Marketing Sarawak’s homegrown products


One of my favourite pastimes is to scour the shelves of supermarkets. Looking, observing and reading the labels on the array of products and the colours of the packages.

The attempts to find a sector or niche within a product range. Much of these are of course imported products. Chocolates have some of the best packaging.

Each product will tell a story of its own.

Coca-Cola, for example will tell the story of a successful brand as opposed to Pepsi. The unchanging Spencerian logotype that is recognisable throughout the world. Then they try to find further depth in the market with Diet Coke in the 70s, later renamed Coke Light as the former has negative connotation. Then there is

Coca-Cola Zero which tries to penetrate the man’s market. Lately, there is Coca-Cola Life which moves away from the traditional sugar to stevia as the humble sugar is becoming a pariah in the health issue.

On the other hand, Pepsi shows its strive and strain to find a logo type which it is satisfied with, changing numerous times over the years to the current globe scheme. The colour scheme that was red, blue and white and to the current blue. The constant change shows that it has still not found its place in the sun.

If last week we touched on the status of the upstream, that is at the agricultural field level, the same issue plagues Sarawak in the down-stream level. There is a dearth of Sarawak products. It should be a logical conclusion from last week’s article that if you do not have the primary products growing in the field, it is unlikely you will find raw materials to make end-products to feed our supermarkets.

However, what our people are overlooking and our government fails to stimulate interest in, others are saying is a gem. Celebrity and much travelled master chef, Anthony Bourdain, no less, has declared in his latest edition of “Parts Unknown,” that our Sarawak laksa is “Breakfast of the gods.” This was his third or fourth visit to Sarawak.

The Sarawak kek lapis of course has carved for itself a slice of the cake market within Malaysia. What about trying overseas? There are numerous opportunities with our indigenous products, such as sago, or our local tropical fruits.

Funny how we are selling McCormick spices from Australia in our supermarkets when we are producing all the raw spices. A situation akin to Singapore buying raw water from Johor and exporting that same water, after processing, to Johor.

Yet at times  our raw materials go to waste in the farms. The coconut trees in Asajaya are left in abandon. Our Chief Minister once remarked that our fishes in our Malaysian seas die of old age for non- exploitation by our local fishermen! But then foreign fishermen come in to steal from our shores.

Not only foods too. There are numerous other areas which we need to appreciate and help our local industries. The Sarawak pottery was a must-have product for all tourists. Bus loads used to line the showrooms along Jalan Penrissen. But all the production outlets and their showrooms at Jalan Penrissen are slowly closing or are converted to selling garden tools and materials and potted plants to supplement their pots and vases.

In recent times many have closed down, unable to face up to the competition from China.

For a long time now, our Sarawak Government has focused on the big industries. Building the likes of Samajaya Information Technology Park. Then there is the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy, as well as the big dams, perhaps to the neglect of the SMEs and the cottage industries. Sarawak SMEs are still underrepresented within the national statistics.

In Singapore, they have a host of products that have made the grade from kopitiam (coffe shops) to mass production. Ya Kun has moved its humble kaya toast and soft boiled egg from coffee shop to become a chain-store group littered over the island nation.

Similarly, Bee Cheng Hiang has moved to be a regional and international brand for its “bakkwa”or sliced barbequed  pork. They are coming to our shores soon, in Viva city.  Singapore bottle their Singapore sling. Bengawan Solo is synonymous with nonya kuih.

In Korea, they have also become a strong exporter of their cosmetic jewelleries. Some of the Australian juices that we find in our supermarket also find their humble beginnings from the family-run fruit farms.

All these were once cottage industry or small home or family shophouse businesses.

We always hear our ministers saying that our ‘this’ has potential and our ‘that’ has potential. So what does it take to move from potential to full value? So how do we move our kek lapis to international market? Or revive our Sarawak potteries? Or move our Sarawak confectionaries from Padungan into the Kuching International airport and the international market.

Numerous factors come to play, of course. In many of Singapore’s cases, the businesses were taken over by the second generation with their higher education and ambition. They have the knowhow to drive the business to the next level.

We are behind because we are still at the first generation stage. In our case, the problem is that Sarawak is a small market, as compared to the Singapore scene of a bustling market size.

In Sarawak, many second generations do not see it as worthwhile to take over the family business. Thus, the danger is that they die at the first generation. Given the chance like Everrise Supermarket ,the second generation do make the grade to the next level.

First generation businesses are generally very conservative. They do not see the need for marketing management or they do not see the importance or uses of it. Packaging, channels of distribution, financing, pricing and branding are all generally rudimentary.

For now, in pricing, our local players only know that less is best! In many cases, prices are cut and  ingredients are scalped to the minimum, and end-product standards are sacrificed. These seem to be the only aspects of competition. They lack the know-how as well as to the various access to obtain  help for  themselves.

Recently, at a Sarawak craft exhibition, the assistant Minister for Tourism made the remark that Sarawak products should use the Made in Sarawak logo. That is a surprise, as I did not know that there was one in the first place.

Of course, other countries use these to the hilt, but the country must also make sure the products reach a certain level of standard before being allowed to use the logo. Otherwise, the country’s name would be compromised.

But beyond that, there should be a ministry to push small industries to move from cottage industries to small and medium size,  and to move from local to West Malaysia and Singapore and then internationally in the full sense of the word.

This should be a ministry that provides all the services in the advising of the marketing mix, bringing the various government departments and government agencies to advise the various small cottage industries. This is not easy. To bring the smallholders and cottage industry players to think bigger and to cajole them to refine their business propositions to that which can take on a bigger share of the market.

The ministry can kick start by picking out one or two particular industry to spin several players in there towards the bigger target.

If it is currently to make ends meet for the family, then they should start thinking about capturing a bigger market. Production of food that is capable of getting the SIRIM and even the HACCP certification. The coordination of the financing sectors to assist the industries, such as SME Bank and Agro Bank.

This is certainly no easy feat, but with the new political environment created by the new Chief Minister, there should be a renaissance of the Sarawak spirit and we should aim for much bigger things.

Towards this end, the book by Annie Wong Muk Ngiik, “Small and Medium Enterprises In Sarawak, Trends In Development” is a must read for our ministers and anyone interested in uplifting the SMEs of Sarawak.

Write Straight, Write Sharp!