After a stint of over two years with Enviu Malaysia, social entrepreneur and venture builder Daniel Teoh is moving on from Tapauware. He shares his critical learnings from prompting Malaysians to reusable packaging.
“It’s been a ride!” Daniel Teoh exclaims as he bids farewell to Tapauware, the Enviu venture he helped build in Malaysia. Daniel’s journey with Enviu started in March 2021 when he joined the Zero Waste Living Lab (ZWLL) program to create reuse packaging solutions in Malaysia. As its Venture Builder, he started his journey with the Tapauware venture in October 2021, quickly advancing as its Head of Product. It coincided with his personal decision to embrace a zero-waste lifestyle.
Daniel and his team helped pioneer Tapauware as Malaysia’s first reusable meal container service company. With determination, patience, and networking, the team designed a service to offer reusable packaging as-a-service to restaurants, caterers, and canteens, and as a viable alternative to single-use plastic containers.
Taking the reusable concept to restaurants, communities and schools, Tapauware’s journey, as he shares, is marked with learnings, failings, and inspiring moments. The growth did not pan out as the team had chalked out, but it significantly laid the foundation for adopting reuse in Malaysia. Many of their lessons are hinged on consumer behavior in Malaysia, where plastic consumption is about convenience and cost for consumers and businesses, respectively.
Daniel Teoh shares some fascinating yet critical learnings from the ground — how his field surveys proved his assumptions wrong, his challenges in altering consumers’ hardwired attitude towards single-use plastic, his inferences, what worked and did not, and how Enviu and Tapauware influenced him personally. A bonus: he shares three vital advice for venture builders in the reuse space.
What is the story behind Tapauware?
“Tapau” is local slang (originally a Chinese dialect) for ‘takeaway.’ It is the go-to word when buying food-to-go in Malaysia. An unfortunate effect of this takeaway culture in Malaysia is the massive amount of single-use packaging waste generated. This became much worse during the pandemic, and Malaysians are statistically the worst plastic polluters (on an individual level) in Southeast Asia. We wanted to take on this challenge at the ZWLL. We believe that local problems require localized solutions that would attract local users. Hence, we created ‘Tapauware’ to equip everyday Malaysians with tools to become more sustainable when embracing our food culture.
Could you walk us through your journey with Tapauware, including your learnings and strategies?
My initial days were spent mapping out a vision for reuse in Malaysia and familiarizing myself with the fundamentals of the concept. Sustainability is an increasingly hot topic in the country, but legislators promote downstream solutions nationally.
I started with a personal pledge too. I had always wanted to embrace a zero-waste lifestyle but found it incredibly difficult given how goods are sold locally — EVERYTHING is packaged. I thought, what better time to push myself into it than when I am building a solution for it. After all, how can I change others’ behavior if I cannot change my own?
I was thrilled and optimistic about the project. During our market surveys, we received positive support from users and restaurants to build a solution like Tapauware. They acknowledged the plastic problem, and many felt guilty that their need for convenience negatively impacted the environment. So they welcomed a solution that could meet their needs without sacrificing sustainability. Most people wanted to play the role of entrepreneurs, too. They eagerly enquired about our business model, shared suggestions to price the products, and even connected us to other potential customers. It seemed like consumers welcomed our product idea.
The challenges began with the COVID-19 lockdowns in Malaysia. For months, a lot had to be done virtually, including finding our first adopting restaurants for Tapauware.
I thought restaurants would jump at the idea of adopting a sustainable solution for no charge; after all, we offered free trials with the promise of giving their brand an edge in attracting conscious customers. I also thought that they would be easy to reach virtually. I was wrong on both fronts. I found more success when I showed up at their door and asked for their manager’s phone numbers. I visited more than 100 restaurants in different municipalities on foot during the initial stages.
Eventually, we found our first restaurant adopter: an innovative restaurant called SpargoEats that sells healthy rice bowls. They were able to get us our first 50 end-users within the first few days.
The growth was not what we thought it would be. It turned out that sustainability-minded consumers were just a tiny fraction of the market. We thought there would be a strong correlation between health-conscious consumers and sustainability, but there was limited evidence to support this as time passed.
