The skincare industry is a highly competitive one. With a plethora of products and brands on the market, it has become a saturated market. So, when Sulie set out to create a natural skincare product line, she knew she wanted to do something fundamentally different.
Sulie wanted to create products that not only give back to the people producing and using them but also help reduce farmers’ poverty in Borneo. That’s why she co-founded Sluvi Natural in 2018 with a social enterprise mission in mind.
Fast-forward to today, Sluvi’s business is, well, thriving. The company has helped increase farmers’ income by 300% in the past three years alone.
Tune in as the Founder of Sluvi, Miss Sulie Abell speaks to Exabytes on the challenges she faces when helping the farmers and marketing her natural skincare products.
1. Please tell us about yourself and your entrepreneurship journey.
My name is Sulie Abell, the founder of Sluvi Natural, a Malaysia social enterprise that helps reduce farmers’ poverty in Borneo by planting natural ingredients and creating skincare products with chemicals free.
To be honest I never thought that I would become an entrepreneur one day. As my family members work with the government, there’s not a lot of entrepreneurial background in my family.
The reason I want to become a social entrepreneur is that I got inspired by Muhammad Yunus (Read more about his story here) in the first semester of my university day. He is a great man and also a social entrepreneur who does microcredit and microfinance to empower small businesses to qualify for small loans and escape poverty in Bangladesh. So, after I quit my job, I decided to become a social entrepreneur too, empowering farmers by sourcing ingredients from them and increasing their income.
The reason why I quit my job is that I struggled with chronic eczema when I first started working. During that time, I couldn’t find a single product that I could use safely on my sensitive skin, and my skin got worse day after day. Every time I go to the office, everybody is staring at my face and not even talking to me. It really degraded me and I got a bit depressed that time.
Eventually, my doctor advised me to try skincare products with natural ingredients. After that, my skin improved significantly.
With painstaking research, I handcrafted my own skincare products using natural ingredients that can be easily sourced from my village – Melugu in Simanggang, Sarawak. From there, I met a bee farmer who revealed that half of Melugu farmers earn less than RM200 per month from their output.
I was shocked and sad when I heard that story, then I started to think about how I could solve farmers’ poverty, and here is how Sluvi Natural was born.
2. What is Sluvi Natural all about?
Sluvi Natural focuses on helping the farmers increase their income and their productivity. Second, obtaining the ingredients directly from the farmers and manufacture in our own factory. Third, managing the whole supply chain.
From there, we not only help the farmers to increase their income but also help their families to have access to better healthcare and education.
At the moment, we are working with four farmers. It’s not a big number, but each of them has quite a number of family members they need to take care of. So now, we are focusing on these four farming families first, and hopefully, we can help more. But still, we need to consider our capacity.
Besides this, most of our beneficiaries are low-income farmers, especially those who have financial difficulties sending their kids to school and provide better healthcare for their families. So now we offer training to widen our horizon and empower the farmers, especially in our neighbourhood and villages to produce more natural ingredients.
Why do we need to provide training to the farmers? During the research, we found out that they did not realise what the natural plants they were planting in the backyard could do for them. They have the resources but don’t know how to bring in more income until we give them the idea to utilise these resources as ingredients in our products. By having more income through Sluvi, life could be better for them.
Besides, Sluvi also targets B2B and B2C markets and events souvenirs.
After we get the farmers to get onboard with Sluvi, we educate them on what they could do for their output, and now we can see their productivity increase and their income increase by 300% as well.
So in Sluvi, we educate the farmers to be great entrepreneurs, in terms of sustainable farming techniques to mitigate the use of pesticides in their plantation while increasing yield. So in the future, if they are no longer with Sluvi, they can still move on and make money from what they farm with better knowledge.
Simply said, Sluvi is a platform for B40 farmers to learn how to farm natural ingredients and do business.
3. Please share with us some memorable challenges you’ve faced so far (communicate with farmers, market your products etc), and what did you do to overcome them?
After the social enterprise was up and running, the farmers in my village did not fully join. I tried to spread the news through word of mouth, social media, and phone calls to have the farmers come work with us, but after a month, we didn’t receive a single response.
I believe those farmers didn’t trust how legit my company was. So I decided to go on the ground and meet with the villagers from house to house to explain what Sluvi was all about and what benefits they can get to help their families.
Initially, we realised the farmers actually planted using pesticides. As we want to produce 100% natural ingredients that are chemicals free and focus on the well being of human beings and the environment, pesticides are a big no-no for us. Even though it’s difficult for the farmers to absorb that kind of knowledge, we took extra effort and time to get the farmers’ mindset aligned with Sluvi.
4. You shared that the previous larger product range did not do well as compared to the current product range. Why was it so? Would you share with us how do you intend to expand the product range in the future?
Back in 2018, we originally launched the business selling 10 products, packaged in just brown ziplock paper bags to accommodate our low capital of RM800. Initially, we thought that with more variety of products, it would make the customers excited to browse the items on our social media and other eCommerce marketplaces.
But it turned out we had a confusing product line — which products are suitable for what type of skin. Thus we needed extra time and effort to provide explanations on the benefits of a wide range of products.
After 6 months, we realised it was a waste to produce so many products since it cost us more time and money than it gained.
So we decided to cut the product variants to 5 to help both our customers and team to stay focused, and now it’s better in terms of production, time and profit. We are really glad we have done this, in this startup with small capital, we do while we learn, and be as simple as possible.
The other reason was, we want to speed up customers’ decision and purchase flow, and get their feedback and testimonials. This helps us gain the trust of other potential customers.
If there are too many products, it might slow down the customer decision-making process and we need to spend more time on product explanation.
