These UNISSA graduates turned their popiah project into a full-time business

With a fresh take on a familiar product, Karup has sold 2,000 bags since starting six months ago

The founders of Karup Majidah (R) and Liyana (L) posing with the product at the MSME Festival at Bridex.

When 23-year-old Normajidah Rapidi set up shop at the MSME Festival this weekend with her friend Siti Nur Liyana Hj Adanan – she didn’t think she would be selected to pitch her brand of fried mini popiah called Karup in front of supermarkets.

She’ll need bar codes, nutrition labels and an expiry date before being able to lock down retail supply, but validation is on its way: Karup has received a warm response since starting six months ago, selling a respectable 2,000 packets through expos and social media.

Their product is currently handmade with Bruneian taste buds in mind – all three flavours of corn, chicken and curry are both savoury and sweet. But that’s where the similarities end between Karup and its traditional counterpart.

Karup’s texture is thicker, because there are more folds of spring roll and no fillings are used. The final fried popiah comes through with an almost solid centre, similar to a crunchy biscuit – with seasonings then dusted on top.

“Growing up, I’ve really liked popiah – but it’s usually a snack that you’ll only find around Hari Raya (festivities) – and we see an opportunity to turn it into something that people can buy year-round,” said Majidah, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Islamic Finance from the Sultan Sharif Ali Islamic University (UNISSA) last year.

Karup’s spring rolls are made out of wheat-based sheets that are rolled and deep fried. Each of Karup’s 110g bags sell for $5. They also do customized designs for weddings and special functions.

Majidah and four of her coursemates initially began selling popiah in 2017 as part of their coursework for their final year business project – a requirement for students under UNISSA’s Faculty of Islamic Economics and Finance. Food is Brunei’s third largest import – averaging between $40 to $50 million monthly, against $1.2 million of exports in the same category.

The gap is evident on supermarket shelves – and Majidah’s group sought to tackle the problem in their own small way, beginning with a snack they dream of one day exporting.

“Even in snacks there is a huge gap between international (products) and local,” said Majidah. “It’s a clear opportunity for Brunei businesses (to substitute imports).”

Their project began under the brand Kripsto, but without any substantial knowledge in cooking, the five students roped in their families knowledge in traditional Malay cuisine to learn the basics of popiah preparation.

They began with six flavours – including black pepper, hot & spicy and cheese which they’ve since discontinued under Karup – and quickly hit their sales target of $500 as they earned a Grade A from their professor.

Watch: Karup’s founders fry up their spring rolls

When they graduated towards the end of 2018 – all but two of the team went their separate ways. With Brunei’s unemployment hovering over 9%, Majidah decided she would rebrand Kripsto into Karup – Bruneian Malay for crunchy – as a full-time business.

“It was just me and the marketing guy that were left (from our UNISSA) from our group,” said Majidah. “So we decided to register a new company and knew we needed to repackage our product to be competitive in the real market.”

Liyana, a sibling of one of the founding UNISSA members, joined Karup to help with their home-based production. Unemployed since graduating from University Brunei Darussalam in 2017, Liyana has now put her faith in Karup’s growth, hoping their success opens up a new career path.

“The business is picking up – our next plan is to get the certifications – and a machine (for spring rolls) that will help us boost our production to 2,000 to 3,000 bags monthly,” says the 24-year-old. “Hopefully we can achieve these targets by the end of the year.”