as an office, warehouse and training centre, gives little indication of the purpose it serves. We ring the doorbell and a friendly face greets us at the gate. Daniel, who is an intern with eHomemakers, ushers us into the living area, keen to start explaining to us the projects they are working on. He is shortly joined by Partiban, a full-time staff, and together they give us a short tour of the premises.

A selection of the eco-products available

Even knowing that eHomemakers produces and sells eco-baskets, we were amazed at the inventory of baskets and handcrafted goods positioned near the entrance. One look at the goods and you would be forgiven for disbelieving that these were made out of discarded and upcycled magazines. A variety of styles, colours, and designs were on display, not only baskets but dangling ornaments, wine holders, tissue box holders, and many more, all of them made out of the same base materials: magazine paper from pre-loved magazines to make paper rolls with strategic edges glued together while the rolls are connected through the ‘ends’ of the ‘hollows’ in the rolls’. The ecobaskets are painted with brown or maroon water-based non-toxic eco-paints, those with the original colors from the papers are polished with a layer of water-based non-toxic eco-shellac. 

We sat down with Daniel and Partiban in the simple living area, the walls adorned with newspaper articles carefully gathered over the last 20 years. Daniel beamed proudly at the articles and points out specific individuals mentioned – amongst them Jenny Pong, a double amputee who was one of the women under the eHomemakers programme, and Rhonwyn Hagedorn, director of Project WHEE!, one of the projects eHomemakers is working on.

The coffee table is laden with several eco-baskets and long sticks of cinnamon. “This cinnamon is from Project WHEE! – we are getting this cinnamon shipped from Bario to Kuala Lumpur, directly from the farmers, straight to the hands of consumers. Here, try some cinnamon tea,” Daniel offers us a glass each of the refreshing concoction.

We had arranged for a morning of volunteering in exchange for time with the founder, Sheau Ching, and we were eager to get our hands dirty. We were brought to the storage room upstairs which was filled to the ceiling with baskets ready to be sold. Some baskets were flimsier and obviously crafted by beginners – we were informed that they were preparing for an attempt in the Guinness Book of Records Malaysia, for most eco-baskets woven.

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Minimising the Carbon Footprint

We were tasked with sorting out plastic bags in the warehouse – these plastic bags would be used for packaging of the eco-baskets. All the plastic bags had been sourced from various places – there were plastics from groceries, bookstores, even bubble wrap previously used for shipping. “We don’t purchase new plastics bags as packaging materials  – we simply reuse discarded ones, in line with what we do with the eco-baskets, caring for the environment,” Partiban mentions. “The volunteers and interns would help us out with tasks like these – sorting them by colour and size, that would make it easier for us to package the eco-baskets.”

Volunteering to sort out plastic bags for packaging purposes

Working on the sorting, it is clear that it is not as easy as it looks. The bags had to be separated, folded nicely, and stored properly to ease their reusability. Despite the difficulty, it is a relief to think that these bags were seeing a second life, instead of ending up in a waste dump. After a few hours of sorting through the plastic, we were done and proceeded onto the next task – magazine cutting.

The magazines used for the eco-baskets were once sourced from magazine publishers’ old stock – unsold copies that had been returned to them by their distributors. However, this is becoming increasingly uncommon, Partiban says, as many publishers now have their own processes to recycle the pages for future print issues. It is a positive move for the industry, as greater awareness makes recycling a more viable part of business. Hence, most of their magazines to create the eco-baskets now are previously read and discarded copies.

An eco-basket in progress – notice the rolls of magazine paper

Even the simple task of cutting the magazines was challenging, we quickly discovered. To maintain the quality of the product, the cuts had to be regular in shape and size, and this is even before sorting the pages by colour to create the beautiful patterns we saw on the finished eco-basket products. Right from the early stages of the production process, the work was tedious and difficult, a testament to the skill required by the basket-weavers in producing their creation.

