Making organic affordable

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 12, 2018 - March 18, 2018.

For a product to be organic, the entire process has to be environmentally friendly and you cannot use any chemicals. For example, for orange extracts or orange essential oils, you cannot use pesticides when you are growing the oranges. > Leong

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We may have heard often enough about how the chemical products used to clean our food and bodies may cause cancer. But the alternative — organic and natural products — are often priced out of the reach of regular consumers.

Edward Leong found a solution when he was studying in New Zealand. His neighbours were founders of Bacoff, a company that specialises in natural and organic cleaning products. They were eager to export to the Asian market, and Leong decided to assist them.

“During that time, in 2012, we were importing from Australia to sell in Malaysia. But over the years, we realised that it would be cheaper to manufacture here and sell it back to them,” he says.

In 2014, Leong set up a company in Malaysia to manufacture the products using formulations by the founders. This lowered the cost of production and allowed Bacoff to sell relatively affordable organic and natural products in the country. The research and most of the raw materials are still sourced from Australia, but the labelling, bottling and design are done in Malaysia.

A 500ml Bacoff product, such as hand wash or other cleaning products, costs about RM20 — nearly five times cheaper than the competition. “It is not cheap because you can find chemical-based cleaners that are RM8 or below. But RM20 is still affordable for those who live in the Klang Valley. We started this because we realised that all organic and natural products in Malaysia are so expensive,” says Leong.

They also realised the importance of providing non-chemical alternatives. “I think a lot of the cancer and health problems we have now are due to the chemicals we are ingesting. These products really address this problem, but they are just so out of reach. So, we wanted to bring the prices down and make them affordable to everyone,” says Leong.

While buying organic products is a trend in many Western countries, the awareness of such items is only starting to increase in Malaysia, especially in the major cities, he adds. However, their nursery range is also popular in the smaller cities, reflecting the demand for natural and organic products.

“Our nursery range does very well because parents want natural, organic products for their children,” says Leong, who is a parent himself.

He says that back in 2012, nobody really cared about green or natural products. “Even when we were selling them, we found it so difficult to educate buyers. But since then, the green trend has really caught on. I think Malaysians in general have learnt that we need to care about the environment and we are a bit more affluent now, so it is just the right timing.”

All of Bacoff’s ingredients are food grade, which means it is made from food and vegetable extracts. The company has obtained multiple certifications from different countries for its organic products. For instance, Bacoff is certified by the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Australia (NASAA).

“For a product to be organic, the entire process has to be environmentally friendly and you cannot use any chemicals. For example, for orange extracts or orange essential oils, you cannot use pesticides when you are growing the oranges,” says Leong.

This does not apply to natural products, where pesticides can still be part of the process. That is why organic products have to be audited. Some of its products are natural and not certified organic.

To address the concerns some may have about the effectiveness of organic cleaning products, Leong says they conduct a swab test on a regular table surface. “If you look at zero minutes, there was no longer any bacteria detected for our products. We have tested each of our products and that is how effective they are. A lot of the time, people think natural products are not as effective as chemical-based ones. I think we need to change that mindset.”

Bacoff products are sold online and can be found in supermarkets such as AEON, Village Grocer, BMS Organics, Jaya Grocer and Caring Pharmacy. Leong says when the company first started operations, it was not easy to convince these stores to accept a relatively unknown brand.

“It took a lot of education and showing buyers our track record in Australia, where we are selling to IGA — a typical supermarket you see there. We also supply to prisons in Australia because prisons have very big yards and they need to clean them. When they spray water, it flows into the drain. But in Australia, they have a rule where water runoff cannot contain any chemicals. Otherwise, they will have to treat it before it goes into the waterways,” he adds.

“That is why Bacoff does very well there because there are laws in place to prevent government bodies and corporations from just throwing everything into the drain.”

Bacoff is sold in international markets such as Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore. Leong says it is now focusing on exports because it is already in most of the major cities in Malaysia.

“We are also looking at Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines because these are emerging markets and a lot of the young people there study overseas. When they move back, they tend to like the products they used overseas. So, they look for a lot of green, natural products that they can’t find back home,” he adds.

Getting the necessary certifications to export was not easy. For instance, exporting to China required separate tests and certifications that took almost a year, whereas Singapore accepted the company’s Australian certification.

Leong says Bacoff’s most popular products in Malaysia are its fruit and vegetable wash and nursery range. The company is considering starting a new range of body washes and shampoos for children. Its products are also marketed online through its website and platforms such as Lazada and Baby Dash.

“Malaysians still prefer to shop in stores rather than online. For the nursery range, however, sales are better online because mothers tend to be at home. But in Singapore and South Korea, it is the total opposite, they like to buy online. Surprisingly, Hong Kong residents also prefer to buy products from shops,” says Leong.

The company is currently designing an automated assembly line to increase its production so it can meet future demand. “Our long-term mission is not to be the distributor. We want to bring our products to as many people as possible, especially in Southeast Asia, where there is a lack of such products,” he says.

“We would rather have distributors locally. Our long-term goal is to become a manufacturer of Bacoff products and do what we are good at, which is developing more safe products for consumers.”