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  • Writer's pictureDustin Chan

Sowing Seeds of Sustainability: Biji-biji Initiative Paves the Way for Local Changemakers

Updated: Apr 2

Malaysia’s 2023 Budget announced earlier this year, has outlined the plan to grow the green job market nationwide. These jobs are related to sustainability, climate action, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy, energy efficiency, the circular economy, and other green economic sectors.

The green economy represents a new frontier for business as we confront climate and sustainability challenges. This is the direction the nation should embrace for social and economic progress.

While not known to many, various schemes aimed at promoting and incentivising the green economy have been in place in Malaysia as early as 2013. With support from the government, Malaysia has extended the Green Investment Tax Allowance (GITA) and Green Income Tax Exemption (GITE), both managed by Green Tech and Climate Change Corporation Malaysia (MGTC).

A little more than a year ago, Malaysia and Singapore also announced the finalisation of a collaborative framework encompassing the digital and green economies, which aligns with the 12th Malaysia Plan's objectives. This endeavour is part of the Malaysian government's initiative, to expedite the shift of the local manufacturing sector, particularly small and medium enterprises (SMEs), toward environmental, social, and governance (ESG) and the green economy.

In the heart of Southeast Asia's vibrant scene, Malaysia has emerged as a promising hub for innovation and entrepreneurship in the green economy. A beacon that stands out for its efforts to support sustainability-driven budding startups and projects is the Biji-biji Initiative. Founded in 2013, the Biji-biji Initiative is inspired by the principles of sustainability, innovation, and community engagement.

The Biji-biji Initiative

The initiative began with a group of passionate individuals driven by the desire to create a more sustainable and innovative Malaysia - Rashvin Pal Singh, Azam Hisham, Gurpreet Singh Dhillon, and Zoe Victoria. Over the years, it has grown into a multi-dimensional platform offering a wide range of sustainability-centric services to startups, social enterprises, impact organisations, non-profit organisations and projects.

“Biji-biji Initiative is a social enterprise and impact organisation based in Malaysia, that promotes sustainability and environmental solutions. As a social enterprise, we have evolved from initial models of recycling, upcycling, and ethical fashion efforts, to directly targeting impact-driven organisations to share and shape progressive ideas in sustainability by building and growing changemakers through social and environmental impact programmes.

These programmes, spearheaded by the Biji-biji Initiative, are the various impact accelerator programmes.” said Shafika Tahir, Brand Communications and Marketing Manager of Biji-biji Initiative, in an interview.

To date, Biji-biji Initiative has nurtured 433 Changemakers, empowered 57,100 individuals, disbursed RM1.2mil in income and seed funding, and driven 138 impact projects through their various business units - Mereka, Impact Accelerator Programmes and Beyond Bins.

Shafika also opined that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and impact organisations often encounter challenges due to the growing intricacy of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) standards. These businesses often lack expertise in ESG and may incur extra costs for its implementation. A viable solution is for more emphasis on ESG support programmes tailored for SMEs.

Credit: Biji-biji Initiative

With regards to addressing the current challenges faced by SMEs and low-income communities, according to Shafika, the Biji-biji Initiative is operating as a platform that empowers local businesses to explore new ways to generate income and amplify impact in the ESG space.

“We are aiming to close the gaps of sustainable development between new businesses or projects, and environmentally driven impact-making models. For sidelined, and marginalised communities, there is a need to encourage newer approaches to generate income, and entrepreneurship in the green economy, which has a lower barrier of entry for new business enterprises.”

Biji-biji's role in this regard includes providing mentorship, networking opportunities, and access to resources that help startups incorporate sustainable practices into their business models. Through Biji-biji Initiative, startups working on innovations related to clean energy, waste reduction, and eco-friendly products will find a nurturing environment within Biji-biji's community.

Starting with the Top-Down Approach

“The challenge, for the most part, is that these SMEs and communities do not know where to find the right support they need, or they simply do not know of their existence. Lack of networking and connections to these programmes and initiatives are also contributing factors.”

To address these challenges, the Biji-biji Initiative is taking a macro, industry-wide approach to change local ecosystems. One of the hurdles is to get the decision-making level of an organisation to embrace green initiatives and programmes.

Credit: Biji-biji Initiative

“We have seen positive development, support from government agencies and acceptance by the community. Encouraging organisations as a whole to adopt is much easier than individual enterprises. Green initiatives should be done on an organisational level, as everything starts from the top.”

The initiative has also been received well, especially by young entrepreneurs and innovators who have participated in the accelerator programmes, gaining traction from year to year.

"It's not hard to get people to understand the green economy and sustainability. But to be an effective solution in creating the future, we have to tell them what is expected of the modern economy in the next 10 years." Shafika added.