The production and distribution processes had been carefully crafted to minimise the carbon footprint – as the magazine material was upcycled, it has negligible negative impact on the environment. Plastic packaging is reused, and glue and shellac specially selected for minimal health risk to the weavers. Orders are made in bulk to reduce the carbon cost of transportation. The calculation for the carbon footprint of the basket had been performed by experts from YTL – SVCarbon Sdn. Bhd. in 2009, estimating the carbon footprint for a small basket at 0.54kg of emissions.

A while later, Sheau Ching arrived, straight from an appointment at the hospital. Apologising for the delay, she was in good spirits after being given a clean bill of health by the doctors. “Perhaps doing good for others has given me blessings in return,” she chuckles and graciously sits down with us after having a glass of cinnamon tea.

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Concern for Society

Sheau Ching was dressed in simple clothes, with an infectiously positive disposition. When she began to talk about eHomemakers, she was overflowing with energy.

“My early team thought I was crazy when I thought of starting up this enterprise 20 years ago. Many of these women were uneducated, had disabilities, and generally looked down upon by society. There were concerns over whether they would even physically be able to create these eco-baskets. To engage them as the creators of these products was not a very ‘sexy’ thing to do,” Sheau Ching says.

Sheau Ching and her cup of cinnamon tea

“Some of them left, but I stayed on, believing in these women, and look where we are today,” she gestures at the articles and awards in the room. “We have changed the lives of these women, and helped them rise up in society. Some of these women depended on us for their survival, living hand-to-mouth, and having an extra source of income enabled them to afford enough to live.”

These weavers were trained for a minimum of 3 months, sometimes up to a year, with a high emphasis on quality – the products had to be viable for sale to compete with other products in the market. Gradually, these enterprising women were able to train other weavers, coordinate orders, and even innovate with their own designs and products. eHomemakers would play a role in the sale and marketing of these products through their through their web-based application, ECHO ( echoapp.org), and marketing site, www.justmarketing.info.

eHomemakers practices a fair trade policy that allocates as much as 80% of the sale price to the weavers, with the rest going towards administrative, transportation, storage, and staff costs. They place importance on their social mission which is ‘Helping People Help Themselves’.

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A Culture of Innovation

“We were pioneers in many areas,” Sheau Ching said, when asked about the many awards and grants eHomemakers had won. “This enterprise started 20 years ago, way back before people even knew what social enterprise meant. In those days there were hardly Internet-enabled cellphones or email services, more so for the underprivileged groups. In some villages, they had to share a single borrowed phone line, and that was inefficient for passing order information.”

“We found our phone bills skyrocketing, and our staff time being taken up with lengthy phone calls. So, we innovated an internet-to-SMS system, that enabled that weavers to quickly get updates from us on orders and training information, and respond in a simple and automated way, just by replying ‘YES’ or ‘NO’, ‘numbers’ or ‘alphabets’ to the message. It won us the Pan-Asian Award Grant, “It won us the Pan-Asian Award Grant, two years in a row, one of 7 yearly in a global competition, the international award grants enabled us to develop the concept and the base prototype, which was instrumental in our processes of managing so many weavers,” Sheau Ching recalls with pride.

Even the core business model of weaving eco-baskets was decided upon in a day before the term ‘eco’ and the environment became popular. “We were getting underprivileged women to weave environmentally friendly baskets, 20 years ago. People also looked down on local products because of concerns about quality. Our thinking was decades ahead of its time, and caused several core members of my early team to leave as they didn’t think everything we were doing was possible. “Some told me to ‘close shop’ because they didn’t believe in the ideas!!”, she laments. But 20 years later, eHomemakers continues to improve the livelihood of the weavers, and is making a dent in the area of social enterprise.

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Overcoming Challenges

“The imposition of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) by the Malaysian government in 2015 almost spelt the end of the business,” Sheau Ching says. “In a market where we’re already competing with so many players from overseas, with cheap mass-produced rattan baskets, we had to decide whether to raise prices of our goods or to suffer the brunt of the policy.”

