At Native, we're in the business of building the Malaysia we want to see.
We want to see a better Malaysia: one that is more inclusive, where everyone is given equal opportunity to play a role in nation building. This can only be achieved when we leverage our diversity. As a nation of approximately 32 million people, hailing from an array of ethnicities and culture, we all have something unique and irreplaceable to bring to the table. It is thus unfortunate that one community often gets sidelined: the Orang Asli.
Moning, a Native host, all smiles as he prepares to bring guests on a hike.
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The Orang Asli of Malaysia
The Orang Asli are the indigenous people of Peninsular Malaysia. With 18 sub-tribes, they are a proud and diverse group of people. They are also pioneers, custodians and teachers: their ancestors built the earliest settlements, helped preserve nature and history, and also modelled for us an alternative, and more sustainable, way of life.
Over the years, they have been displaced from their ancestral land in the name of development, and are being dispossessed for being ‘unproductive’. Robbed of the life that they used to know and left to adapt to an unfamiliar world that conflicts with their cultural values, most of them find themselves unwittingly pushed into a cycle of poverty.
But the Orang Asli are defiant and fiercely protective of their identity. They are not standing by idly and have been taking action to protect their homes and livelihood. It is a painstakingly long battle, and the Orang Aslis are not backing down.
How Native began
An unexpected friendship formed with the people of a Semenyih Orang Asli kampung in 2018 convinced us that we have a part to play in supporting the Orang Asli on their journey to build the future they want to see.
We were shown unmatched hospitality by the Orang Asli of this kampung. They shared their meals with us, gave us insight on their history and helped us see the value in their way of life. It dawned on us how intricately connected our lives were – without them and their contributions, Malaysia would not be the beautiful, diverse country we know it to be.
Through this friendship our eyes were opened, and we discovered much about the world around us. What used to ‘only’ be plants are now so much more: we saw the history and the medicinal value that each plant could provide. What was just another ‘ulu’ forest is now a treasure chest of cultural gems: it holds a plethora of tales waiting to be told, a vast amount of biodiversity waiting to be discovered, and a whole lot of indigenous wisdom waiting to be passed on.
Then we thought: Good things are meant for sharing! How can we share what we experienced with the public? After a while had our eureka moment: the answer was community-led tourism.
Together with our Orang Asli friends, we explored different ways that this could be done. Tours were specially designed to serve as platforms for our partner hosts to tell their stories authentically. We also made sure that our hosts were being fairly compensated.
When our hosts are able to earn that much more just from part-time work, it frees up their time to do things that matter. We are happy to see our host families being able to spend time with their families running Native activities in the kampung instead of working outside- all while earning 4 times more than their daily wage.
Convincing guests to come was hard work, but it eventually paid off. Guests left our tours impacted, and were starting to see the world like we did! They were also coming back with friends, giving us near full bookings every weekend.
The Orang Asli of Malaysia is a wonderfully diverse group of people, all of which played a significant part of making Malaysia what it is today.
The Pivot to Venture Building in a Pandemic
We were scaling healthily by late 2019. With 2 kampungs and 15 committed hosts,we were already serving close to 200 guests.
Native suffered a huge blow when the pandemic hit. Tourism-based activities were halted, and we had to think out of the box to survive. How do we connect our partner communities with guests during a time where physical contact could, quite literally, endanger lives?
We looked inwards for answers. If there was only one thing we could take away from the past two years, it was that we will not do the Orang Asli culture (and our guests!) justice if we confine it purely to physical experiences. Culture is transcendent: it exists in experiences, nature and products.
With this in mind, we started exploring the possibility of forming business ventures with our communities. Along the way we realised that our Orang Asli partners are also budding entrepreneurs with great ideas that are just waiting for the right moment to be materialised! Finally, in July 2021, we rolled out Native’s very first cultural-product focused venture with the Orang Asli: Biji Bumi Durian.
Biji Bumi Durian
Biji Bumi sold organic durians that came straight from Orang Asli dusuns in Hulu Selangor. Orang Asli durians are unique, each variety has a story to tell. Durian Batu, for example, got its name from its origin: it can only be found in one kampung, and fruits exclusively from a multi-generation stewarded tree which sprouts through rocks. Despite their uniqueness, however, it is unfortunate that Orang Asli durians are often lowly-valued as just ‘forest durians’.
