Our impact, their voices

Growing businesses beyond their hometown

The ILO-UK Skills for Prosperity Programme has helped Malaysia’s local Sabahans supercharge their entrepreneurial, marketing and food processing skills.

Feature | 17 January 2023
Mohd Izwan bin Sapilin and his tomato sambal product. ©SSTC
Mohd Izwan bin Sapilin owns a start-up producing and selling tomato sambal, a chilli sauce made from chilli peppers, tomatoes and other ingredients – but it’s an ‘accidental’ business for the 33-year-old.

Before this, he worked for companies in manufacturing, agriculture and accounting. Then he decided to quit the corporate world to run a restaurant with a friend in Ranau, a district on the west coast of Sabah state in Malaysia.

“Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I saw huge potential in this tomato sambal as our regular customers would come especially to buy it,” he says.

“I have seen huge opportunities for this sambal business,” says Izwan.

However, with travel restrictions and lockdowns during the pandemic, his business was badly affected - particularly because he wasn’t selling his products online.

It prompted him to realise a key weakness - he did not know much about marketing his business.

Equipped with entrepreneurial skills

Earlier this year, he spotted an advertisement on Facebook for an upcoming training opportunity provided by the Sabah Skills and Technology Centre (SSTC) from May to June 2022. Given that the training covered his areas of interests including digital marketing and packaging standards, he decided to apply for the training and was accepted.

Promoting inclusiveness, the training was conducted on-site and covered skills based on the needs of the local communities. It is one of two pilots implemented in Sabah as part of the partnership between the ILO-UK Skills for Prosperity Programme in Malaysia (SfP-Malaysia) and SSTC. The first pilot, which focused on future-readiness of trainees, took place from Nov 2021 to January 2022.

Twenty-five trainees signed up for each pilot. All of them - including women and youth - are from Ranau, a district deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in loss of income from tourism and agriculture.

Helping the local trainees weather this crisis, the pilot programmes have equipped them with entrepreneurial skills and technical food processing skills that could help them explore business opportunities beyond Ranau.

Izwan says: “I learned not only about food processing, but also ways to start my own company. For example, I learned how to apply for a business licence, create my own marketing plans and so on.”

Rebranding and repackaging signature products

Ranau is famous for its highland vegetables, and agriculture is a major source of income for the locals. But there is a high level of food waste due to the perishable nature of the raw ingredients.

As a result, food processing was a popular choice for the training, focusing on products such as kimchi and tomato paste that have high sales potential beyond Ranau if they are packaged, labelled and marketed more effectively.

Since completing the training programme, Izwan has developed a more ambitious plan.

“Now I believe that I have a strong potential to produce more products besides the tomato sambal,” he says.

He plans to come up with a brand logo, a product barcode and a nutrition facts label on his products’ packaging.

“I learned that other local products out there do not meet the standards and I will make sure my products do,” he says.

Izwan now wants to sell his products online via e-commerce shopping platforms such as Shopee or Lazada.

He also wants to expand his product offerings to include what he learned during the training.

“I will produce cost-friendly products using all the crop scraps from my community, and I hope it will bring benefits to everyone,” says Izwan.

Replicable and scalable training models

Both pilot programmes used training models that not only meet the needs of labour markets and local Sabahans, but also are replicable and scalable. After the training, SSTC provides post-training support such as career mapping and access to job markets.

Junichi Mori, SfP-Malaysia Chief Technical Advisor, says these pilots aim to increase quality employment opportunities, skills utilisation and gender equality in the food processing sector.

“SSTC will consolidate results and lessons learned from these pilots as a tool kit and then share them with stakeholders in Sabah and at the national level,” says Mr Mori.

Fast facts
  • Although Sabah has several public and private technical and vocational education and training (TVET) and skills training institutions, their training programmes have not fully met changing industry skills needs. That’s due to a lack of engagement with industry and a limited number of programmes offered at higher skill levels. Geographical barriers make it more difficult for locals to receive quality training and formal certification.
  • Apart from the pilots in Ranau, SSTC has run similar training programmes promoting future-readiness in Sabah’s Tuaran district for 50 trainees, including women and youth. The training focuses on the application of low-cost technologies in the food-processing sector along with other relevant skills to support innovation in the state.
  • The SfP-Malaysia-SSTC partnership also aims to enhance the functions and membership base of the local network of stakeholders involved in TVET and skills development, which consists of representatives from the Sabah state government, industry, TVET and skills institutions and other social partners.
  • SfP-Malaysia has a similar partnership in Kedah state with the Kedah Industrial Skills and Management Development Centre (KISMEC). KISMEC has piloted apprenticeships, upskilling and recognition of prior learning programmes. It also works to improve institutional coordination among TVET and skills organisations, aiming to reduce the mismatch between skills training and industry needs in Kedah.
  • SfP-Malaysia works with national and local partners to enhance equity, quality and relevance of TVET and skills systems in the country. The ultimate goal is to contribute to an increase in national capacity for inclusive economic growth through more future-ready and equitable skills and TVET systems in order to improve employability, employment opportunities and earning potential of workers in Malaysia.