It was true that consumers did care about the environment (when asked), but it was not enough to prompt them to pay extra or change their user behavior to use and return containers. Those willing to go the extra mile comprised only 1% of users.
We tried all sorts of experiments in various locations to boost adoption, including paying people to try Tapauware. We found that even money cannot bring you into a new habit if it doesn’t fit your existing lifestyle.
It showed me so much diversity in the market (even within the exact location): users who would pay for our product, and those who wouldn’t use it even if they were paid.
All our pivots eventually led us to more ‘controlled’ environments, such as schools and events, where importance was placed on educating and showing practical examples of sustainability.
Overall, I would say that I’d do things quite differently if I were to do it again. I would have started smaller, and focused on education and awareness instead of going into it in full entrepreneurial mode. Malaysia is still young in its reuse journey; there were no other reuse ventures other than zero-waste stores. We need more people to plant the seeds of its adoption.
What were consumers’ responses when you introduced them to the reuse concept?
We initially targeted middle to upper-class demographics, with a record of sustainability-related habits (like being vegan). The responses were positive, and they were excited to contribute (recommendations to others, etc). They were also a minority.
We then entered the municipality of Shah Alam. The income range and beliefs varied in any given area, so segmenting them even at a municipal level was challenging.
When we zoomed into a target location (a commercial block) selected by our partner municipality, it was mainly middle-income individuals who thought that recycling was cumbersome and that our reuse solution was painful. It was a sobering realization.
What is your inference from the varied responses?
Sustainability-first messaging works well only with the 1% who prioritize it. For the more general user, we got through to them when speaking the language of convenience, cost savings, and coolness.
Consumers prioritize convenience above everything. A few in the lower-income demographics bring their own containers or bags, even if the vendors offer a rebate. Sustainability-minded users do not see cost saving as the big motivator to reuse, but the environment itself is a significant motivator.
So, money does not make the container go around (for end users). It is a different story for vendors, for whom, it is usually about the money.
I will always find it funny that no matter the demographic group, most people asked us if we would sell them the containers. They love the idea of ownership, which translates into hoarding more containers.
What has been the greatest challenge in your Tapauware journey so far?
The big challenge is helping the market understand that sustainability is good for business in the long term. Tapauware requires mass adoption before cost savings become apparent and our operations become convenient (reuse models tend to rely heavily on network effects). It is quite the cold start problem most start-ups face where you need users to get more users, since a large amount of value we would bring depends on the participants within our system.
Enviu runs reuse ventures both in Malaysia and Indonesia. How was running the venture different in Malaysia?
We are quite culturally similar, but we are also distinctively different. I believe Indonesia has a unified national identity than Malaysia. For example, Allas, our sister venture in Indonesia, runs their business in the local language in the heart of Jakarta. In Malaysia, the language we use will determine who we attract in the local market. For instance, in Klang Valley, where we set up shop, sustainability-related communications in private markets are in English, and are targeted towards affluent markets. Hence, English can sometimes be perceived as a product meant for that demographic, which was not the demographic we were working within Shah Alam.
Additionally, when it comes to funding, Malaysia is in this strange spot – we are often ‘too poor’ to attract venture investment but are ‘too rich’ for a substantial chunk of development grants. We are indeed facing the ‘middle class’ problem as a country with respect to funding.
What about Tapauware and Enviu are you proud about?
I am proud that Tapauware was able to enter the market and demonstrate that reuse is a genuine possibility (if not an eventuality). There was a lot of doubt throughout the process if we would find meaningful adoption. I want to think we have planted some seeds and what we have done lays the foundation for even better things to be reused locally. Besides, it influenced me to drastically reduce my plastic consumption (and waste generation as a whole).
At Enviu, I will always be proud to be part of a team that approaches venture-building with intelligence and kindness. Enviu has also profoundly influenced how I think about impact entrepreneurship, particularly how there is always a method to what — from the outside — looks like madness. I feel the lessons could fill a small book. I will carry the ‘Enviu Approach’ with me as I continue my career.
Enviu Insights is a series where our venture builders and program managers share their venture-building experiences, learnings, and how they validated their business ideas using Enviu methodologies.