ASAHAN: Several years ago, Meran Md Yusof found the falling rubber leaves around her kampong home a nuisance, especially when winds blew them right into her house. Frustrated, she would sweep the dead leaves into a heap and burn them.
The 59-year-old mother of three lives in a village surrounded by rubber trees. Her income used to be from the cup lump rubber that she tapped in a smallholding.
However, prices plunged about 10 years ago and soon she, like all other tappers, struggled to make ends meet.
She left her rubber-tapping job for good and ventured into this field as a cottage industry together with her friend Kamariah Jamil.
I knew it only required a small capital but it involved plenty of hard work. We have to pluck the leaves from the trees before they fall and soak them in water for a month or so. That will make the leaves soft and make it easier for us to wash the chlorophyll off very gently using soap.
“The leaves are then hung out to dry for a few days. The end product is white malleable leaves that can be handled without getting damaged,” she said.
Meran said the leaves are spray-painted in various colours, then shaped into flower products. Once done, the flowers are bunched together to form a bouquet and framed. “They make great gifts.”
She said her proudest moment was when the organisers of the Sukma Games in 2012 ordered the artificial flower bouquets from them. The bouquets were to be presented to winners along with their medals.
“They ordered 3,000 pieces and that gave us an impetus to continue our business. Risda was kind enough to even give us a small house in the village to do our business rent-free. This was a real boost,” she said.
However, business began to slow down a little after that and the duo’s lack of marketing skills didn’t help the situation.
But they persevered despite making much smaller profits, until the Malaysian Rubber Products Manufacturers Association (MRPMA) stepped in.
“They realised our products are good as souvenirs for local and international visitors. They placed a bulk order with us last year of RM43,600. I must thank them for this boost,” she said.
MRPMA president Yeaw Kok Kwey said they saw great potential in the business as the capital expenditure was as good as zero and with rubber leaves easily available, this cottage industry could be developed into a money spinner.
“Yes, it’s hard work but profits can be really good. What they lack now is a good marketing strategy.
“My association is doing its bit to help these smallholders develop this craft. We are committed in helping them and other upstream sectors to create income and we hope to grow this business together,” he said.
Yeaw said the Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities could also do more by pushing for the government and private sectors to order these artificial bouquets or other products as door gifts or souvenirs during official functions or visits by dignitaries.
“If this sector is neglected, I am afraid it is going to die a natural death and a great opportunity will be wasted,” he told FMT.
Meran is also worried that there is no one to take over the business when she retires.
“It is extremely difficult to find people willing to work with us. The youth in our village are all leaving one by one. I think this will be the biggest issue facing the industry. Maybe Risda can look into this,” she added.
Yeaw agreed that without anyone ready to take over from the existing players, the business will have no future.
“I know there are only a handful of people doing this in the country. The government and its agencies really need to put a plan in place to continue this trade.
“We are featuring this among many other Malaysian rubber products in the International Rubber Industry Convention and Expo 2022 (IRICE) which Malaysia is organising for the first time.