“We decided to continue our business model at the existing prices without affecting the fair price we pay to our weavers. Eco-products should continue to be competitively priced, and we held to our ethos of serving the social good,” Sheau Ching says. “Ethics is important in business, and it’s even more important in a social enterprise.” It was a difficult period, but the business survived.

When they found that the demand in eco-baskets was declining, they also innovated and started producing eco-handbags which found a bigger market. “The bags are beautiful and functional,” she proudly shows us one. “But because they are bigger in size and require much more effort to produce, they are more expensive than the baskets at RM120 a piece.” These eco-handbags, however, need a niche market in the eco- fashion industry, and Sheau Ching is hoping for miracles

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Looking Forward

As evident from the articles in their living area, and the activity on their social media sites including Facebook and other websites and blogs, eHomemakers is involved in more than just eco-baskets and eco-bags.

eHomemakers is involved in Project WHEE!, spearheaded by Rhonwyn Hagedorn, who is an established social entrepreneur in  her own right. Project WHEE! is an eco-tourism project that involves the youth, allowing them to experience and volunteer in farms in Bario, Sarawak, in East Malaysia. Besides experiencing working on a farm to protect food security, the youths also teach English and do community development tasks together with villagers. eHomemakers is considering a larger scale export of cinnamon and other products from Bario, to consumers in West Malaysia, that will improve the farmers’ livelihoods by cutting out the middleman.

eHomemakers is also working on a mobile application project, ECHO2U, that would help the villagers’ enterprises and sell their goods directly to consumers through non-profit delivery centers in cities. In line with their culture of innovation, eHomemakers continues to keep ahead of the curve in expanding their business and distribution channels.

It’s amazing how eHomemakers has survived 20 years in the industry, and we asked Sheau Ching what she feels about the future of social enterprises. “This kind of businesses don’t seem to last long especially when it is nonprofit. Why do social enterprises die?” Sheau Ching laments. “It’s one word – passion. Don’t lose sight of the purpose you serve, your direction, your values and ethics.”

eHomemakers truly impressed us in their commitment to the triple bottom line – the three P’s –People, Planet, and Profit. With their commitment to fair trade, they bring social change, improving the lives and futures of the women who otherwise would struggle financially. They impart entrepreneurship knowledge and skills, enabling these women to utilise discarded resources and transform them into works of art, as opposed to ending up in a landfill. There is emphasis on creating social profit from the enterprise rather than just making regular profit. All these while building a sustainable business that has lasted 20 years, allowing them to expand their horizons and involve themselves in various other social causes.

It’s easy to see why eHomemakers has found its place in the Malaysian social enterprise scene and its founder, Sheau Ching, highly respected and sought after for collaborations even after 20 years. We believe that even new social entrepreneurs have something important to learn from Sheau Ching’s tenacity in pursuing her vision of the future, she recalls in pride “When you are ethical, doing the right thing — not because you want money for yourself, but for the disadvantaged people to survive, miracles will come. I have experienced miracles which came at critical times during down times. These miracles came because we gave out positive energy to the disadvantaged, and the energy came back to us without us asking.”

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This article was prepared by Kaniz Fatema (s4586532) and Jeremy Yee (s4595516) in fulfilment of the course requirements of the module BMO5501 – Business Ethics and Sustainability of the Victoria University Masters in Business Administration.

Our authors, Kaniz Fatema and Jeremy Yee, visited eHomemakers at their premises in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, in March 2019. We would like to thank Ms. Sheau Ching, Daniel, and Partiban for their time and willingness to be interviewed.

Jeremy Yee (left) and Kaniz  Fatema (right) with eco-baskets and various other inventory in the eHomemakers office

To get in touch with eHomemakers, or if you’re looking to purchase some of their products, do visit their website at ehomemakers.net, or reach out to eHomemakers at 03-77319896 or  manager@ehomemakers.net.

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