Most people would walk into an office covered in trash and see a mess. Azam Hisham sees an opportunity to change the world.
Welcome to Biji-Biji, one of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s fastest-growing maker spaces and sustainability initiatives. Founded by 29-year old Malaysia native Azam Hisham and three friends–Gurpreet Singh Dillon, Rashvin Pal Singh, and Zoe Victoria–Biji-Biji is on a mission to create and inspire.
If a Tree Falls in a Forest
Sarawak, where Azam grew up, is located in eastern Malaysia on the island of Borneo. It is home to one of the world’s oldest and most venerable rainforests. “Or, at least it used to be,” says Azam. “They say the number of trees logged in Malaysia is equal to the size of Denmark.” And it’s true: Malaysia had the world’s highest deforestation rate from 2000-2012, equating to over 18,200 square miles of lost rainforest (Denmark covers just over 16,500 square miles).
That cast a pall over the community. “It was a very bleak feeling,” recalls Azam. “But there was also a sense of aspiration, a need to do something.”
“We new we couldn’t change big industries or high-level policymakers, but we figured we could somehow create a small ripple amongst our peers.”
But where to begin?
“We had no idea for a product or service–we just knew we wanted to inspire action.”
Azam and his team first honed in on the idea of an eco-tourism hotel. But they quickly ran into a big problem: capital. Hotels, it turns out, aren’t cheap.
So the team entered an “Entrepreneurs for Good” competition put on by the British Council, where they received valuable mentorship. “We didn’t even know the term ‘social entrepreneurship’ before that.” Biji-Biji (inspired by the Malay word for “seed”) received another, even more important boost from the British Council: the 30,000 ringgit ($7,124) grand prize. It wasn’t enough to build their eco-hotel, but it was enough to at least start building some furniture out of recycled materials. And that seemed like a good enough place to start.
In just three years, Biji-Biji has grown from four co-founders to a team of 30 full-time staff. They are supported by an ever-growing cohort of local and international volunteers. Beyond designing and building upcycled furniture, Biji-Biji has expanded to support everything from portable solar-powered light designs and local art installations to upcycling workshops, space design seminars, and other events.
The key to their rapid growth? “Our openness to contributions,” Azam asserts without hesitation. That’s why they’ve striven to create an environment that functions like a ‘physical open source space.’ “People often think of open source in terms of digital,” Azam says. “But this is open source IRL [in real life]. The ultimate goal is a fully functional, participant-driven production facility–a makerspace–where anyone can access the tools and technology they need to bring their ideas to life. Driven by the revenues from their rapidly expanding suite of products, Biji-Biji is well on their way to creating that vision IRL.
Despite their ambitious goals, Azam claims that Biji-Biji’s biggest challenges going forward are actually quite standard. “In order to be truly impactful, we have to be a great business first and foremost. We want to show that you can be a great business while also prioritizing social impact. We want to change the perception about how people can make both money and change.”
Words for the World
“Before Biji-Biji I was a music magazine writer because my friends and I wanted to see more culture around us. And as a very young economy, Malaysia is at this point where society could go in any direction. We could be anything in 20 years. And what we really want to see in 20 years is a society that is shaped by and made of all the things that people themselves want to see. Right now Malaysia is at risk of allowing big developers, big corporations, and big multinational brands decide what our society is to be. And I think they have very rigid, closed agendas. But if we could have a society that allows people to achieve whatever ideals they have, no matter what they are, then that would be great. That’s what we want to achieve. To inspire people to create whatever they want.”