MIRI: There is no dispute that keropok lekor, a favourite snack among Malaysians, is originally from East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia – Terengganu and Kelantan.
Despite many similar products produced in all corners of the country, the original version is the tastiest.
Keropok lekor entrepreneur Fatimah Abdul Hamid, 57, has a vision to create Sarawak’s own version of keropok lekor.
“Keropok lekor is made from ingredients like fish, sago flour and salt; cooked and later deep-fried, it is best eaten hot. Connoisseurs of lekor can detect any subtle differences in taste.
“I am not imitating the keropok lekor from Terengganu or Kelantan but creating it to suit Sarawakian taste so one can say, ‘Yes, it’s from Sarawak’, which is my dream,” she told The Borneo Post in an interview recently.
Before venturing into entrepreneurship, Fatimah worked as teacher in Peninsular Malaysia for more than two decades.
“Keropok lekor is my all-time favourite snack. Having eaten it for two decades there, I can say that version has a unique flavour.”
In the early 2000s, Fatimah. who was in her 40s then, decided to resign to return to Miri for good and to be with her family.
“I had a little savings, and all the time in the world to think what to do next. Then I stumbled upon an opportunity to attend a one-month entrepreneurship development course organised by the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO).
“I felt fortunate for the opportunity to attend the course. All other expenses were covered by CMO and in one month, participants had the opportunity to learn how to write project proposals, development plans etc,” she recalled.
In 2003, after facing rejections from financial institutions and banks, she got her family members to chip in to help her start her keropok lekor business, and they became her business partners.
“The bank told me that based on their policy, they couldn’t lend money to a new entrepreneur with no proof that her business is profitable. They usually start on their own, and within three years, once profitable, the bank will come in for business expansion. Hence, my family helped and I am forever grateful for their love and support,” she said.
Taking small steps, Fatimah started the business with her younger sister, who already had a profit-making catering business.
Her business platform was the ‘pasar malam’ or night market to reach out to consumers.
“The next step is product development. I’ve learnt the basics of keropok lekor-making in Peninsular Malaysia and noticed that what makes good keropok lekor is fresh fish.
“I’ve done trial after trial using different types of fish and found that locals here love ‘ikan parang’ and ‘ikan alu-alu’ the most.”
Fatimah’s principle is to keep it fresh, and she got a local supplier to send fish to her small production room for product development.
“People may say it’s best to get the supply from Peninsula Malaysia, but I find it more important to get fresh fish,” she stressed.
Within the first year of her business, Fatimah had generated a decent revenue to slowly repay the loan from her family members.
During this time too, banks had started courting her for business expansion which she took up.
When it comes to managing her business and manpower, Fatimah is a focussed woman with strategy and principle.
Within several years, she had moved from the small kitchen to a decent production room, and now has two factories in Miri and Kuching with a handful of workers manning the production line.
“I’ve just moved my production line to a larger factory here last year; while in Kuching, a factory was set up, managed by my son. The one in Kuching caters to demand in Kuching up to Sibu while the Miri factory caters to Miri, Limbang, Brunei, Bintulu and Sibu.”
Apart from keropok lekor, Fatimah’s specialty is keropok keping which is a thinly-layered fish snack made with similar ingredients as keropok lekor.
Looking back on how she got help from people around her, Fatimah vowed to do the same by helping those who want to help themselves.
“Business can start from humble beginnings. Those who want to start by selling keropok lekor can get their supply from me at a good price. There are also those who deep-fry keropok lekor using the equipment in my factory which I am more than happy to let them. It shows that they are enthusiastic and eager to change their life for the better.”
Fatimah reiterated that hard work could yield small stakeholders a profit of 30 to 50 per cent within a few months to a year.
“Some give up too easily. I only help those who help themselves, and you can only taste success after putting in a certain amount of effort.”
Her business has expanded but Fatimah is not one to be complacent. The slow economy is not an excuse, and has not stopped her from aiming higher.
“A saying is that after a business has passed the first three to five years, there are two choices: be comfortable with what you have achieved and slow down to nothing, or continue to push yourself to a higher level.
“In fact, I am looking at every opportunity to expand my venture, to get more working capital, and maintain my profit,” she said.
Expanding overseas to countries like Kuwait is in the pipeline and she even gets proposals from companies like Alibaba, China’s successful digital business platform.
“Keropok lekor has become an icon of Malaysia’s snack food that is considered healthy because it’s nutritious. It’s easy to prepare and enjoyed by people of all walks of life, races and religious backgrounds. There is no reason not to share the specialty with the world. Kuwait is one promising market, but I have to produce more to meet the demand,” she said.
Fatimah advised young people to think creatively and be humble.
“Things can be challenging in the world of entrepreneurship. There are many things you don’t learn in the classroom but only by going out there.
“Secondly, be humble. You may have the knowledge but you have to be willing to learn from mistakes,” she said.
When Fatimah isn’t managing her business, she’s invited by government agencies to give talks to share her ups and downs and challenges.
“People are curious about my journey to success, but I think I still have a lot to learn,” she said.