Batik Boutique’s new sewing training centre in Kota Damansara, Selangor, is where all the magic happens. Artisans dye fabric and print it with traditional hand-blocked batik motifs before sewing it into beautiful products to sell at the social enterprise’s bricks-and-mortar store in Desa Sri Hartamas and on its e-commerce platform.
The sewing training centre is located close to government-subsidised housing (Program Perumahan Rakyat, or PPR flats) where the seamstresses live. Situated on the top floor of a shoplot, the spacious centre replaces the old one in the flats and provides artisans with an environment that is conducive to working.
Batik Boutique founder and CEO Amy Blair is happy to report that the enterprise’s production capacity has doubled since moving to the new centre. She also expects the number of women being trained in various sewing and product management roles to double from the present 20.
Since the enterprise was set up in 2010, more than 150 artisans have trained and worked with it, enabling it to extend its reach beyond Malaysian shores.
Merging the preservation of art and heritage with a strong social cause to empower communities, Batik Boutique was born out a friendship between Blair and Rohana Mohammad or Ana for short, whose services the former had engaged for Bahasa Malaysia lessons. As their relationship grew, Blair came to know about her new friend and single mother’s plight and wanted to do something about it. The inspiration came in the form of a small batch of batik souvenirs made by Ana that became a hit with Blair’s family and friends back in the US. Seeing how pleased Ana was and the demand for handmade artisanal products prompted Blair to started Batik Boutique. Today, the social enterprise empowers women from marginalised communities through training and opportunities that aim to promote independence.
The new sewing training centre is a collaborative effort between the social enterprise, private equity firm Ekuiti Nasional Bhd (Ekuinas) and non-governmental organisation Community Transformation Initiative Bhd (CTI).
“I was raised with the belief that when friends or neighbours are in need, you do anything you can to help them. Today is about the friendship between us (Batik Boutique) and Ekuinas and CTI,” Blair said at the launch of the new centre.
Ekuinas sponsored the equipment and is covering the training cost while CTI is paying the rent for the space, and all three parties have one goal in mind — to provide more job opportunities for women in underprivileged communities.
CTI and Batik Boutique crossed paths when the two organisations came to know that they were working with the same community. In 2014, they decided to pool their resources for efficiency. CTI, which promotes holistic development among the urban poor, indigenous people, refugees and trafficked persons, has worked with the PPR community in Kota Damansara for six years now. Speaking on the collaboration, CTI executive director Margeret Loy says, “We strongly believe every individual is made to flourish and economic empowerment projects such as this will facilitate that … the fact that Amy is able to reach the US market means she could do a lot more than our little sewing efforts before this.”
As for Ekuinas, its contribution is linked to its corporate social responsibility programme Iltizam, which is founded on three pillars — entrepreneurship, education and community. “We were looking for an initiative that was different from the rest [under the community pillar]. Batik Boutique serves the objective that we were looking for, in terms of empowering women by enriching their lives through a new skill set … When we enrich the lives of women, it also impacts the urban poor community as a whole,” explains senior director of investment and stakeholder interests, Nik Johaan Nik Hashim. He is pleased that this initiative addresses two major concerns — the issues faced by the urban poor as well as the preservation of arts and craft.
I was raised with the belief that when friends or neighbours are in need, you do anything you can to help them. Today is about the friendship between us (Batik Boutique) and Ekuinas and CTI
This collaboration is the first of its kind and Ekuinas has set a requirement that 20 new seamstresses be trained each year. “We like the sustainability aspect of this. It is not just an outright contribution. Amy also takes the products globally and we are glad to know that we have played a part in helping the women to upscale while promoting the Malaysian market at the same time.”
In addition to the economic benefits that it propounds, Batik Boutique takes great pride in empowering the individuals it works with. Seamstresses are spared the hassle and financial burden of commute with the sewing centre conveniently located within the community. Those with young children can benefit from the childcare programme by CTI, called Sayang Kanak-Kanak, which offers informal training within the community on providing better and safer care for children aged four and below. This way, mothers with young children are able to leave them with carers while working at the sewing centre.
CTI also offers financial literacy programmes for members of the PPR community in Kota Damansara, a life skill that Batik Boutique also advocates. The latter does so by providing artisans with weekly, monthly and yearly reports of their salaries to help them keep track of their earnings (artisans can choose to be paid on a weekly or monthly basis). One milestone that Batik Boutique achieved in this area is that last year alone, 70% of its seamstresses opened savings accounts.
Looking back, Blair recalls acceptance as one of the challenges faced during Batik Boutique’s early days. “We had a lot to prove. People living in poverty don’t trust very easily — this is a global issue and not specific to Malaysia. We had to prove that we could first support one woman and later two and so on … It is difficult for anyone to change their mindset about anything they believe in but that is how empowerment happens — when our minds are slightly shifted.” Today, Blair is a familiar face within the community where Batik Boutique is well received.
Indeed, there are more ways than one to measure success and in the case of Batik Boutique and its artisans, their achievements thus far certainly speak volumes. Winning the MaGIC Amplify Award for Social Enterprises, the opening of its retail shop and now the launch of a new and improved sewing training centre are all indicative of more milestones to come.
This article first appeared on Mar 12, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.