Malaysia’s Langit Collective – founded by four former NGO project coordinators – wants to preserve the country’s agricultural heritage by bringing heirloom rice to a wider audience.
It started in 2015 with that most humble Asian staple: Rice.
Melisa Lim, Chan Zi Xiang, Chia Yong Ling and Lilian Chen – project coordinators for a non-profit organisation – were managing the building of infrastructure in rural East Malaysia when they chanced upon the best rice they had ever tasted on a field trip to Sarawak’s Long Semadoh Valley.
The rice turned out to be an heirloom variety grown by the indigenous Lun Bawang community in the Lawas highlands. Chen compared the sensation of eating the rice to “first love”, while Lim described the fragrance, taste and texture of the grains as “unforgettable”.
Heirloom rice is grown using paddy seeds that have been inherited and passed on from one generation to the other within rural communities. Typically, these paddy seeds are saved every year after harvest and then replanted the next year.
“They are truly as original as rice can be and represent the terroir of the land. If the saved seeds are not replanted, they will slowly disappear from the communities,” explained Lim.
“This is very much unlike commercial paddy seeds which are purchased for planting and are more likely to be GMO. Heirloom seeds are crucial as they reflect not only resilient crops that have withstood the test of time, but more importantly, the culture and heritage carried on by the indigenous farming communities.”
“Heirloom seeds are crucial as they reflect not only resilient crops that have withstood the test of time, but more importantly, the culture and heritage carried on by the indigenous farming communities.” – Melisa Lim
This evocative experience was the seed that grew into Langit Collective, a social enterprise aimed at ensuring smallholder farmers in rural communities receive a fair income for their valuable grains.
Coming from diverse backgrounds – an actuary, a designer, a chiropractor and print producer – all four had abandoned their careers in their late 20s to join local non-profit, Impian Malaysia, in search of new experiences.
This is how four Kuala Lumpur-based urbanites came to experience rural East Malaysia at its rawest and got to know the difficulties its communities faced. Working for a non-profit further reinforced in the group that economic empowerment rather than a charity model was more sustainable in the long term to improve these communities’ livelihoods.
Around the end of 2015, the intrepid foursome decided to validate their idea by selling the heirloom grains they had enjoyed so much to their friends – they managed to sell 30kg in just two days.
To establish a framework for Langit, they enrolled into the MaGIC (Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre) accelerated programme for local social enterprises. This four-month-long course covered every topic from ideation all the way to the final product. It saw them through from starting operations and establishing supply chains to arranging transportation and applying for licenses.
Getting the farmers onboard was another kettle of fish, however.
“With rural farming communities, it’s not easy to promote an unproven concept. They are very pragmatic and want to see proven results before taking a plunge. Partly because many organisations have introduced projects that have no continuity,” explained Lim, who is Langit’s CMO (Chen is CEO, Chan is CFO, and Chia is CTO).
“With rural farming communities, it’s not easy to promote an unproven concept. They are very pragmatic and want to see proven results before taking a plunge. Partly because many organisations have introduced projects that have no continuity.” – Melisa Lim
But after much persuasion, they managed to convince three farmers to agree. As the project gained momentum, more farmers came around to the idea. Today, Langit is working actively with 45 farmers, with more on the waiting list.
Langit currently promotes heirloom rice and grains from Long Semadoh and Long Sukang in Sarawak; spices like ground ginger from Keningau in Sabah; and single-variety peppers from Serian, Sarawak.
Naturally, their core products are heirloom rice varieties: Beras Adan, Beras Salleh, Beras Sia’, Beras Keladi and Beras Rumie (beras means rice). The names reflect what the farmers know them as in their respective indigenous languages.
The ruby coloured Sia' means red in Lun Bawang, while Keladi denotes yam to echo the grain’s purplish hue. Adan and Salleh were named after the people who introduced the seed variety to the community. Rumie is the only one named after a farmer who does her own seed selection of her best black variety every year.
The unique flavours of the various rice varieties have been celebrated on the menus of KL’s finest restaurants, such as Dewakan (ranked No. 46 in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019), which dedicated a porridge dish to Beras Keladi.
Lim recalled how it was tough at first getting Langit’s rice into these establishments because they weren’t an established supplier and were selling local rice at an unheard-of price point. However the product spoke for itself and found an advocate in Dewakan’s exacting head chef Darren Teoh.
“Our partnership with Dewakan grew organically from there as our values are aligned when it comes to celebrating underrated, local Malaysian ingredients, appreciating local farmers and advocating sustainability. And through this partnership, we gradually got connected to a network of like-minded chefs through word of mouth,” Lim explained.
Five years on, Langit has grown their work from creating market access to actively looking at ways of improving their farmers’ farming practices – such as by using regenerative methods and/or adopting the appropriate technology.
“We acknowledge that in order to have good, nutritious food and even achieving a big vision of creating a sustainable future starts from the soil, the people who work the land, and the biodiversity that nature provides,” stated Lim.
“We acknowledge that in order to have good, nutritious food and even achieving a big vision of creating a sustainable future starts from the soil, the people who work the land, and the biodiversity that nature provides.” – Melisa Lim
They also recently launched a pilot traceability system, Foodprints: “Now with a simple scan of a QR code, customers can get a snippet of the farmer who grew their rice, the village and most importantly show how their purchase creates a direct impact to a farmer. It’s a project that we’ve been working on for a while. Being able to launch it during the Movement Control Order period is definitely a small win for us.”
Langit’s business was not spared from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, with losses from their B2B clients who had to stop operations. However, sales from their e-commerce platform helped them to pull through. While Langit’s range is available in specialty stores, business is done predominantly online.