Shaqira Ramli and her husband first started selling handmade tapestry from India in bazaars around West Malaysia and later ran tie-dye workshops under their brand, Bohomys.
But due to the pandemic, their business which depended on in-person interactions had to come to a halt. To make matters worse, they lost almost RM20K the day the first MCO was announced due to cancellations for their workshops.
“The pandemic hit us hard, and I was lost for a bit. But I knew that I had two kids that needed me, and I needed to work hard for them,” Shaqira recalled.
“It was devastating because it was that very same year that we decided to do this full-time and were supposed to do a workshop for the Langkawi Art Biennale.”
Art had always been her calling
Prior to Bohomys, Shaqira was in the events industry, which she found really stressful and demanding. “I was pregnant with my first baby when I decided to quit my job, as I was having really bad morning sickness and couldn’t commit to my work,” she recalled.
When she left the stress behind with her career in events, Shaqira felt like it only made sense to go back to what she loved doing most—art. Though they sold art handmade by others first, Shaqira and her husband later found a niche they were passionate about in making natural tie-dye and teaching others about it.
“From the beginning, it had always been a 2-man show. My husband supports the heavy work, and I’m the artist. We’re currently home-based in Putra Heights, Selangor.”
“We were very active in bazaars, especially in Penang. Sometime in 2017, a friend of mine who’s the organiser of Lokalhouz in Penang asked if we could teach at the Butterworth Fringe Festival in conjunction with the Georgetown Festival. Without hesitation, I said yes,” Shaqira pointed out some memorable moments in her art career.
Making good use of old connections
Bohomys’ pivot started in July 2020, and it began when Shaqira and her husband decided to start selling their natural tie-dye as products. Before this, they were just teaching and selling natural dye kits.
Having worked in the events industry previously, Shaqira was aware that event favours (small gifts given at events) usually had short lifespans. They were cheap but also had few uses before being thrown away.
Knowing that they could offer event organisers something more impactful, Syaqira and her husband started approaching them to pitch their natural tie-dye products. They managed to land themselves their first order (tote bags, corporate shirts, and masks) shortly after their pivot, and realised they would need more tailors.
“When we started to do event favours, we realised that while we were getting more orders in, people were also losing jobs and sales. So we met with a local youth tailor and hired her to sew our products after we have dyed our fabrics,” Shaqira shared, adding that many youth like her have so much potential but lack training.
After that hire, Shaqira decided to launch what is part of their pivot today as well, a social enterprise to empower and upskill youth to earn better through their Upskill, Create, and Earn programme which began in September 2020.
Upskilling youth through natural tie-dye
Since their pivot, they’ve added 2 people to the team through the programme: the aforementioned tailor, and another local one. They have another person in the team who helps with the dyeing process but isn’t actively involved in the apprenticeship programme.
“We see ourselves as the bridge for these youth to discover markets that they never thought they could reach before. We want to prove that even small tailors can sell to the upper-class markets, which actually happened during our Publika bazaar in May,” Shaqira explained to Vulcan Post.
Among the plans that they have to upskill these youth include exporting their work overseas, finding ways on how they can work with MATRADE as well as introducing them to bigger markets in general.
That being said, the youth are not obliged to work with them full-time and are still running their own tailoring small businesses.
“Currently, we are focusing on youth from the nearby urban village near our place. We believe that only those who want to change will be able to benefit the most from this project. So, we need to prove to them that this works,” Syaqira shared.
They haven’t been able to onboard more tailors because of MCO restrictions, but she disclosed that the two tailors have seen a 30% increase in income since working with Bohomys and earn about RM200-500 per month. Admittedly, the MCO has lowered their income a little though.
Keeping her spirits up despite the struggles
Since the first MCO, Shaqira had faced hikes in prices and was unable to source for some supplies sometimes, and she shared that her fabric supplier couldn’t open her shop for a bit.
This limits them to only being able to make bags, T-shirts, masks, and scarves in the meantime, but once their fabric supplier is able to operate again, they’re thinking of introducing more clothes.
“We’re currently in talks with some parties that would like to support our programme and to open a community skill centre in Kampung Kuala Sungai Baru, Puchong, where youth can learn skills not limited to tailoring but many more for no cost, so that this helps them to earn better right after MCO,” she shared their future plans.
At times like these, pivoting from being a profit-driven business into a social enterprise isn’t something you’d always hear of, given how many SMEs are looking to maximise what little profits they can for now.
While upskilling and hiring youth for their business to speed up production is one solution to handle the pandemic, a drawback is still the in-person limitation they’re facing, given the nature of their business.
We don’t have any sure-fire solutions, but perhaps there are ways that Bohomys can digitalise the programme to reach more youth and find different ways to offer their tie-dye products to customers.
You can learn more about Bohomys here.You can read about more social enterprises we’ve covered here.
Featured Image Credit: Shaqira Ramli, founder of Bohomys