Sarikei’s long link to international trade

TIME-HONOURED: Kiong Ann Tong Drug Store business owner Ping Mee Sing in a photo call as she prepares ingredients to be sold. The store has many regular customers from Sibu who come for its more competitively priced items.

SARIKEI: It may come as a surprise to most people but the rural division and town of Sarikei has had a long history of association with international trade.

Since the middle of last century, Sarikei supplied pepper, rubber and ‘engkabang’ (illipea nuts) to the world, Pemanca Frederick Wong told the BAT3 team when met yesterday.

In fact, ‘engkabang’ was shipped to Holland to be processed by massive presses into oil that among others would be used in the production of cosmetics.

Today, Sarikei is the largest producer of pepper in the state, but the production of rubber and ‘engkabang’ has declined, even as the production of other products like palm oil and bird’s nest have gained in popularity, according to the pemanca.

While local timber production may not be as prolific as other districts in the state, Wong shared that many of their young people in the timber industry are working all over the world in places as far as the Soloman Islands, Papua New Guinea, the African continent and Latin America.

Indeed, Sarikei people seem to have a keen business acumen that helps them to prosper through changing times and circumstances, despite being a comparatively small town.

The town has a reputation as the place to go to buy Chinese herbs, gold, and clothes and textiles, which is no small feat considering its relatively close proximity to Sibu.

People who live in Sibu are willing to make the 45 minute drive as they can get a good price on those goods. Even people from Kuching, which is about 4 hours’ drive away, have been known to come here to take advantage of the lower prices.

Wong and a few business owners the team interviewed said that Sarikei had managed to stay competitive because local businesses were willing to accept lower profit margins but sell higher volumes to make up for the shortfall.

Sarikei businesses also managed to keep prices lower because the cost of living here was lower compared to Sibu.

Wong explained that one reason why people from Sibu are willing to travel to Sarikei to buy its Chinese herbs which are sold in packets in various combinations, is because the local residents have developed certain mixes that not only taste better but used different quantities of various ingredients that allowed them to sell at a more competitive price.

The present Resident here Michael Dawi Alli attributes Sarikei’s growth and prosperity to its significance as ‘the food basket of Sarawak’.

Sarikei has long been a prolific producer of high quality fresh fruits and vegetables and the district plans to enhance this advantage even more through better knowledge, good management practices and the modernisation of farming and processing methods, he told the BAT3 team when met at his office yesterday.

One of the unique characteristics of Sarikei is that most of its farming activities have stayed in the hands of local smallholders, instead of being controlled by large companies.

Locals have learnt well how to effectively manage the relatively higher risk that comes with the responsibility of taking care of their land and farms, and thus, are able to reap higher profits.

Some have even expanded their businesses into other parts of the state.

Indeed, it is heartwarming to see and hear how much the division has developed and grown in recent years, thanks to the ingenuity, perseverance and diligence of its people.

For clarification, Sarikei town is known as the town of swiftlets while nearby Bintangor is known as the town of oranges, and not as reported in an earlier article.

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