Gahara and The New Normal 

Gahara was recently interviewed by Nasuha Browning, founder of Make It Matter Brand Consulting for her new segment called Social Brew to discuss the brand and ‘the new normal’ in the light of COVID-19. MIMBC is a company that specialises in strengthening brands and empowering their marketing strategies. Her new series Social Brew focuses on social, environment and education concerns highlighting companies that are conscious about making an impact. 

Here is an excerpt with Gahara CEO Natasha MH. 

What is Gahara?

A social impact company designed to create and promote Malaysian batik textile from Penambang, Kelantan while offering job opportunities to the arts and crafts community in Kota Bharu with the hope of strengthening their local economy.

When did it start, and Why?

In 2007 as a cottage industry business. Founder Nik Faiz Nik Amin made a decision not to practice as an architect.Coming from a third-generation batik-making family, Nik Faiz started out as a trader helping to promote batik from the local producers.The idea at the time was to promote batik Malaysia to the world emphasizing on culture and history while Nik Faiz was studying his Masters and gaining retail experience by travelling around the world. The social entrepreneur aspect of the company was at the back of his mind but he didn’t have the capacity to look into it till after 2012. In 2019 Nik Faiz decided he was ready to pivot, innovate and scale. He started by appointing a COO and CEO with the relevant skills and shared vision so he can focus on being the Creative Director. This is where we are now. 

What are your brand values?

We see Gahara as a movement designed to provide various job opportunities in arts and crafts to local folks and help sustain a community with a rich history of batik making. We have a base in Kota Bharu called Rumah Gahara where all the batik is made and our business and work ethics are based on five pillars consisting of education, production, retail, lifestyle and sustainability efforts. Our two main brands are Ruzzgahara which is the premium fabric collection, and Gahara Label, our  soon-to-be ready-to-wear collection targeting the millennials. 

In Dec 2019 with the formal appointment of a new team, we agreed to focus more on creating social impact than profit. Perhaps it was age, timeliness and a developed social conscience. Serious talks on this galvanised in early 2019 seeing the hardship in Kota Bharu making little progress despite having over 200 artisans along the stretch of Jalan Pantai Cahaya Bulan. For us, profit and wealth meant seeing the community in Kota Bharu rise and strengthen its economic structure. Political fractions had left Kelantan neglected in the past. Many of the local artisans are in the B40 community. How they got there and why they remained there is irrelevant. What we want to do is improve their status because to us, these people are national treasures. They have gifts and skills we need to preserve and pass on to the next generation. We like to say Gahara is by Malaysians for Malaysia. As a team we are just facilitators trying to narrow the gaps.   

What was the change you saw in this pandemic?

Critical and bleeding open wounds in the socio-economic landscape where the people in arts and crafts live and work. Most are without any safety nets and are off the grid because they are not registered meaning they are without SOCSO, EPF or any kinds of retirement, medical or security provisional funds. We also see a major flaw in the systemic structure of arts and crafts itself in Malaysia compared to how artists are treated overseas such as in Germany and Canada. Here, we speak highly of them but we don’t protect them. They are not taught how to weather their businesses, not educated to manage finance to make it sustainable and to have long-term planning. Indisputable efforts have been arranged by many organisations and generous foundations but missing are enforcement and connectivity. 

The pandemic was a blessing in disguise as it showed us the gaps which we can no longer ignore. Whether arts and crafts are essentials or not is irrelevant and depends on who is asking. For us, it fuels the tourism industry. It provides the country’s identity and its people to the world, present unique job opportunities, and for that we need to provide the community the literacy to govern and manage themselves. 

A challenge is we are dealing with a community that still prefers to trust keeping their money under their pillows than in a bank. That is why they shun the government or private systems unless there is a third party mediation by people the community trusts like Nik Faiz and a brand like Gahara that stays rooted and identifiable to the community. This in part puts them out of the loop hence whatever aid or support the government or private sectors put out there falls into the lap of the same beneficiaries familiar to the system marginalising the rest further into an abyss of ignorance.   

Why do you think what you do is important for the community/ environment/ society? 

