Borneo based start-up keeps ancient skills alive

Borneo based start-up keeps ancient skills alive

7,000 miles from home, Pioneers Post meets up with the founders of a Borneo-based start-up social enterprise that is working to empower communities and preserve traditional craftsmanship.

Last year, Pioneers Post travelled 7,000 miles from London to Borneo in order to explore the social enterprise landscape in this corner of the world. One of the ventures we met during the trip was start-up Catama Borneo.

Catama Borneo was founded by friends Catriona Maddocks and Amalina Arip; it became a registered company in 2015. Malaysia does not yet have a specific social enterprise legal status so the business is currently registered as a traditional private enterprise. It works with artisans in Sarawak to create contemporary design pieces – including hampers and baskets – using traditional techniques of plaiting natural products like rattan and bamboo. The Catama Borneo team buy the products from the artisans and then sell them via an online platform and third parties.

In 2014 Catama Borneo won the British Council & Arthur Guinness Project’s ‘Social Entrepreneurs for Good’ Award, which included a grant of RM 34,000 (Malaysian Ringgit), as well as business development training and mentorship. The funding enabled the founders to carry out extensive research in their first year of activities, which involved developing a network of rural craft makers. Additionally the co-founders have invested their own money into the company.

Maddocks explains three of the key social and cultural issues Catama Borneo has been set up to address:

Indigenous craft skills of Sarawak communities are slowly dying
The artisan producers struggle with lack of access to markets and exposure to contemporary craft practice
Those making the products have limited experience in capacity building and quality control

Maddocks continues: “We have developed a series of activities and workshops to upgrade the craft makers skills not only in craft production, but also in understanding production (meeting deadlines, order size etc.), quality standards (finishing of products), business management and entrepreneurial skills.

“Previously communities made very limited craft sales, the majority to tourists, and so we are able to monitor sales and see the economic impact our work is having, as well as the impact on the knowledge and capacity of individual craft makers.”

As the business grows all profits Catama Borneo makes will be reinvested into the business and community regeration projects. The enterprise is committed to Fair Trade principles – craft makers are paid a fair price upfront for each piece they produce. It has also started working with a local design college to provide intern placements for designers who wish to learn more about social enterprises. Arip explains: “We are looking to expand this programme and work with international product design students or recent graduates looking for unique experiences.”

2016 will mark the enterprise’s first full year in business. Maddocks explains that her and co-founder Arip’s mission is “to provide sustainable economies to rural communities in Sarawak and ensure the preservation of indigenous craft”.


The article was written by Pioneers Post with support from the British Council as part of the Global Perspectives on Social Enterprise article collection. The article collection can be found here.

The film was produced by Pioneers Post and includes footage shot by Joaquin Carriquiry and Elis Montange from Lalala. The video is also available on Pioneers Post's website here.