If you are a self-respecting glutton, chances are you have tasted their heirloom rice.
From paddy terraces dotting rural Borneo, planted organically by farmers who close to 60% are women, to now a star ingredient at top KL restaurants, including the few who made it onto the latest extended list of Asia’s Best 50 Restaurants. I ask Lilian Chen, CEO of Langit Collective, whether there was a concerted effort to woo these acclaimed restaurants and their demanding chefs.
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“To be honest, it wasn’t easy at the beginning to convince chefs that they should give our products a shot; we were not an established supplier (hence no credibility), and selling local Malaysian rice at that price point was unheard of,” the Prestige Malaysia 40 Under 40 alumna replies with candour.
“But we believe our products have the ability to speak for themselves. The quality, the unique flavour and the versatility of our grains can be a perfect canvas for chefs to express their creativity.”
According to Lilian, restaurateur Ed Soo and chef Darren Teoh were among the earliest adopters of their produce and gave them “a chance to shine through their restaurants.”
Through a common goal to celebrate underrated local ingredients, local farmers and sustainability, they took it in their stride. It appears with the proliferation of locavores, the sky’s the limit for Langit. An accidental entrepreneur, Lilian was adept at fixing people’s mobility rather than agricultural woes.
“When I realised that I was in the midst of burnout as a chiropractor, I knew I needed to take time out. My plan at that time was very simple – leave my job, take a break, experience something totally different to reignite some sense of adventure, then back to my chiropractic life again,” she reminiscences about a plan she didn’t follow through.
Instead, her escapade took her to voluntary work. She contemplated on moving abroad for her endeavours. But on a friend’s suggestion, she applied for a position based in Sabah, which would soon prove just the kind of foreign experiences – metaphorically speaking – she was craving. The new role required her to build community resilience such as providing clean drinking water, improve sanitation facilities and the likes.
“What struck me throughout the experience was how little did I know about my own country. Up until that point, I didn’t know that there are villages in Malaysia that still do not have access to basic infrastructures, things that we have taken for granted on a daily basis,” Lilian opens up her epiphanic experience.
“It wasn’t the romanticised version that I used to see on TV.”
The stint left her with a glut of unanswered questions revolving around issues plaguing communities living on the fringes of the modern world. “I never thought I would be an entrepreneur before this. I never had an interest in business, let alone running one,” Lilian says, explaining her life-changing experience galvanised her resolve.
And when she and her now co-founders – Chia Yong Ling, Chan Zi Xiang and Melisa Lim – learned of the social enterprise model, they were adamant that this would be the right alternative to the conventional NGO model, to overcome social and environmental issues. From taking one small step at a time – working with farmers, learning about the paddy industry and its complex regulations – to establishing a supply chain, there have been a multitude of challenges.
“Building a network of the supply chain was incredibly tough for a bootstrapping micro-business like us. But it was a challenge that I was ready to take on because I knew that if we can make this work, we will have a model that can be adapted in many other rural villages,” she says with an air of conviction, revealing the programmes run by the Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre have helped them tremendously initially in organisation and later scaling up.
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In the past five years, Langit has grown from having three farmers to now 45 and still growing. Next up for them is exporting. Meanwhile, they have also branched into consultancy to train rural communities in food security and regenerative farming methods. Most recently, they conducted a pilot training programme in collaboration with the Global Peace Foundation to train Orang Asli communities in Pahang.
“I am proud of our every achievement, even the minute ones because they are all achieved through collective hard work and sheer determination. When we first started, there were many naysayers who did not believe in our model. I have had CEOs telling me our fair-pricing model is stupid in the world of business, and we would not make it out there.
“I wouldn’t say we are extremely successful now, but we are still here, going into our sixth year,” Lilian says while adding she struggles with imposter syndrome from time to time.
Grateful for the support she receives whether it is from her team or the farmers under their banner, Lilian counts her blessings. “Because of our first-hand experience working on the ground with rural indigenous communities, we understand the complexities that come with it and share similar values and goals towards developing an alternative development model for the rural communities.”
Looking back, she says, “Starting a business also pushed me to do something that I really hate – selling. It wasn’t something that I enjoyed doing, but rather what I had to do to promote our brand. It was tough but, having said that, it taught me a lot about humility.”