Spicing up the Sarawak brand with pepper
John Teo 

If there is one thing which political and economic boosters and others in Sarawak have clearly overlooked or understated, it is the fact that the state can unabashedly, and with perfectly valid reasons, be considered a world leader in niche commodities and products.

Last week, this writer highlighted how the state is going about developing its very traditional and still nascent sago industry.

Sarawak pepper is another commodity that has long rung a bell in the international market.

Minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong said in Kuching on Oct 13 at celebrations marking the 10th anniversary of the Malaysian Pepper Board (MPB) that Sarawak pepper fetches a premium in the global market and its reputation has attracted other pepper-growing nations to send people over to study the way pepper is grown and processed in the state.

“We are not the biggest pepper producer – only the fifth, but we want to be the best in terms of quality,” said Mah.

The minister noted there are presently some 29,600 pepper farmers nationwide, with 98% of them in Sarawak. Pepper vines cover over 17,000ha and output is expected to hit 31,000 metric tonnes this year, roughly half of which is destined for the export market.

Pepper farmers have been enjoying something of a boom with buoyant prices in recent years, currently stabilising at around RM17 per kg for black pepper and over RM25 per kg for white pepper.

But as with most commodities, there is the usual boom-and-bust cycle with international pepper prices. This prompted MPB chairman Tan Sri William Mawan to propose a fund along the lines of that for rubber price stabilisation to cushion pepper farmers – the vast majority of whom are smallholders – against severe pepper price fluctuations.

As regards research and development for the industry, Mah said under the 11th Malaysia Plan, RM40.9 mil had been allocated for the establishment of the National Pepper Industry Development Centre in Semenggok, near Kuching.

While a dedicated centre for research and development of the pepper industry may be long overdue, the state government must strive to think outside the box on how best the pepper industry may be further developed and promoted. It must not be promoted exclusively and in isolation as just another export product for which a name has already been fairly well established.

Niche products such as Sarawak pepper need not necessarily be promoted by way of further popularising its usage and finding new ways to use it alone. Thus, while coming up with new recipes for using pepper and compiling them in book form may be logical and commendable, greater thought needs to be focused on riding on the quality Sarawak pepper is already well known for so that it continues not just to command a premium in the global market but that such a market cachet rubs off in other areas and for the state as a whole.

It is perhaps not a task to be left to the MPB alone to develop and promote Sarawak pepper further. The state government should also be jumping in on the act. This is because promoting Sarawak pepper ought to be considered a strategic marketing imperative since Sarawak and pepper are so intertwined that promoting one can and should reinforce the other and vice versa.

Branding Sarawak and Sarawak pepper should therefore be regarded as an integral exercise in the overall efforts to promote the state to the world.

As efforts to promote Sarawak as a tourist destination, for example, have proven to be almost entirely worthless, given the amount of time and material resources devoted to such efforts and the meagre results to show in the end, the state should consider an entirely new tack.


Identify marketable products

Such a tack must start with identifying the various products and assets which have either already created a name for Sarawak or has a good potential to do so.

It is time government agencies tasked with promoting the state be not left to their own devices in their efforts as this will only naturally lead to the developing of a silo mentality where promotional efforts are too narrowly focused and overall strategic marketing and branding considerations of the state overlooked.

Moreover, the state government does not have unlimited resources to promote the state worldwide and thus must review how best its promotional budgets for all sectors doing that may be consolidated and spending more directly focused and targeted towards building up a positive image of the state and its various marketable products, be they tourism assets or commodities unique to Sarawak such as pepper and sago.

All this naturally calls for direct intervention from the very top of the state leadership as it necessitates a holistic relook into all marketing and promotional efforts by the state and its various agencies.

It may require the state government to consider hiring a reputable multi-disciplinary agency tasked with advising it on an overall strategy to brand Sarawak as a state known for unique, quality and premium products and/or services. But it has to go beyond merely a marketing strategy. Whoever gets hired as such a consultant must also produce a well-considered plan (including sectoral or specific industry sub-plans) after extensive consultations with all stakeholders on how specific products are to be developed and targeted both individually and jointly towards meeting a clearly stated and well-understood state promotional and marketing plan.

Sarawak is physically a large state with a limited population and therefore a limited pool of talent but it appears not to have done too badly in creating a name for itself. Aside from pepper, the annual Rainforest World Music Festival, the Sarawak Museum and even hawker food such as Sarawak laksa have all become well-known internationally.

It is also purely Sarawak talents and entrepreneurial flair which have come up with a conceptual model on retirement living that is set to be a standard to be copied nationwide.

All these must be harnessed towards making a name for Sarawak as a premium brand.

John Teo is based in Kuching. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 256.