Crafting a good future in business

Last update: 09/01/2020

By Nur Natasha Aida Ismail

The Department of Orang Asli Development is on a mission to produce more Orang Asli entrepreneurs in order to improve their economic status and free them from the clutches of poverty. This first of a two-part article focuses on a Temuan youth who has carved a niche for himself in business.

REMBAU (Bernama) -- Helmi Naim Ahmad is no ordinary Orang Asli. As a child, he used to make his own toys out of the rattan, roots and twigs he found in the forest near his house.

At the age of 18, he started his own handicraft business and three years later, embarked on an ecotourism venture. Today, both his businesses are thriving and the 24-year-old owes his success to his steely determination, perseverance and hard work.

Helmi operates his Temuan Abo Craft workshop and showroom and "resort", Chalet Temuan Abo Craft, in his own village Kampung Orang Asli Ulu Chembong, thus lending an authentic feel to the indigenous nature of the crafts he creates and the ecotourism experience of his resort visitors.

Kampung Orang Asli Ulu Chembong, located near Rembau — about 21 kilometres from Seremban — has a population of 500 Orang Asli from the Temuan ethnic group. Situated on undulating terrain, the village is fringed by a forest where most of the Orang Asli forage for jungle products.

Helmi has built eight wooden chalets, each of which can house three to five guests and a dormitory that can cater to up to 38 people, on the sprawling land not far from his workshop.

"My intention is to turn my kampung into a cultural village and ecotourism centre that is well known all over the country. Here, our visitors will get to experience the lifestyle of the Orang Asli and also get the chance to plant trees," he told Bernama, adding that the resort often received bookings from schools, colleges and universities to carry out self-development programmes and other activities like jungle trekking.   

 

FROM HOBBY TO BUSINESS

As for his craft-making business, the enterprising young man said he started out by making wooden sculptures, decorative items and souvenirs and has since widened his scope to include living room furniture for which the demand is high.

His products, all made from natural materials sourced from the forest, have also been showcased in Germany and Italy where he has participated in exhibitions organised by the Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation (Kraftangan Malaysia).

Recalling his childhood days in Kampung Orang Asli Ulu Chembong when he used to make his own playthings to entertain himself, Helmi said: "I used to see my school friends playing with their fancy toys which my family couldn't afford to buy as we were poor. So, almost every day I would go into the jungle in search of wood and other things to make my own toys."

Soon it became a hobby and from toys, he "graduated" to making decorative items. After completing his schooling in 2013, he decided to start his own business of making and selling handicrafts.

With no capital whatsoever then and banking on his self-confidence and talent, he went ahead to set up Temuan Abo Craft. 

"I was bold enough to start my own enterprise because I procured my raw materials from the forest near my house. So I didn't need any capital... all I needed to do was use my creativity to produce crafts that had sales value.

"I didn't plan anything. What I used to do routinely as a child became a hobby for me which later developed into a source of income for me," said Helmi, an only child whose mother Wook Bamut, 53, operates an eatery in Pedas, near here.

Even now, Helmi sources his raw materials from the jungle. As such, the actual structures of the sculptures, decorative items and furniture pieces he creates are totally dependent on what he finds in the forest. 

"I can't plan beforehand what I want to make," he said, adding that he mostly uses the wood of the tembusu tree (Fragraea fragrans, a hardwood species) and tree stumps to make his products.

This innovative Orang Asli, who is still single, has been creating his own "product of the year" over the last few years.

In 2015, he fashioned water fountains out of tree stumps and the following year, he produced small sculptures as souvenirs. In 2017, he made chair and table sets from bamboo and tembusu wood, with the price of each set exceeding RM5,000.

"In 2018, I started producing pen holders and last year, I started making mini versions of the fountain," he added.

 

MARKETING, PROMOTIONS

Helmi runs the business single-handedly but gets part-time workers from the Orang Asli community to help him to make certain crafts whenever he receives more orders than he can cope with.

To promote and market his products better, Helmi has registered his business with Kraftangan Malaysia, Department of Orang Asli Development, state Tourism authorities and other agencies.

"I get to participate in the carnivals and exhibitions organised by them not only in Malaysia but also overseas, which has enabled me to sell my crafts more extensively," he said.

Helmi also promotes his products online, via temuanabocraft.blogspot.com and his Temuan Abo Craft Malaysia Facebook account.

However, those interested in buying them have to visit his showroom in Kampung Orang Asli Ulu Chembong or booth at a carnival he is participating in.

"I've yet to find secure packaging in which I can pack my products for mailing purposes as most of my handicrafts are rather fragile," he added.

Helmi's handiwork, meanwhile, appears to have captivated the hearts of some foreigners who are willing to dish out thousands of ringgit for them.

At a carnival for rural entrepreneurs in Putrajaya in 2013, a Japanese tourist took a fancy to a sculpture of Cambodia's famed Angkor Wat temple that Helmi had carved out of wood and paid a whopping RM21,000 for it.

"I had priced it at only RM1,200 and I, in fact, told the tourist I could reduce the price if he was truly interested in buying it. But he told me he would offer RM21,000 for it because he felt that my work was worth more as it carried an implicit meaning," Helmi related.  

 

INTERESTING CRAFTS

His other eminent customers include cosmetics entrepreneur Datuk Seri Aliff Syukri Kamarzaman who he met at an Orang Asli carnival at Putra World Trade Centre in Kuala Lumpur. Alif ended up purchasing nearly RM40,000 worth of decor pieces from Helmi.

At a fair in Frankfurt, Germany, which he participated in two years ago,  Helmi sold a ladle made out of coconut shell to a restaurant owner from Dubai.

Earlier in 2015, he attended a trade carnival in Italy with Kraftangan Malaysia for which he had to learn a few Italian words so that he could communicate with the locals.

"For that particular carnival, one of the products I displayed was a carving of the Titanic ship split into two. I noticed some people nearly in tears when they saw this piece (as they were reminded of the tragedy that struck this ship). I sold it for RM680," he said.

Taking pride of place in Helmi's showroom is a driftwood decor piece that he found at the banks of a river in Kampung Batu, Rembau. The driftwood, which has been beautified by his artistic hands, resembles a pair of dragons and it carries a steep price tag as well — RM100,000.

"Someone from a hotel wanted to buy it but the price he offered was not reasonable. The driftwood will remain with me until I find someone who is willing to buy it at the price I have fixed," he added.

Translated by Rema Nambiar

--BERNAMA