Former lawyer introduces organic farming to struggling community to help them overcome hardship

Leaving comfort zone to aid orang asli

PETALING JAYA: Insignificant events can have a life-changing experience for some people.

In the case of Kon Onn Sein (pix), a visit to an orang asli community in Pahang 28 years ago led him to quit a high-flying career to dirty his hands on a farm.

Kon began his worklife as a lawyer. By age 27, he had already built a successful legal career and the world was at his feet.

But what he saw at Kampung Wawah, an orang asli village in Tasik Chini, forced him to re-examine his life and purpose.

“I saw a village full of children with bloated stomachs (a sign of malnutrition) and villagers with fish-scales on their skin,” he told theSun. “They were drinking from open wells, exposing themselves to bacterial infections.”

Kon said their homes were largely incomplete, showing that building materials were hard to come by in the jungle.

He could see that the community was barely surviving.

“They were struggling just to meet their immediate needs, such as food, shelter, clothes and a sustainable economy,” he said.

Kon got a few like-minded people together and with the blessings of the village chief, he started a project to teach the villagers organic farming. They started planting on a one-acre farm, on which they cultivated long beans.

“Teaching them to plant was not too difficult. The challenge was to get the produce to the market.”

Kon recalled with a laugh that once, the villagers ended up consuming the entire crop.

“It was disappointing but on hindsight, I realised that their need for food was so great that it became more important to consume it themselves than to sell it.”

The next challenge was to make it a sustainable yet commercially viable enterprise.

Kon said it took several years of trial and error before they were finally able to get it right.

“Firstly we had to move them from subsistence farming to commercial farming. We needed to ensure that there was adequate income from the enterprise to compensate for the loss of natural resources.”

In 2000, he decided to give up his law practice and devote all his time to the orang asli. “I just turned into a country bumpkin,” he quipped.

His efforts spread through word-of-mouth and eventually reached another orang asli community in Ulu Gumum, also in Pahang.

Kon set up OA Organik, an enterprise that would handle the marketing aspects.

“We managed to get a supermarket chain to sell our produce at its six outlets in the Klang Valley and one in Kuantan. The best-selling items were Brazilian spinach, okra, mini tomatoes and corn.

His next project is to raise enough funds for a green engine chiller that would cost RM93,500.

“We have a one-tonne lorry to transport the vegetables to the market but with the chiller, the vegetables would stay fresh longer.”

Even after so many years working with the orang asli, Kon is not done yet. “I want to see more green or environmentally-friendly farms that are sustainable for a community that is often marginalised.”

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