Irene (right, back row) during DumoWongi’s first training session with the first batch of herb growers from Kampung Bundu Tuhan Ranau.

KOTA KINABALU (June 30): Her background in plantation management led 31-year old entrepreneur Irene Mositol from Kampung Wassai Kiulu to form DumoWongi, a social enterprise based in Kampung Bundu Tuhan, Ranau in Sabah.

The enterprise produces herbs, superfoods and edible flowers using natural farming practices. Their products include fresh herbs and flowers, potted herbs and flowers, dried herbs, superfood powders and herb salts.

“We were founded in 2018 but registered DumoWongi in 2019 after joining the Shell liveWIRE programme,” she told The Borneo Post, noting that DumoWongi in the Dusun language means “fragrant farm”.

“Our business model revolves around the community. DumoWongi provides training on natural herb farming methods. DumoWongi recruits growers who plant these herbs.

“We then buy back all the harvests which are sold to hotels, small businesses, restaurants as well as individual consumers. DumoWongi does the marketing and processing, so the farmers are pretty much guaranteed returns.

“The team has grown tremendously from when we first started. The core team consists of 7 people. 39 women have joined us as herb growers. 5 of our team members are also herb growers.”

A sample of DumoWongi products.

Prior to starting this business, Irene was with a non-government organisation that works with the indigenous people in Sabah, giving community training to raise awareness of natural farming practices and food processing techniques.

On challenges for this business, Irene said that the was not being able to meet consumer demands.

“This is mainly due to the inconsistent supply of our yield. Because our products are all organic, a lot of care is required for our yield which means zero pesticides and chemicals,” she explained.

“This makes our yield prone to diseases. Our herbs are prone to be attacked by downy mildew which is very hard to get rid of. This is honestly something we are still struggling with today.

“We are working closely with universities and the agricultural department to identify ways to combat this.”

Blossoming business

Irene shows visitors the proper method to propagate rosemary from fresh cuttings.

Since then, Irene’s business has come a long way.

“When I look back and compare it to where we are now, I can see we have come a long, long way. Something that I am quite proud of,” she enthused.

“In 2019, we started searching around for herb seedlings. We bought potted herbs and sold them. We decided then to start growing our very own hers and scouted for potential customers who were interested in fresh and potted herbs.

“In 2020, with a small food dehydrator, we started producing dried herbs and herb salts. This year, we are looking to venture into superfoods and edible flowers that we sell fresh and dried.”

DumoWongi’s farm is 100 per cent chemical free. The enterprise processes its own organic fertilizer, insect repellent and potting soil mix. It also has its own processing house.

“For drying, we use a food dehydrator. All of our dried products are dried at low temperatures to ensure the nutrition is not lost,” Irene said.

“Some parts of the process are still done manually, such as mixing, filling into the packaging and sealing because we just don’t have sufficient machines yet.

To date, this enterprise has sold more than five thousand bottles of dried herbs and over one thousand potted herbs and edible flowers.

And a major part of the community-based social enterprise revolves around empowering the community in some way.

“Our 39 herb growers now have an income of up to RM365 per month. Eight of them are also giving organic farming training with the DumoWongi team,” Irene added.

Her Shell experience

Irene (fourth left) during her win at the 2018 Sabah Shell LiveWIRE programme.

Irene credited her experience from the Shell LiveWIRE programme as to what lent to her business’ success.

“I love the camaraderie of the programme. Everyone became like a family, helping one another achieve goals. I joined Shell LiveWIRE in 2018 but till today, we are continuously learning and still having catch-up sessions and mentoring with our coaches,” she said.

“I was a blank canvas when I joined the programme. After winning the Shell LiveWIRE grant, we took a giant leap and kicked things off with our business. Today, I can say we have grown leaps and bounds with a strong team and nearly 40 herb growers, whose lives we are changing.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the in-program modules and how it was conducted somewhat intensively yet delivered at a pace where everyone was able to catch up. Sessions on Business Model Canvas, for instance, made me think about refining business and prioritizing.

“The coaches give you the necessary guidance to take your idea and turn it into an actual business, provide you with the network and access to help sell your products and a platform for you to continue learning as an entrepreneur.

“The mentoring and coaching have helped me and the business grow. We are now not only supplying restaurants and business owners but also to hotels. We are also in collaboration with other entrepreneurs to produce local gift sets.”

Irene Mositol of DumoWongi.

She also said that she joined BERTAMU@Shell to share her story with more people, generate brand awareness and educate them about the benefits of her products through the impact they are making.

“Our objective was to find a way to be able to supply our product to Shell stations as well as gain feedback on how we can improve our products,” she said. “It was a great experience.

“I learned how to properly approach retailers and how to pitch our products to them since they are also entrepreneurs like us.

“We aimed to supply our products to Shell caterers and vendors as well as Shell stations but realised that our products were not exactly suitable. We knew we needed to pivot to suit this. It is something we are working on currently.

“During the feedback round with coaches and other entrepreneurs, I learned that there are many ways to get someone interested in our products. The challenge, however, is for us to actually run these trials until we reach our sweet spot.

“I learned that by truly understanding their pain points, we would be able to generate demand.”

Looking towards the future, Irene said she wants DumoWongi to be a known company that produces the best, high quality and chemical-free herbs and edible flowers in Sabah.

“Our long-term goal is to make our herb farm not just be one that plants, produces and supplies. Instead, we want to be a spot for agrotourism to drive awareness about natural farming, food safety and the importance of herbs, superfoods and edible flowers.

Irene engages with Shell retailers at the latest BERTAMU @Shell event in Kota Kinabalu.

Her advice to young, budding entrepreneurs out there who want to succeed in business: Passion, commitment and knowledge.

“These three qualities are really important for us to succeed in business. Always look for opportunities and make time to learn something to improve yourself. More importantly, don’t do business alone.

“Work with a community or group. It will make your business more meaningful knowing you are creating some sort of an impact instead of pocketing profits every month.”