In the future, we will definitely produce more products, but 1 set at a time, to keep our customers focused and maintain our product quality, this is the most important for me.
5. What does your typical workday look like? How do you keep yourself productive?
For my team, 5 days a week, Monday to Wednesday. We focus more on production and visit the farm. Thursday to Friday are more to handling paperwork and meetings. While the weekend will be more on courier delivery arrangement.
We only have around 3 hours of sleep per day during the peak season (Christmas, Hari Raya etc).
For myself, 24 hours is not enough. I usually wake up at 8 am and start working until 5 pm, then take a rest and start work again around 7 pm.
Some people will go for short vacations to take a break, but for myself, whenever I have free time, I rather go to bed to have a long sleep to retain my energy. This is how I reward myself.
6. What is/are the marketing strategies you are using right now? What do you look for in an online business? What were your digitalisation challenges before moving online?
Luckily we are living in the IOT (Internet of Things) era, where most of the knowledge and inspiration could be obtained from Youtube, Google, Facebook, especially when it comes to branding and marketing strategies.
Especially during this pandemic, we leverage our social media (Instagram and Facebook) and eCommerce platforms (Shopee and Poptron).
> Check out Sluvi Instagram here
The advantages of online business that we can see for the Sluvi is borderless in which people from all over the world can buy our products online.
As long as we promote our products strategically on online platforms, it can really reach the worldwide market, so far our products have been able to reach the US, Australia, India, Singapore, Brunei, Philippines, Indonesia and so on.
At the moment we still stick to the offline method (list our products at in-store pharmacies, retail shops, direct shops, grocery etc) but not that much.
7. Compared to selling your products in in-store pharmacies and retail outlets, how can online platforms/marketplaces help your business?
Initially, before the pandemic, we focused on the art market. After the pandemic, we became aware of how important it is to digitise our businesses.
Meanwhile, our customers kept asking us whether they can pay via eWallets. Initially, we were using the traditional method to sell our products, and have since lost a few of our potential customers. This was also a wake-up for us that we really need to digitalise our business to accommodate today’s customer behaviours.
After we digitise our business, it really helps a lot and we are able to track where our customers came from, and we save more money such as consignment fees paid to the physical store. But it doesn’t mean we will give up on physical stores. We will go both ways.
As mentioned earlier, before the pandemic, we had no problem selling our products. We fully focused on how to increase the natural ingredients from my villages. Because our production was located in the city, we delivered all the ingredients from the village to the city by ourselves.
We got the farmers to send the ingredients to us by bus, and for other reasons, our sales dropped 30%. So it really pushed us to think outside the box to deal with the current situation.
Before that, whenever we received an order, we ourselves will be the delivery man to send the order to our customer in 1-hour time. However, outside Kuching, will be through courier service.
At the moment we have IG, FB, Shopee, and other eCommerce platforms, as now we are a small team with a small capacity. But we are open to any new ideas that can help us expand our online presence. It’s challenging for us to catch up with the trend of selling online, but we look forward to growing our online presence in the near future.
8. What did you learn from this pandemic? How does it affect farmers and your business? What’s your biggest takeaway?
It’s really essential to be flexible when doing your business and leverage online tools. Without these powerful tools, any business wouldn’t survive this pandemic, and we can’t imagine if we are not in the IOT era.
Furthermore, with these online tools, now everything is possible. Moreover, most of the tools are free, so, why not give ourselves a shot and take the business online.
9. In your opinion, what types of materials/support are needed by traditional businessmen in order to take their business online? Knowledge and education? Or Money?
Besides financing, I really hope that the government can support digital courses in towns and villages to let them have an opportunity to learn about running a business online.
I really have sympathy for small businesses in the villages as they are not tech or online savvy. I strongly hope the government would do something to educate and support them in terms of digitalisation to get them aligned with society.
Take me as an example, before MCO I didn’t really use any online tools to grow my business. After MCO, I realise how online tools can help our business grow stronger and reach more markets and even go international.
10. Could you share with us your business plan? What are your future plans for expansion?
In 3 years’ time, we hope to increase our farmers’ income to RM2,000 and above per month, through agricultural training and workshops conducted by the team at Sluvi. Our plan will impact 15 families and educate more Malaysian consumers about the benefits of natural products.
For the long term goal, we want to create a better farming ecosystem in all the villages in Sarawak. Through this project, the farmers can have a sustainable income, improve their farming skills and knowledge, produce quality natural ingredients and create more job opportunities.
Besides, there are a lot more we can do for the villages, such as make it a tourist destination, educate the villages using productive workshops, and other related efforts that can give back to the community and benefit all the people in the village.
In terms of marketing, we are also looking forward to expanding our product range to secure more B2B customers like retailers and distributors which sell our products in big volume.
We are aiming at the hotel and the spa and beauty industry as well.
Financially, we intend to raise RM100k funding to grow our business bigger and improve our company operation, product development, and marketing strategies.
Taking up a bank loan is the worst-case scenario, so we prefer raising the fund by crowdfunding, pitching, grants etc for our social enterprise.
And yes, we are going to have our own website in the future, but now we are quite overwhelmed by almost everything in our social media, eCommerce and partners. It’s difficult for us to take care of other things. We will only consider building our own eCommerce website when we have more funds to expand our capacity.
In Malaysia, we definitely need more risk-takers and innovators who can offer end-to-end support to the micro and small businesses that face challenges in the pandemic. Thank you to Sulie for sharing this interesting and inspiring story with Exabytes. We wish Sluvi all the best in growing the business online. We hope more farmers from Sarawak (and the whole of Malaysia) will join Sluvi and get out of poverty soon.
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