Founder Series: Q&A with Sasibai Kimis of Earth Heir
Posted by MADE51 Team on
One of the things that makes MADE51 special is our network of social enterprise partners based in refugee-hosting countries. These businesses work directly with refugee artisans to create unique MADE51 products, market them to buyers, manage production and fulfill orders. Through these businesses, refugees earn fair wages, enhance their artisan skills, and - in many cases - get the chance to connect with the local community. Our 'Founder Series' showcases the story behind these businesses, and the people that bring them to life.
Earth Heir is a Malaysian social enterprise that strives to celebrate craftsmanship by designing thoughtfully, engaging in ethical partnerships, and advocating for conscious living.
Earth Heir works with Syrian, Afghan, Iranian and Burmese refugees in Selangor Malaysia who utilize their artisanal skills in embroidery to hand-stitch beautiful ornaments and jewelry pieces using locally sourced materials and unique processes. What’s more the social enterprise supports these refugee women through educating them, building their skills and collaborating on design for products.
Sasibai Kimis, the founder of Earth Heir, is absolutely passionate about issues pertaining to environmental sustainability and ecotech. We're thrilled he shared her story with us.
Tell us a little bit about your social enterprise – where are you based, what products are you making, and who is your main customer?
Based in Ampang, Selangor we are a Malaysian social enterprise established in 2013, owned by Malaysian women and we are proud to be the first B-Corp certified social enterprise, and the only fair-trade brand certified with the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) in Malaysia.
At Earth Heir, we aim to create well designed, customized and impactful artisanal pieces which are ethically made. We work with over 100 artisans in Malaysia who consist of rural weavers, indigenous tribes, refugees and differently abled persons. Our products range from handcrafted jewellery, bags, corporate gifts, home and office items.
Our main customers are women looking for well designed, premium handcrafted pieces with the added bonus of social impact.
What Inspired you to start this business?
Later on, I attended the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania to complete an Economics degree, focusing on Finance and Management. I thought if I earned a lot, I could donate that money to those who need it. So, I started my career as an investment banker with Lehman Brothers in New York. But I quickly grew disillusioned: I felt like I was helping companies get richer, while the world's needy were not being considered. I also realized that money alone is not the solution; we need people who are going to execute solutions to make a difference. I quit my job to pursue a Masters in Environment and Development at Cambridge University in 2001, I wanted to understand the poverty nexus, how can I help and what I could do.
Following my Masters, I returned to Malaysia for two years to work in a railway engineering firm. I then had the opportunity to do an internship with the UNDP in Ghana, West Africa (through a programme by the Cambridge African Network, of which I was a member in Cambridge University). I moved to Ghana in 2004, where I stayed for two years working with a local NGO (OICI) that focused on livelihood improvement projects on behalf of gold mining corporations. This time in Ghana was one of great learning for me, being on the ground and facing up to its challenges, realizing I don't need much to live on, learning how development agencies work and building appropriate solutions. Working with an NGO which depended on donor funding, we had to curtail our expenses due to the lack of funds. This was also when I realized that for a sustainable impact, revenue building is key.
So, I quit my job, and took time off (I was in Hawaii for three months learning more about God and natural farming) before going to Cambodia to teach English and build schools. It was during this time that I met with mothers who lost their children to sex traffickers and weavers who couldn't earn enough to make a living. These words, "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked", echoed strongly in my mind during this stage of my life. I felt that I have been blessed with a loving family, a good education and opportunities. I should share that and give back to others.
It initially started as a simple gesture to help in 2012. I bought scarves from the women I met and sold them to friends and family. In early 2013, I met with Dr Kim Tan, a social impact investor, who said: "If you really want to make the difference in these women's lives, you need to make this a business by helping the artisans move from the informal to the formal economy, such that they themselves will be contributors to the tax base and grow the nation". I was afraid, as I had never started a business before (studying at a business school doesn't necessarily prepare one to be an entrepreneur) but, driven by my desire to make a difference and the entrepreneurship example of my own father, I decided to start Earth Heir, which was officially registered on 14 February 2013.
How many artisans do you work with and where are they from? For the refugee artisans, what are their lives like outside of work? What kind of work opportunities do their family members and spouses have?
We have worked with about 60 host artisans who are from Pahang, Terengganu, Selangor, Sabah, Sarawak and other parts of Malaysia.
As for the refugee artisans, we have worked with about 45 refugees and more still in training. They come from countries such as Afghanistan, Palestine, Myanmar, and Syria. Outside work, many of the artisans are mothers, homemakers, or working in places such as restaurants and sewing centres. Their family members or spouses are mostly working in sewing centres, cleaning companies, restaurants, and construction companies.
Earth Heir artisan working on the Bold Ram ornament that is part of MADE51's Holiday Collection.
What inspired you to start working with refugees?
The very first refugee artisan we worked with was from Sri Lanka, she fled the war and was seeking to work so she could save funds to support her family who were still in Sri Lanka. Several years later, we met with Heidi Christ, who shared her vision for the UNHCR MADE51 initiative. Through MADE51, we were able to engage with a wider group of refugees in Malaysia and developed our first jewellery collection, and gained coverage in Forbes. Several years later, MADE51 has grown tremendously and we are now fair trade certified and far more confident in being able to support refugee artisans in Malaysia.
What craft techniques do the refugee artisans you work with artisans specialize in and where did they learn these skills?
The refugee artisans we work with are skilled in sewing, embroidery, jewellery making and crocheting. They are remarkably talented in doing very fine cross stitching and have created beautiful jewellery pieces. Some of the artisans had basic knowledge in sewing and embroidery from their previous experiences and through our engagement, they have learned to further refine their skills to create more complex artisanal pieces.
Our main focus at Earth Heir is training, we focus our efforts in training the artisans in new designs and techniques, teaching more efficient production methods, and making high quality products. Our hope is that they will learn skills which will be useful wherever they may move to in the future.
Earth Heir artisan working on Afghan Hound ornament that is part of the Afghan animal Trio in the MADE51 Holiday Collection.
What makes the techniques special?
Being able to research, hear the stories and histories behind various patterns, colours and techniques is truly a gift. The gift of relationship and friendship through these stories allows us to understand the depth of meaning, the memories and dreams of a world left behind, but with the hope of a new world.
What have you learned about the refugee crisis from working with these artisans?
Having had refugee artisans as our friends, all of us at Earth Heir have much deeper empathy and love for the artisans and we have been able to support some of our artisans through some immensely challenging moments in their journeys. We see how diligent and committed they are, and it has been a such a blessing for us to learn, laugh and grow with them
What has been the most challenging part about working with refugees, and what has been the most rewarding?
Coming from different cultures, it has not always been easy to bridge the differences in how we communicate or understand each other, so there have been mistakes made along the way. But all of us have grown together, and the main thing is that all parties are committed to working together and facing life and challenges together. The refugee artisans we work with have become our dearest friends, we have grown tremendously in love and respect for each other. Every time one of our friends is resettled, our hearts break a little but we are so happy to see them sail towards a new future.
Afghan Animal Trio- This beautiful set of three completes your holiday decorating with each ornament handcrafted by Afghan refugee artisans across different countries