Malaysia is a large exporter of rich natural resources. It includes ginger, rubber, palm oil, and timber that are habitually shipped out in their raw forms.
Once manufactured abroad into other products like furniture, for instance, they’re sold back to local SMEs, governments, and private companies at a higher margin. Sometimes even at a thousand percent of the price the material was sold for.
That’s according to James Wong, who was saddened to learn this 10 years ago after returning from New Zealand.
Obsessed with ginger beer while there, he wondered why Sabah couldn’t produce its own bottled version. The state was already famous for Tambunan’s spiciest ginger.
Roping in childhood friend Matthias Liew, they began working on a recipe in 2017.
Sabahan Slang For “Wow!”
UINAH wants to change the local export industry by partnering with Bornean family farms to produce their own consumer products.
Leveraging off the branding, design, and packaging motifs from products in Japan and Taiwan, the men hope to one day export UINAH worldwide.
The name UINAH is Sabahan slang meaning, “Wow!” It reflects the founders’ vision to bring the wow experience in every beverage, even in the way they run their business.
A big part of UINAH’s values is in empowering local communities and making a difference in their lives.
Hence, they cut out the middlemen when sourcing their spicy gingers from Tambunan. They also purchase them at an above-average market rate through contract farming.
Meaning, they pay these farmers a higher price than what a regular distributor might, based on a predetermined contract between the two.
“This way, we are able to ensure quality and consistency in our products’ ingredients while making a grassroots impact in their lives and communities by empowering mostly women family farmers directly,” James explained to Vulcan Post.
Dictionary time: A grassroots movement is an organised effort to bring about changes in social policy or influence an outcome.
After harvesting, it undergoes a brewing period where the natural yeasts in the ginger’s skin reacts with sugar and other home-grown ingredients. This fermentation process takes roughly two weeks to create its mature taste.
James said that only the lemons are imported as Malaysia’s climate isn’t ideal for growing it.
Fermentation = Alcoholic?
Since the ginger beer undergoes a fermentation process, that means it’s alcoholic, right?
Not quite. In an interview with Daily Express in 2018, James explained, “Although it contains only 1.1% alcohol content, according to Malaysian Regulations, any beverage containing alcohol below 2% falls under the non-alcoholic beverage category.”
Much like how Root Beer isn’t a beer, although UINAH Ginger Beer is a soft drink, it’s not Halal certified only because of the word ‘Beer’.
But all that changed in 2020. UINAH strategically rebranded their Ginger Beer into Ginger Land and even moved to a new factory. All this was done to expand their customer reach in pursuit of the Halal certificate.
This also meant changing many processes in the factory to ensure there was no alcohol in the product.
“We are happy to be announcing our Halal license very soon! On the positive side, we have made sure the taste of the drink is not compromised by this change,” James shared.
“We can confirm that it still contains all the rich complexity and aromas of the original drink.”
After a year-long R&D with this new process, he told Vulcan Post that he even prefers this Halal version even more.
As there are no additives, artificial flavouring, or colouring added to the brew, the beverage has to be consumed within 3-5 days of opening it. The drink must also be refrigerated at all times.
While certainly pricier, some consumers would be willing to spend in support of UINAH’s values and the local farmers they work with.
On top of Shangri-La Hotel, UINAH Ginger Land is sold at grocery stores in Sabah and KL. Namely, Village Grocer, Bens, Aeon KL, Pick n Pay, CKS Grocer, Bataras, and Servay.
However, with the pandemic halting tourism and events, UINAH’s sales from 50k bottles in 2019 was slashed by nearly half that amount last year.
To combat this, they’ve pivoted and are planning to grow their off-trade sales in grocery stores instead.
Despite these challenges, James shared that what keeps them going is in witnessing the impacts they’re making amongst local farmers.
“We want to make Sabah and Malaysia proud to see that we, too, can compete on the international platform out there,” he concluded.
Featured Image Credit: UINAH