Rice has always been a staple for Melisa Lim and her friends, but it wasn’t until they tasted the heirloom rice on a group field trip to the Long Semadoh Valley in Sarawak that they understood how utterly delicious, varied and special this humble grain can be.

Heirloom rice comprises special varieties of rice that have been handed down through generations, renowned for their exceptional flavour, aroma and colour, while also being highly nutritious. “We were eating really good rice five times a day. It felt like a privilege, having all this amazing rice,” said Lim. So when Lim and her friends, Chen Le Leng, Chang Zi Xiang and Chia Yong Ling, discovered that the farmers at the Lun Bawang community were feeding their excess rice to their livestock, they were appalled at the waste. At the same time, a lightbulb went off.

The founders of Langit Creative (from left) Chia, Chan, Lim and Chen

The four were colleagues in another non-profit based in Malaysia, working on infrastructure projects in the rural parts of Sabah and Sarawak. They were solving the immediate problems of the indigenous communities that they met, such as access to clean water and electricity, but wanted to work on projects that had a long-term impact. “We realised that the core of the problem here is poverty and in order to break that cycle, the only way is to find a sustainable solution through economic empowerment,” said Lim.

The answer would come in the heirloom rice that they were savouring at each meal. The farmers were growing the rice, just a handful out of the 300 varieties of heirloom rice found in Sarawak, primarily for their own consumption. Owing to the high cost of transporting the rice from their remote location to the local markets (a four-hour off-road drive away), nullifying whatever income they made from sales, the farmers often chose to feed the excess rice to their livestock.

This inspired the four to form Langit Collective, a social enterprise that collects, packages, sells and promotes heirloom rice produced by the Lun Bawang community from the rural area of Lawas, Sarawak.

Langit offers three categories of rice – white, red and black, as well as Job’s Tears, a native grain being grown in the villages. With their luscious colours and subtle flavours of earth and flora, this is not the polished rice that we are familiar with. The black Keladi rice, which turns into a lovely mauve purple when cooked, has a slight pandanus flavour. When Langit distributes samples to top chefs in Kuala Lumpur, they often enthuse about the distinct flavours. Fans and supporters share their food photos using the rice on Langit’s Instagram page.

Rice burger – a healthier option

Langit Collective’s beginnings were largely fuelled by a need to do good as none of its members had a business or agricultural background – between them, they had an actuary, a producer, a chiropractor and a designer. The foursome wanted to be more than just a non-profit organisation relying on donations, so they knew they had to get savvy as social entrepreneurs. As a first and crucial step, they applied for and got accepted into the MaGIC accelerated programme for social enterprises in Malaysia, a four-month course that covered every topic from ideation all the way to the final product.

“At the beginning, it was a real struggle for us, to make things happen and to think about profitability. The programme gave us a framework in which to work on,” said Chen Le Leng. They started their operations from scratch, establishing supply chains, arranging transportation and applying for licenses.

Long Semadoh Valley in Sarawak

Three years on and the collective now works with three communities in the valley with 40 farmers on board from the initial three farmers – Uncle Liun, Auntie Ribed and Uncle Rumie, who are now the collective’s model farmers and spokespeople at the communities. Langit procures rice from the farmers twice a year, each time around seven tonnes, which is around 10 percent of the excess rice. The farmers are paid more than twice what they would get in the local markets and purchasing is done right at their doorsteps. The farmers would get RM3.40 for a kilogramme of white rice at the market; Langit would buy it at RM7.40 per kilogramme.

By making it economically viable for the farmers to continue farming, this helps to preserve the heirloom rice – the seeds face extinction if they are not planted. Langit also hopes that the success of the project will encourage the young to come back to the villages to pursue farming.

Rice is still planted and harvested by hand

The farming here is still traditional; the rice is planted and harvested as it has been for generations, by hand. Water buffaloes are used to fertilise the fields and clear the land in between seasons. Langit hopes to take the farming methods one step further by encouraging more sustainable practices so that the farmers will go chemical-free and have better knowledge at managing their land. As more farmers want to come on board, Langit sets the condition that it would only work with those who use very little, or no, chemicals, which spurs the farmers to rethink their practices.

During the planting and harvest seasons, in January and August respectively, the four stay with the Lun Bawang community and do their share of field work. They’ve taken to calling Zi, the actuary, the apprentice farmer. To complement its plans, Langit Collective runs five-day experience tours to the Lawas Highlands during these seasons to allow curious guests a glimpse of rural farming and the natural beauty of the Long Semadoh Valley, a hidden corner of northern Sarawak.

The project doesn’t just stop with rice. There are many small-time farmers in these rural areas producing amazing food, much of which we never see in supermarkets. Currently, Langit also buys and sells organic black pepper from a young Bidayuh farmer and ginger from two Dusun women in Sabah.

“Everyone is farming something, but it’s not going far enough nor is it bringing them income,” said Lim. “These are very simple solutions that we can think of, but it is already showing significant improvement in their livelihoods and in their opportunities. We hope that one day, this Langit model can be adapted or adopted by other communities. There is so much work to be done on the ground.”

Langit Collective products are available to buy online at langit.com.my for shipping within Malaysia, and in select shops in Kuala Lumpur and Penang.