The social entrepreneur talks giving native artisans an outlet to shine, and return, educating urbanites on their cultural heritage.
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Above Sasibai Kimis founded Earth Heir in 2013, to provide ethnic artisans an outlet to showcase their rare handicraft

Success, wealth, a prestigious job in the business and corporate industry – you name it, Sasibai Kimis had it. But the one thing evading her, that tugged at her conscience year after year in the rat race was her bigger purpose in life.

It was in 2011 after another late night at the office, and Sasibai was driving home and fighting the urge to fall asleep. She contemplated that if she were to die, she wanted to die for a bigger and more impactful cause. That marked a turning point – Sasibai quit her job and took off for a year of travelling, finding herself in Hawaii for several months and eventually arriving in Cambodia – where Earth Heir was conceived.

“I met many wearers, textile makers and poor Cambodian families who relied on their traditional handicraft to make ends meet,” she recalled. “I started buying their scarves and sold them to friends in Malaysia, to help them keep a steady income.”

In 2013, at the encouragement of Sasibai’s mentor Datuk Kim Tan, her endeavour turned into a business with a difference – a socal enterprise christened Earth Heir. Initially, it was a platform for Cambodian, Indian, Indonesian and Thai artisans to showcase the potential of ethnic handmade products as fashion statements and lifestyle accessories.

Today, Earth Heir flourishes on a mission to highlight artisans from all states in Malaysia. “I want to create a space to showcase works from our eclectic mix of local artisans, as a platform to teach Malaysians about their heritage,” she explained.

Sasibai has worked with an estimated 100 artisans in Malaysia, already overwhelming her standalone retail space in Ampang. She recently launched a pop up at Isetan The Japan Store in Lot 10, and has won multiple awards since launching, including the British Council Social Enterprise Award in 2015 that further developed the label’s identity. 

We sat down with Sasibai for a meaningful conversation, taking note on how, guided by turning points in life and an eye for crafts, she turned Earth Heir into an education on heritage.

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Above Today, almost 80%-90% of Earth Heir is dedicated to Malaysian artisans

I was tired of complaining about Malaysia, so I thought I should come back and try to make a difference instead. I always knew I wanted to do something bigger, I didn’t know how or what, I thought I could just earn money and give it away but I wasn’t happy doing that. I realised money is essential but what’s needed is people doing things to implement that money. My studies and career was steered in that direction, that took me from New York to Cambridge, to Ghana with the United Nations, London at a private equity advisory firm, and back to Malaysia where I jumped into the business and corporate world.

We’re trying to champion fashion revolution in Malaysia, to grow awareness on the product and people whom we buy from. It’s to consider the welfare and wellbeing of the people who make our products. Our misson is to increase the value of crafts. Until we increase the value of craft, people making them won’t earn enough, and when they don’t earn enough, the craft dies. To bring attention to this issue, we focus on creating products with contemporary designs, to highlight the beauty of the unique and handmade.

 We need to be buying less things and buying more quality things. With the amount of money spent on fast fashion, you can buy a quality product that lasts forever

When we won the British Council Social Enterprise Award 2015, I was given the opportunity to create 5 new Malaysian products and to renovate a space and now, almost 80-90% of Earth Heir is dedicated to Malaysian artisans. The grant to open our Space in Ampang was what we needed: Now, people can drop in, talk to us, hear our stories, and appreciate authentic craft. We don’t train our artisans but we look at their skills and we work with them on the designs. We notice artisans undervalue themselves, and working with UNHCR and refugees has made us realise they are not profiting or covering costs of their goods. We help them price their products but mainly give them market access.

Through Earth Heir, I’m discovering the beauty of this country I was born in. There are lots of challenges on supply and demand of handmade products. It’s not a simple supply chain or an easily scalable one but what motivates me are the artisans, and the thought of working for a better Malaysia. It’s also for the people in the city to learn about what culture the village folk have to offer, and for these rural communities to realise that people value their stuff.

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Above Sasibai takes the opportunity to highlight the processes that goes into the making of products like the mengkuang bag
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Above A notebook cover made of natural fibres

We try to educate people on the time, effort and skill that goes behind ethnic craft. One client from Singapore called about the mengkuang bag, asking why it’s not RM30 but RM100. On our Instagram, we highlight the 11 time-consuming processes of harvesting mengkuang before weaving. Whether it’s a person making it by hand, or a whole village weaving together practiced by a certain community, people like hearing these stories and for us, it’s a way to connect with our heritage and culture. 

It’s like creating pride for our clients, and creating dignity for our artisans.

My job scope varies from working with artisans, clients, and retailers. With retailers, we conceptualise display and stock, while with artisans, it’s timing, design and scale of products. With clients, we get to know their needs and try to bridge this with the artisans. I also attend events, give talks and mentor other social enterprises, and juggle sales, marketing, production, stock and inventory management, among others. This year we’re taking time on strategy, to focus on moving forward.

 There’s nothing sexy or glamorous about running a social enterprise business. It’s a tough and burdening business. People see the awards, the public speaking, but they don’t see how much struggle and hardship that went into it. I tell people who want to take up this enterprise that there’s no shame in working or supporting someone with an existing organisation, to join forces or to collaborate. All social enterprises are out there to help each other.

My idea of material success has changed a lot. I can live on a lot less but mainly, it’s the little victories that give me joy now. It’s not about dominating the world, but it’s being encouraged by feedback from artisans or clients, who have been changed by what we do – that’s success. When I hear about Malaysians doing good and transforming something old with a contemporary and exciting spin, that inspires me.

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Above Earth Heir is a culmination of her life experiences and years of searching for a purpose

Whenever you travel, you get out of your pond of what you know, it becomes a bigger lake that expands into an ocean of inspiration.

I learned the theory of business but at the end of the day, it’s about doing, and eating humble pie. I realise what made Earth Heir what it is today is my life experiences – they’ve served me and given me skills to do what I’m doing now. Earth Heir too has changed so much, we’ve pivoted and changed artisans, but that’s what its like in business. There’s more pressure for us in the sense that we’re not just making money, but ensuring people we work with make money and are helped too.

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