While Kuala Lumpur and the surrounding Klang Valley in the state of Selangor, with its estimated 7.2m residents out of an overall population of 32m, is the sheer and absolute driving force of the country, followed to a lesser degree by the population centres of Penang in the north and Johor to the south, Zuhaizar Abdul Karim has set out to change this.
The president of the Malay Chamber of Commerce in Kedah grew up in what he calls the paddy field of Malaysia, and has been pushing manufacturing there, encouraging locals to use produce and resources available there to face off competition from the better-known parts of the country.
“I bring in many players from cosmetics and F&B, and I’ve been trying to change the focus of business here, which has traditionally focused on government construction contracts among the older generation,” he said.
At one point, under the prime ministership of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, from 2003-09, it looked like cosmetics would undergo a government-backed renaissance, though this has since fizzled out.
“He promoted biotechnology, with a focus on the research of local, tropical leaves and trees to make them into ingredients for cosmetics,” he explained.
“Because of this, many entrepreneurs came up with cosmetics using local ingredients. But nowadays, that doesn’t happen anymore because of the rise of industrial revolution R4.0 and social media marketing.”
‘Anyone can become an entrepreneur’
In its place, cosmetics entrepreneurs in the state have been globalising, turning to OEM suppliers through Alibaba and buying packaging from China. In this way, Kedah is just the base for their businesses, which are increasingly selling online.
“Now anyone can become an entrepreneur. You just need to spend a lot of money to outsource and promote your products through social media. That’s made the cosmetics industry boom,” he added.
It is debatable whether this is good or bad for the state, whereby more businesses are able to set up and thrive but local produce gets left out of the loop. But he looks with pride at how his daughter, Athira, a university student in the central state of Melaka, has tapped into this move towards globalisation and digital commerce.
Some 18 months ago, with his help, she set up an online cosmetics retail business, Lénore Cosmetics, from her smartphone in her bedroom. In the last three months, he says, she has made a net profit of RM100,000 (US$24,000) and since it opened the business has already cracked the Singapore market and business has been growing in Indonesia as well.
To make her serum products attractive, she has benchmarked international manufacturers in terms of branding and packaging. She sources her raw materials from Alibaba, as is increasingly becoming the norm for these small businesses, and concentrated on Facebook and Instagram to build a name for Lénore. Recently, major pharmacy chains Guardian and Watsons have taken an interest.
“It’s a simple strategy,” said Zuhaizar. “I only supported her with RM10,000 and now she’s become insta-famous!”