Cover Photo: Khairul Imran / Malaysia Tatler

Fallaleaf founder Ayamany and daughter Kartigha Ayamany have greener eating habits in the bag – literally

Here’s a familiar dilemma: the end of a dinner party at home inevitably leaves you with a trash bag full of plastic plates, cups and cutlery – and a guilty conscience. Is there a greener way to tackle group dinners or lunches without contributing generously to a landfill somewhere out there?

Here’s where Fallaleaf comes in. Launched in 2007, this Malaysia-made enterprise offers high quality eco-friendly dinnerware made from the dry sheaths of fallen leaves from Areca trees, known fondly to many as upih pinang

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The impact is undeniable: swap plastic or Styrofoam plates for Fallaleaf's disposable plates, and you will not want to turn back. Microwave-safe and oven-safe, Fallaleaf plates come in different shapes and sizes, made without harmful chemicals and damage to the environment.       

The company’s poignant backstory is best told by the founder and CEO himself, Ayamany together with his daughter, Fallaleaf COO Kartigha Ayamany. Both have toiled long and hard to alter consumer habits across Malaysia by promoting an alternative to conventional dinnerware. As a company, Fallaleaf also empowers small-time plantation farmers in rural areas where these types of trees are commonly found.

Below, the beaming duo share an honest take on the increasingly popular zero-waste movement, the realities of being an eco-friendly manufacturing business and the positive change they’re making in the lives of consumers both here in Malaysia and abroad.  

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Ayamany, how did your childhood inspire Fallaleaf’s concept?

Ayamany: Where I lived, we had a lot of palm trees with dropping leaves. The sight of fallen leaves next to discarded plastics and rubbish on the roadsides was common. While on our usual gotong-royong clean-ups, memories of my grandmother using banana leaves as dinner plates got me thinking about how to bring back these practices to eradicate the use of plastics in our everyday lives.

What happened next?

A: We started the whole thing with prototype machines running at the back of our house. My engineering background came into play, and it took a long time to finalise and get those machines to produce the kind of shapes and standards we wanted. We started our factory in Puchong in 2012 with just 4 machines – those same machines are now in our new factory.

Kartigha: When we started commercialising the project in 2012, we found the local market to be really challenging. It wasn’t the consumers, it was the people in between: the corporations, companies, B2Bs. Our product was something different, and when something different comes to the table, people are generally not keen to change what they already have. Back then, the government wasn’t pushing environmental policies like they are doing today – and being ‘green’ wasn’t yet considered an urgency.

A: You wouldn’t believe the hardships we went through to promote our product. I remember going to Kuantan, Alor Setar and other places with my Alza van, distributing products and negotiating with supermarkets to take on our wares.

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How popular are Fallaleaf plates in the local and international markets today?

A: I don’t subscribe to the saying that only ‘rich people’ can afford to be eco-friendly and I’ll tell you why. A lot of demand for our products came from unexpected places, like Gombak for instance. It shows that the end-users are there and willing to spend maybe RM1 or RM2 more for these eco-friendly plates. The problem is that we lack the right platform to reach more people.

K: I think we all sort of take pride in Malaysia-made products as long as they are of good quality. Malaysians have this sense of patriotism in that regard, so if more people knew about it they will support it. We do export to Singapore, Australia, Korea and Vietnam. We’re trying to venture into Europe but that comes with another set of standards and certifications that we have to comply with.

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What inspired the unique designs of Fallaleaf’s plates?

K: In the market today, you typically only see disposable plates that are round in shape. We produce rectangular shapes as well as square, triangular, heart-shaped dishes, leaf-shaped dishes – it’s one of our strategies to get customers to look at the products differently.

If you were to walk around the supermarket and see our products on the shelves, I'm certain you would be attracted by how pretty they look and want to find out more. You may not want to buy 100 pieces at one go, but you might opt for 2 packs for your party or picnic. And that’s a good start.

How much of an impact has Fallaleaf made on local communities, especially those near the plantations?

A: We give farmers an incentive, a chance to earn a side income. In Batu Kurau, for instance, many farmers didn’t know of any actual uses for these leaves, and often threw them away or burnt them. I’ve spent as long as a year just visiting farmers, training them to identify the leaves, how to collect only the ones that have already fallen, and how to store them safely before sending them to our collection points. We worked with members of local communities to help get the word out that farmers could earn 25 sen per leaf collected.   

K: Working together with FRIM, we have 3 main collection points for the leaves: one in the northern region, in the central region where our factory is located and another one in the southern region. We realised early on that the problem wasn’t in the lack of trees; it was in transporting the leaves to our factory. We organised these hubs so that farmers didn’t have to travel far to drop off the leaves.

What about within the Fallaleaf team itself?

K: Well, we are pretty-much a women-empowered organisation. Take a look around the factory and you will realise it’s mostly women working here. The factory manager here happens to be my mum.

A: She’s right. I’m just the founder; the women run the place.

K: (Laughs) That’s more coincidental! Seriously speaking, ours is an industry that doesn't require too much high-intensity work, so it's ideal for women. We tend to pick areas for our factories where we can give the most opportunity to single mums or women who might need flexible working hours, who can come in on a shift basis.

What’s the best thing about working together in this family business?

K: It’s always great to have 2 different generations involved to solve different kinds of problems. I’ve got the newer generation solutions and he’s got the more solid experience. It’s a good balance. And when there’s a success in something you do at work and it’s with your family, it’s a different sense of achievement.

A: We had a hard time when we first started. Our family has been through a lot, but Kartigha was there through it all. I’m more inclined torwards the machines, the engineering aspect. Kartigha's got a different way of thinking and pushing products in the market. When we discuss the designs, she’s able to see what works and what doesn’t. She’s young, she has a lot of creative ideas and she puts so much of what we do on the right track. She’s really given her all for this company.

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What are some simple ways consumers can reduce the carbon footprint of their dining habits?

K: Honestly, the idea of having zero-plastic, of being ‘super green’, takes a lot of effort. It's a lifestyle. We live in a fast-paced urban world. It isn't easy being green. But if we start by being more conscious about our own carbon footprint, we can make small changes along the way. Simple things like using reusable shopping bag for your groceries. Instead of buying plastic water bottles, keep a water bottle with you all the time.

Also, support green initiatives or enterprises. It might feel like going green is expensive but if you incorporate green ways slowly in your life, it will make a big impact and spread the bigger message.

Click here to learn more about Fallaleaf products, also available on Lazada.


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