Gahara sees itself as that third party that can help ameliorate this situation. The directors’ role is to seek projects that can be broken down into different job opportunities to as many people as possible. For example, aside from hiring people for creatives and providing training to be future artisans, we also recently signed up with Airbnb Adventure to pull more tourists to KB. Offering 3 lengths of stay at our main hub Rumah Gahara in Kampung Penambang, the adventure programme enlists the help of a local guide/host and includes many opportunities to expose the unique local businesses like the pakcik selling barbequed beef in intestines by the roadside, the makcik selling nasi air, and the local masseuse offering traditional healing. 

We also act as the connector between the community, the government bodies, private agencies and learning institutes. An example is we opened the Artist’s Residence at our hub Rumah Gahara combining a homestay programme with batik-making workshops. Designed as a getaway for art lovers, educators and researchers seeking a rustic and rural Kelantan experience, Rumah Gahara also acts as a knowledge-sharing center where we invite adigurus (master craftsmen) to connect and teach others. We foresee more events for school students moving forward. Batik is another powerful narrative-based method to teach the younger generation about history and culture out of the classroom. A few of our artisans-in-the-making are students doing their internship for up to 6 months. You don’t have to be blessed with the skill to do batik, we can teach you. Most batik producers focus on trading and fashion. We don’t. I would say education is a fundamental pillar, followed by job opportunities. And then comes aesthetics. To rephrase the saying, we are not interested in buying the fish but in teaching you how to fish and remind you to help protect the sea. Another role we play is to work with, and support, the government to help promote tourism in Kelantan.   

As for the environment, Gahara plans a long-term project to look into wastewater management with learning institutes and researchers. Material, processes and procedures, dyes and disposals in the arts and crafts industry can lead to controversial discussions. Protecting our artistic legacy includes protecting the delicate balance of all of earth’s ecosystems. The pandemic has reminded us on this dearly.   

How is the new normal?

Constant innovation and tighter networking. Though the pandemic is an unprecedented crisis, as entrepreneurs you’re supposed to be prepared to bounce from crisis. You’re also supposed to see opportunities in the eyes of adversity. For instance, the state of poverty in Kelantan is not new and in many ways than one, the MCO surfaced the situation sooner and to a scale that we can work to an advantage. We now see the depth of the problem and without warning all agencies and governments alike have been coerced to see the need for remedial efforts, and fast. Previously, it would have been reduced to administrative stockpile. Right now everyone seems open to help and support each other. We hope this continues even after we have flattened the curve. The pandemic crisis is not showing us our lives are irrevocably damaged. On the contrary, it reminded us of our role towards humanity and that some areas may have been neglected and systems need to be upgraded. 

For us at Gahara, talking of “new normal” is perspective. Goals do not change and given the circumstances, even more we have to stick to what we set out to do. We feel this will help to amplify our branding and narrative. Our philosophy is simple: Everybody can play a role to help better the community. It all boils down to: What do YOU want to do? 

Gahara going digital. The team at Gahara has decided to redesign a new experience for our customers. And while visiting the outlets remain impossible for the time being, we are currently strengthening our digital presence. This is a pivot for Gahara as our traditional “touch-and-feel” style of selling our fabric now becomes a virtual one. We made a decision to relook our customer touchpoints seeing the plausibility of online communication becoming the way of life. One result from that is we will soon release our Gahara Galleria Catalogue on Instagram, something we are very excited about. Although the idea was decided pre-COVID19 to extend our reach abroad, we see this as an opportune moment to get into gear. This not only makes our products accessible to our remote customers and followers, but also faster for us to update on new products. 

For our fashion projects, we seek to enlist the help of refugees and single mothers to do the tailoring. In short, we pledge to enlist as many people in need of a job possible within our value chain. A goal is to move the nature of the business from the current hand-to-mouth cycle to a proper and viable salary-like cycle that can improve their quality of life. We don’t want them to just exist on a day-to-day basis, we want them to live and have a good and secured life. Another way we intend to help connect with others is to donate 10 percent of each collection we produce to a charitable cause. I see this more of a reality check each time we reach a milestone and to simply give back.        

More on Make It Matter Brand Consulting: Nasuha Browning is a certified brand consultant and a member of the global Brand the Change professional. She is a brand advisor to several social organisations and is passionate about empowering women through her work with Transforming Queens. She is changing the branding game by combining personal development and strategy to create authenticity in brand storytelling.  She can be reached at [email protected]  

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