Daily routines start early for women farmers in Ulu Muanad, Beluran, located in the east Malaysian state of Sabah. For Joyce Juareh, she commences her day shortly before five in the morning. The 40-year-old mother cooks for her family and prepares her three children for school. She later accompanies her husband, an oil palm smallholder, to their plot of land where they plant, manage and harvest this staple cash crop for most of the day. As dusk settles over the village, she is back with her family at home and tends to the usual domestic work.
Up till 2017, Juareh’s schedule did not deviate much from this, as her family’s main source of income was from harvesting oil palm. Like many rural women farmers, her role is central not only to the sustainability of her household, but also to manage local land and natural resources; as well as improving her family’s livelihood. But her initial involvement in a past time – making handicrafts, unleashed her dormant enterprising side. Not used to keeping idle, Juareh – together with other women farmers in her village – began to meet frequently in September 2017. In June 2018, they established a committee with an official name – the Ulu Muanad Women’s Handicraft Group or Pisompuruan Mematuh Tinunturu in the local Kadazan-Dusun language.
The women’s group was established together with the Earthworm Foundation’s Rurality programme which aims to empower farmers to create, tap into and own the mechanisms that will ultimately strengthen their resilience and improve their livelihoods.
Smallholders play a vital role in Malaysia’s palm oil industry and occupy 40% of total oil palm land area. But they are also an economically vulnerable group. At a time when smallholders are exposed to various risks that can affect their earnings – such as market price, high every-day farm costs and climate-related threats – alternative livelihood activities will improve their household income and grow the rural economy. A major focus of our work in Sabah, which is the second largest oil palm planting state in Malaysia, is to implement income diversification activities with oil palm smallholders.
The women of Ulu Muanad can attest to the impact created from this initiative. The Ulu Muanad Women’s Handicraft group has 11 members and Juareh serves as the group’s leader. She remarks that they have come a long way economically and creatively from their early days of weaving baskets, beads and jewellery.
“I find quiet times now in the evening after dinner or while watching the television to make the products. I’ve learnt through training provided by Earthworm Foundation on how to improve the quality of the handicrafts and to continue to exchange knowledge and skills with the other women," Joyce said. "My aspiration is that we can sell outside the village and penetrate bigger markets like tourism platforms and big state events. I’m confident that we can compete with others one day and prove that women from Ulu Muanad are as enterprising as everyone else.”
61-year-old Samina Kumin is also a member of the women’s group. She is a rubber tapper and oil palm farmer, and beams with pride when she talks about the handicrafts she has created and sold.
“I usually make them mid-noon at the oil palm plantation and also in the evenings," Samina said. "What I love most about making them is that I constantly get new inspiration to make new patterns and can experiment using different materials.”
She adds that foreign tourists have purchased her items and reflects on the business and innovative vision that has been built and maintained by her fellow women farmers.
“Imagine, tourists are talking about our products and our humble village of Ulu Muanad to others. How amazing is that?" she said.