Former chiropractor Lilian Chen shares how her social enterprise is helping to promote the unique agricultural products of smallholder farmers in East Malaysia

Rice is a staple food throughout Malaysia and it is the core ingredient in many local delicacies like nasi lemak—a coconut milk rice dish often served with fried anchovies, toasted peanuts and sambal. It may come as a surprise to some that East Malaysia is home to high-quality rice that is grown by indigenous people.

Lilian Chen, Chan Zi Xiang, Melisa Lim and Chia Yong Ling came to hear of this little-known secret and decided to form a social enterprise called the Langit Collective in order to bridge the gap between urban and rural economies. The organisation buys crops from smallholder farmers in East Malaysia and markets them to consumers and restaurants in West Malaysia. 

Chen describes her work and her organisation's impact in her own words. 

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I didn’t set out to be a social entrepreneur at the outset of my career. In 2013, I started volunteering in the interiors of East Malaysia after I felt burnout from working as a chiropractor. The experience opened my eyes to the realities facing people living in remote areas who lack the access to running water and electricity. 

The idea for Langit Collective came when my co-founders and I worked on an infrastructure project for a village in East Malaysia. During the project, the farmers cooked and treated us to their high-quality locally grown rice in wide varieties, colours and flavours. We discovered that the village had leftover rice, but could not sell it as they had no avenue to sell their goods.

We help the farmers by purchasing the rice directly from their doorsteps, handling the transportation to Kuala Lumpur and selling it. All the farmers need to do is focus on growing their crops while we handle the supply chain.

Some notable chefs use our rice at their restaurants. This includes Chef Darren Teoh of Dewakan and Chef Raymond Tham of Beta KL. The rice is procured at a fair price, with a minimum of 35 percent of retail proceeds going directly to the farmers. The idea is to allow the farmers to focus on what they do best—growing and harvesting the crops.

Langit Collective has helped more than 80 farmers and purchased nearly RM400,000 (about US$90,000) worth of rice from them. We’re building a milling facility in the community so that they have better machinery to process and store rice. Once the farmers can manage the entire supply chain system on their own, we will hand it over to them. That way, we can replicate the model in other communities in need.

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