Fostering a Collaborative Ecosystem

Credit: Biji-biji Initiative

The Biji-biji Initiative has fostered a collaborative ecosystem that encourages budding entrepreneurs to connect, share ideas, and work together. By hosting events, workshops, and sandboxes, Biji-biji brings together like-minded individuals and encourages them to think creatively and innovatively.

The initiative also plays a pivotal role in creating partnerships between startups and established businesses. By bridging the gap between startups and industry leaders, the organisation helps fledgling companies gain access to crucial resources and mentorship that can propel them to success.

Shafika noted, “In terms of empowering these local communities, other than providing them with guidance, and education, we are also providing resources such as machinery, and technology to support them in various social enterprises to manufacture their products and generate income.

We help them build their source of income and teach them how to grow and expand their goods and products, help them build a foundation, and support them along their growth.”

Biji-biji Initiative’s Beyond Bins project, Credit: Biji-biji Initiative and Beyond Bins

To that end, the initiative provides a range of training and development programmes that align with the SDG Goals and the national blueprint in ESG, in collaboration with various public and private organisations such as Yayasan Hasanah, the Sime Darby Foundation, the US Embassy and many others. These programmes encompass various aspects of startup development, including product development, marketing, financing, and project management. By honing the skills of startup founders, Biji-biji ensures that they are well-equipped to navigate the ESG landscape as a business.

The Environmental Accelerator Programme 2023, Perak

Credit: Biji-biji Initiative’s YouTube Channel

One of Biji-biji Initiative’s key impact programmes is the Environmental Accelerator Programme, which started in 2021. The Environmental NGO Accelerator in partnership with Yayasan Hasanah, which is Malaysia’s first programme of its kind mainly aimed at gathering impact organisations with works related to the environment.

Running its second cohort of 20 participants this year, the programme returns as The Environmental Accelerator Programme 2023, held in Perak, targeting young startups and businesses to help them build capacity for growth, through workshops, seed funding rounds, and mentorship arrangements.

Yumi Chia, Programme Lead of the Environmental Accelerator Programme said, “A common challenge faced by many startups is the lack of funding and resources, access to networking opportunities, and expertise in particular areas. Biji-biji started the Environmental Accelerator programme as a response to this, and eventually evolved to target these challenges.”

Environmental Accelerator Programme 2023 Perak, Credit: Biji-biji Initiative’s Facebook

The Environmental Accelerator Programme encompasses several impact accelerators, each tailored to cater to different target audiences, with some focused on social and others on environmental impact. It is open to a diverse range of impact organisations, social enterprises, NGOs, and SMEs involved in environmental efforts.

SMEs that may not exclusively prioritise environmental objectives but possess commercially oriented solutions that can contribute to environmental causes are also considered. According to Yumi, the targeted organisations typically fall within the age range of two to five years, with exceptions considered for those either under one year or older than five years.

“Each applicant is evaluated against specific criteria, as some organisations require more substantial support. Many organisations grapple with internal conflicts, resource shortages, funding limitations, or uncertainty about how to effect meaningful change. In such cases, Biji Biji Initiative steps in to assist and support those with the intention but lacking the capacity to enact change independently.”

Through the programme’s framework, the workshops guide young leaders to build organisational management, project management, financial sustainability, digital presence, marketing, and communication skills.

Environmental Accelerator Programme 2023 Perak, Credit: Biji-biji Initiative

Over the course of three to six months, participants go through pitching rounds to propose their ideas, the programme then provides seed funding, in addition to project mentorships to help the changemakers improve their organisation.

“How we pair mentors with participants is based on their needs and industry. For example, if an organic farmer needs guidance in the agricultural industry, we will pair them with mentors from similar organisations within the industry, or with similar business models. If they need more help in other areas, such as communications and marketing, we will pair them with marketing and communications experts to help market their produce better and so on.”

“Even though the period is only six months, we do see participants connecting with their mentors which forms a professional bond that may go further beyond the programme. We also look into their project sustainability and whether it will last and help them generate income in the future to sustain themselves. This programme will be like a stepping stone to help them potentially secure other forms of grant or funding moving forward.” Chia added.

As an outlook for the future, Shafika expresses that the Biji-biji Initiative is keen to continue building momentum in providing vocational efforts for sustainability training programmes, strengthen outreach to the public in terms of green initiatives for local communities, young businesses, green projects, budding NGOs, and startups.

Biji-biji Initiative and Mereka Team, Credit: Biji-biji Initiative

“We are happy to continue working with other social enterprises and partners. Ideally, we look forward to being able to implement our Impact Accelerators nationwide in the future.

We express our gratefulness for all the tremendous faith and support shown to us by our partnered organisations, NGOs, and participants.” Chia concluded.

For more information and updates about the Biji-biji Initiative and the Environmental Accelerator Programme 2023, visit Biji-biji Initiative’s webpage.

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