The sustainable sago eco beads from Malaysia


A team from the University of Technology, Mara in Malaysia have created beads from waste sago fibre. Green, yellow, blue, black, pink, reddish orange and brown beads have been aesthetically strung together to form stylish jewellery. While their colours and delicate designs are eye catching, it is their concept of being eco friendly and sustainable that is noteworthy.

Dr Margaret Chan Kit Yok and her team from the University of Technology, Mara in Malaysia were concerned about the environment and wished to do something about it. Thus, they tapped into their diverse expertise to create sago eco beads.“These beads are made from sago fibre and kaolin clay. They add value to waste since sago fibre is a byproduct of sago starch sourced from sago palm. The sustainability and durability of clay is increased by mixing sago fibre to it. From the artists’ point of view, it is a new medium which works in harmony with nature,” explains Yok who provides these beads under the brand name of Genserai Bungai.

The process starts with cleaning of the sago fibre. At a time about 150 kilos can be cleaned by passing the fibre through normal water and drying it in direct sunlight for about 8 hours. This is followed by blending it to powder. At a time, about 2 kgs can be blended in a mechanical blender. The resultant sago fibre which is locally called hampas is composed of 58 per cent starch, 23 per cent cellulose, 9.2 per cent hemicelluloses and 4 per cent lignin on a dry weight basis.

Kaolin clay from Sarawak which is normally used to make pottery is kneaded with water and sago powder for ten minutes to make it pliable and elastic. The ratio of clay to sago fibre is an intellectual property which is not revealed by the researchers. The process is quite similar to kneading bread and the dough is turned into small balls by rolling onto the palm. “For making the central hole a bamboo reed is used and the size is increased by slowly rolling the stick within the bead. Water is used to lubricate the reed. A mould is used to craft the floral designs on the beads when they are still wet,” adds Dr Wan Samiati Andriana who is part of the team that developed these beads.

The next step is drying the beads and it is the most important because if water is accumulated inside and the bead baked, the water bubble that is formed leads to cracking the bead. A water bubble creates a cavity and the bead loses its strength leading to breakage. Smaller beads of .05mm take two days while bigger beads of 3 cms take a week to dry in direct sunlight.

The eco beads are then baked in an oven at a temperature of almost 1,000 degrees Celsius. They are allowed to cool inside the oven for about half a day followed by colouring. The colours of the beads correspond to some of the indigenous fruits found in the rainforests of Borneo. Pink colour is a tribute to Lauraceae which is locally known in Malay as Engkala. This fruit has a soft flesh whose taste is similar to avocado. The dark purple to black colour represents Burseraceae which is an oblong fruit. Guttiferae is locally known as kundong and has a bright red skin with white flesh. Its skin is dried and used in fish soup. “Yellow colour is for the fruit Solanaceae which has a sour and tangy taste and is called the Borneo sour brinjal. Green colour represents Anacardiaceae which has a sweet taste and is called the forgotten mango of Borneo. It has a yellow coloured juicy flesh that leaves an after taste of tart acidity,” explains Suzana William from the Genserai Bungai team.

Post colouring, the beads are glazed and strung on a heat resistant wire to ensure that the colours do not stick to each other when they are baked for a second time in a 1,000 degrees Celsius oven. The resultant beads have a glossy finish. “If the Japanese style of Raku is followed then after baking, we remove the beads immediately from the hot oven and cool them by placing in rice husk. Raku beads are very expensive and have a smooth matte finish. The beads have a vintage look,” adds Halina Amin from the Genserai Bungai team.

Round, cylindrical and tubular sago eco beads which are 20 per cent lighter than pure clay beads are strung to make jewellery like bracelets, necklaces, pendants, anklets and earrings. A variety of strings, connectors and embellishments like pearls are used. The brand Genserai Bungai is derived from Iban language. Genserai refers to varieties and Bungai are patterns and designs.