How has Gahara been impacted by COVID-19? 

As many SMEs feel threatened to lay off staff or close down as a combination of social distancing, attempts to flatten the COVID curve and the Movement Restriction Order (MCO), the team at Gahara has been inundated by questions from thoughtful friends and the community concerning how we plan to survive as we are layered by a few challenges caught in a structure that depends on the following matrix: tourism, artistic community, food and beverage, and fashion. This is a good opportunity to define ourselves. We also would like to thank everyone who asked. 

Gahara CEO Natasha MH explains. 

Being affected. Yes, as an artisanal batik producer based in Kota Bharu, indisputably, we are affected as all other companies across industries. We don’t, however, see it as the artistic industry getting hit worse than, say, the hotel industry or food and beverage or education. But this isn’t the time to compare who falls hardest. We are all impacted. But as directors of Gahara we like to see this as an opportunity for innovation. A kick in the rear to move things forward and to better structure areas that needed better upkeeping. Instead of seeing the virus as a negative entity out to wreck havoc, we see it as a stimulus engineered to make us better future-proof our enterprise for the benefit of our customers and community. We have corporate projects waiting to be finished but we also have a backup plan for it. We are not as badly hit as many others as we have a small but mature and highly optimistic team which I am thankful for. We also have an agile operating system in place.

Initial Impact. The first thing we did on March 16 was to assure the staff that things were under control, that there was leadership, support and guidance. But we were also open to the fact that we will have to change the operating styles and the production schedule while under quarantine effective March 18. Having observed the international news, we were partially prepared for a big announcement and possibility of suspending operation. 

Operations. We kept communications channels open and we issued statements to keep the team and customers updated each time the Prime Minister or government officials made any critical announcement. The directors supervised working from home (WFH) by providing structure and weekly targets so no one is under or overwhelmed. The moratorium relieved us of rental concerns such as our Boutique Cafe in Kuala Lumpur and we focused on ensuring the staff were able to benefit from the financial stimulus in whatever ways possible. The textile museum administration has also been very kind and considerate since the beginning so we have been extremely fortunate to have positive support in abundance. We made a priority list in the first 10 days of the MCO. We made calls, did a lot of reading and consulting, and were rapidly communicating as early as 7.30am to 11pm. It helps that the directors are high-level professionals and as entrepreneurs, we have all experienced setbacks and financial losses in our respective past so that helps a lot to make us somewhat indifferent to the “chaos” and to remain level-headed, optimistic and more importantly, respectful of each other. We discussed matters seriously but we also knew when to cut off and laugh. We cascaded the optimism to the rest of the team and had separate conversations on how they felt about the MCO and we took note on whether WFH was effective for some of them. Being agile and providing empathy were key. In week 3 we issued a total rest week. Only focus on self, reflection and encouraging meditation. The purpose is to prepare for post-MCO when we have to resume operation. 

Because Gahara is about community, we also looked into other ways we can help the B40 folks at Kota Bharu (KB). The socio economy in KB isn’t like Kuala Lumpur. In KB the bigger concern is poverty and families going hungry than being infected by the Coronavirus. We issued our support to sell our cotton fabric at a discounted price to those who need fabric for face masks with 10 percent of every purchase going to IKRAM Kota Bharu, an NGO that provides food packs to those in need.   

Financial Losses. Yes, likelihood of a financial dent is always there but in the form of delayed payments as clients are either abroad, juggling WFH and their family, focusing their money on other priorities, and clients asking for discounts, not from lack of opportunities or corporate governance. And that makes a big difference. So if you really want to help support your local artistic community, especially knowing they are typically hard-pressed, one advice is to ensure you honor any pending payment and to continue giving your support through purchases. Every purchase moves the value chain positively. Meanwhile the directors at Gahara continue to persevere, brainstorm, re-strategize and pivot ideas to see what can be explored. This becomes quite an exciting exercise because in moments like this suddenly all ideas are worth trying.    

Boutique Cafe, KL. Many have also inquired about our operations at the textile museum in Kuala Lumpur. The Boutique Cafe acts as a modular support to the main hub which is Rumah Gahara in Kota Bharu. The business in KL supplements the income and acts as a tourist base through the textile museum to know more about what we offer in Kelantan and for us to help engage with other entrepreneurs. For example at Dayabumi we have numerous elderly food sellers without a bigger platform to sell so we order from them to our regulars. Meanwhile the visitors who come to the Boutique Cafe are either textile makers, enthusiasts or researchers keen to know more about batik. Gahara batik is unique and so we continue with our service to provide the knowledge while the kitchen is used as an incubator to explore and provide selected recipes for our in-house diners. It is not aimed to be a restaurant or a packed hangout. Most of our customers expect a calm and quiet ambiance, most use it as a time and social space to read. Plans for post MCO include catering food packs for Ramadan. We will inform our regulars about the Ramdan menu and updates via Whatsapp pending on the restriction order. This is all we can confirm for now.        

Post-COVID changes. COVID-19 has made us rethink our way of doing things. We are still on schedule to launch our ready-to-wear label (Gahara Label) but this time, we plan to give tailoring opportunities to refugees and stay-at-home women based in the KL area. Pre-COVID was a plan to launch our Gahara Men, Spring/Summer 2021 and Cruise Line and do more collaborations. All that remains as scheduled for Q3 and Q4. As for Rumah Gahara in KB, we persist with our focus on artisanal batik by hiring more locals for production, conducting more batik workshops and market Rumah Gahara under Airbnb Adventure with the help of a local guide/host. Gradually but surely, the Gahara team will be expanding.  

As we continue to use this MCO time to reassess one thing good about Gahara founder and creative director, Nik Faiz, he keeps things modest, focusing on innovating our company values and proposition rather than profit. Whatever money we rolled, it went back to slowly, and I mean really slowly, fixing the HQ in KB. Despite critiques on the slow growth, the idea is to sustain and stay longer in the game and get more people in, not make a select few richer. As a principle, the intention for us is, should we and when we are no longer around, the community can go on with the business model and opportunities we have created for them. For example, even when the virus is long gone, poverty remains. Our goal is to change this through everything we do.

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