A doubled-walled tea glass holds a gorgeous teal liquid; social entrepreneur Majidah Hashim holds a wedge of lemon. As the steaming Thai basil and butterfly pea flower (bunga telang) tea meets a squeeze of citrus, it magically changes colour, taking on a pinkish-purplish hue.
“It’s a great party trick!” says bubbly Majidah, 36. The pH of the citrus juice reacts with the pigments of the butterfly pea flowers, resulting in the colour change.
She’s pulled this one countless times, at myriad markets – but she never tires of it, or of seeing the delighted reaction of her audience every time.
The markets are where she goes to the ground to introduce her SevenTeaOne brews to the public, and to garner valuable feedback.
At first glance, it’s a simple set-up – a small start-up selling teas made from local herbs. But there’s more to this story: a relatively new company, SevenTeaOne has grown from a deeply-rooted knowledge of sustainability and a passion for growing and nurturing the good.
Supporting urban gardens
SevenTeaOne teas are as distinctive for what’s not in them, as they are for their actual ingredients – there are no preservatives, additives or chemicals. Each muslin bag holds a fragrant, local treasure – dried butterfly pea flowers paired with Thai or lemon basil, mint or misai kucing. Alternatively, the deep indigo flowers fly solo, in the Telang Flower Tea.
The herbs themselves come from urban gardens, sourced directly by Majidah and her team. Most of the growers are in the Klang Valley – with 1,600 plants – but in Penang, an elderly man has grown 1,000 basil plants just for her.
“The herbs and flowers are all sun-dried, but we will be getting dehydrator machines soon, as the weather is getting wetter,” she says.
“The urban gardeners we work with don’t only grow herbs for us, they also grow vegetables and fruits for their own consumption – and would not put pesticides in the ground they themselves consume from,” says Majidah.
Tea and stories
In each SevenTeaOne box are eight teapot bags, prettily and individually wrapped in origami paper. The unwrapping of each adds another step to the calming ritual of steeping and brewing tea.
Each precise package has been folded by hand; Majidah’s employees come from marginalised communities, particularly those who have an autism spectrum disorder. She has also worked with refugees.
“People with intellectual disabilities are one of the most marginalised groups around, because they are often perceived as non-functioning across the board, and that just isn’t true,” says Majidah.
“There are three main groups, those who have a severe disorder, those who are very high-functioning and a group in the middle, who are functional but not independent. It’s the middle group we work with,” says Majidah.
The carers for those with an autism disorder are often their mothers. “They have to leave the workforce to become care-givers, because that is a full-time job. So when we hire people with autism disorders, we also hire their mothers,” she says.
SevenTeaOne started in April, and Majidah employs three of those diagnosed with an autism disorder; she plans to double the number soon. They are trained by another start-up before being sent to SevenTeaOne.
They work based on a productivity rate, rather than for an hourly wage.
“The more teabags they make, the more money they make,” she says. “It actually means they earn more, and they set their own targets.”
“The first time we tried it, the going was very slow – they made about five teabags each in three hours! The second time, they made 20 teabags each – but it was still too slow. I didn’t know if we could actually do this,” she says.
Then she realised that they were segregated, that everyone else was gathered around the three who were trying to pack, issuing instructions.
“So we just got everyone to sit together, and do each step – together. We were chatting and telling stories… and in that session, they were able to do so much more.”
Inclusivity was the key.
“In a month, we make between 1,000 and 1,500 tea bags. We will soon reach 2,000,” she says.
Packing is done two days a week (soon to be three), at a centre that her employees go to for dance lessons. “Currently, ours is a mobile enterprise, we pack up whatever we need and go to them,” she says. Nonetheless, the plan is to open her own facility soon.
“We’re very stringent about cleanliness. We have a hand-cleaning procedure, and if anyone touches their face or clothes, they must clean their hands again.”
“It’s been a journey of discovery to learn just how normal they are, though they may seem different,” Majidah says of her packing team.
“They don’t speak as we do, but they have very communicative facial expressions; they laugh – and one girl repeats everything she hears. She sings when she is happy – just for herself. And it made me realise that she can do something I can’t, she can be so unself-conscious. I haven’t reached that level of confidence yet!” says Majidah.
“Our packing sessions are actually story sessions. We hear stories about how amazing these guys are – one of them, if you mention any date, he can tell you what day it is or was, immediately. He has somehow internalised the calendar, past and future!
Majidah spent over a decade in the corporate world in Malaysia, specialising in airport sustainability; she’s a certified sustainability reporting specialist and assurer.
“Airport sustainability is all about how an airport expands in the very distant future – which you have to plan from the very start,” she says. “You have to take into account how it will and needs to expand over what period of time, and how that will affect its surroundings.”
She soon found herself head-hunted by a company based in The Hague, in southern Netherlands.
“I was based in The Hague for about a year, creating a framework for airport sustainability,” she says. “Then I came back to Malaysia and joined another company but found that I couldn’t integrate very well back into the corporate culture here. I had become so used to the work-life balance there.”
She left the company, and decided to take a year off to decide where life was headed. “This was around October of last year. I started cooking, singing, colouring, got involved in theatre – I wrote a piece for the Short + Sweet theatre festival – and just surrounded myself with happy things,” says Majidah.
And significantly, she started planting a garden. “I planted vegetables and fruits – tomatoes, spinach, passion fruit, cucumber, among others. I had never really gardened before, so I joined gardening groups on Facebook – which are so helpful,” she says.
She also started growing herbs, pots of basil, rosemary, mint and the startlingly blue butterfly pea flowers.
They proliferated so fast that she started giving pots away to friends, family and neighbours, “and turning people into accidental gardeners!”
“Planting taught me patience,” says Majidah. “It slowed my life right down, because it takes time to grow and harvest.”
The (herbal) fruits of her labour soon grew so bountiful that she had to find something to do with them. Majidah and her mother, Hasmah Yusoff, started drying the leaves and flowers to make teas.
“I thought I could get more people to grow the herbs and then buy from them – see if I could turn this into a business. Local herbs are awesome and so easy to grow,” she said.
With a great idea germinating but no business background to get it off the ground, Majidah enrolled in a Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MaGIC) programme in collaboration with Stanford University, then later the MaGIC Accelerator Programme.
“I realised that there were two types of companies – the kind that was fully for-profit, and the social enterprise kind. Because of my background in sustainability, I wanted to do the second,” she says.
She assembled a team of like-minded friends from different backgrounds to help her get it off the ground.
SevenTeaOne started out with a capital of just RM1,000 and has been making the market rounds in order to slowly introduce its products to the market; Majidah’s experience with sustainability issues means she wants to grow the brand slowly, to have supply and demand grow at an even pace.
“When it comes to herbal teas, people seem to like something lighter, more refreshing,” she says.
“And they like the artisanal paper packaging, knowing that it has a human touch. In a machine-driven world, I think people are looking for that – to know that their tea was packed by people who sat in companionship with one another and told stories as they filled their tea bags.”
SevenTeaOne teas can be ordered at restaurants like Mango Chili in Nexus Bangsar South, and Copper in Brickfields; they are currently only available for retail at the Xplorasi Shop at KLCC’s Petrosains, for RM35 a box. Smaller boxes with three teabags are available for special order, for corporate door gifts etc. Find out more at seventeaone.wordpress.com