Biji Bumi was the way forward as durians are so universally loved by Malaysians. If we could sell these durians to the public at the value that they well deserve, we can ride through the pandemic together AND also build the connections that we seek!
Our partner durian growers were on the same page with us. In the thick of the pandemic when the Movement Control Order severely restricted our partners’ access to the urban market, Biji Bumi was able to support our partners by bearing the operational costs of selling durians in Klang Valley. This included the costs of logistics from the village, purchase of packaging, marketing, quality checks, and order fulfilment. 40% of sales revenue went directly to our partner growers.
The support we had from the public was overwhelming. We were extremely touched because it showed that people do care, and wanted to know more about the Orang Asli! By the end of the durian season of 2021, we sold 3.49 tonnes of durians, and managed to contribute a total of RM 30, 559 to be distributed among the dozen durian growers that we worked with.
Happy Biji Bumi customers with their purchases.
By early 2022, our venture portfolio was growing steadily. We had dipped our feet into the world of virtual experiences, sold home weave kits that came with video tutorials from weaving experts, hosted international organisations on virtual immersion experiences, held virtual cooking classes, and even conducted art sessions with indigenous artists.
Today, Native is so much more than a tourism activity provider. We are proud to be able to walk alongside our partner communities in co-creating and curating meaningful business ventures.
Native’s Development Model: Venture Building to Create Resilient Village Economies
We follow the following pillars when approaching ventures:
Create economic value through culture
We strive to honour and utilise existing culture assets when building village economies. We work with communities to identify possible ventures that leverage cultural assets, and provide them with the support needed to gradually take ownership.
Protection through community visibility and invite guests to be allies
A large part of how we support our communities is by using our platforms to bring in guests. Guest participation is not only key to sustaining the village’s economy but also to provide protection through visibility. We want to make guests allies: when they see the value of what we are doing, our mission becomes their mission. Their investment in our partner communities, be it in the form of time or resources, raises awareness on the rights, challenges and aspirations of indegenous communities.
All of the above would finally lead to a community-led approach to systemic change. With the support of an invested public, indigenous voices will be heard.
Our Impact So Far
We are proud to have made a humble yet significant impact in the past two years. Since August 2019, we have:
- Enabled RM 60,000 in earned income to our partners from economic activities.
- Supported 4 communities in Selangor using the basic Native model of development. Our communities brought guests on durian tours, hosted cooking classes, hiked through waterfalls and rivers, and prepared a multi-course meal for international guests in conjunction with the KITA food festival.
- Increased the income of 20 Native hosts by 15% and encouraged a more regular exploration of their cultural roots.
Snapshots of Native guests over the years.
Moving Forward with Native
With the reopening of Malaysian borders and the loosening of travel restrictions, we are looking forward to welcoming guests back into our partner communities.
We’ve been using what we’ve learnt over the past 2 years to improve Native tours. Our hosts have also been working hard in upskilling: they’ve attended professional-led training workshops, hosted multiple trial experiences, and have built extra facilities to accommodate more guests comfortably.
We believe the future of Native is bright, and have grand ambitions for the next two years.
By the end of year 2023, we strive to:
- Have successful partnerships. We consider partnerships successful when our partners feel empowered to lead ventures independently. Venture building is the most strategic way of building sustainable economies as it allows venture partners to build up capital and ownership,and Native will provide the support that our communities need to take on these ventures as majority share owners.
- Strengthen existing community partnerships and grow our number of partner hosts. We aim to have at least 20 well equipped Native hosts that are committed to developing their economy using the Native model.
- Replicate the Native model to 7 more kampungs, including those outside of Selangor.
- Have 1000 guests become allies. With a growing army of allies lending us their voices, we will be able to hold governmental and non-governmental parties accountable. We want to push for development in kampungs to be community-led instead of profit driven, for the forestry department to gazette ancestral lands and give stewardship rights to the Orang Asli, and for mass tourism to be conducted in a regenerative fashion.
We know that this can be more than a dream. With your support, we can build the whole, inclusive Malaysia that we want to see.