Thursday, 6 August 2020

How this Singaporean entrepreneur redefined ikan bilis as a health food

*Produced by SilverKris for Lilo*

Ikan bilis. We eat them with peanuts as a bar snack; with sambal and nasi lemak as an indulgent lunch; or as an umami-packed topping on ban mian. But old-time mothers like Lily Loh’s knew to use anchovies as an essential ingredient for child nutrition. When Lily was a child, and a picky eater to boot, her mother added homemade ikan bilis powder to every dish.

Fast forward a few decades and Lily reprised the practice when her own first daughter was born. Though the original family recipe was lost, Lily experimented with the quintessentially Southeast Asian ingredient to craft her own. And when Lily’s friends began asking her to supply them with ikan bilis powder for their own children, she knew she had the makings of a business idea.

Lilo ikan bilis
Lilo’s flagship ikan bilis powder

Established in 2017, Lilo offers a healthier alternative to food seasoning products. Its flagship ikan bilis powder, which can be consumed by infants as young as six months, contains no added salt, MSG or preservatives. Made from anchovies sourced from Pangkor, Malaysia with the guts and entrails removed, it goes through a soaking process to get rid of impurities and excess salt, before it is dried, baked and ground. The resulting powder is then sifted, so only the finest grains are packed in airtight jars.

Distributed in 12 retail outlets across Singapore, the brand has amassed a loyal online following among the community of mothers, who regularly exchange recipes based on Lilo’s products. Here, we speak to the 36-year-old founder to learn how her domestic cooking practice helped launched a successful business, from product testing to mass distribution.

What made you turn your ikan bilis powder into a business?

Starting my own business has always been a dream. I became a stay-at-home mother when I had my daughter, Lauren, and it took about two years before I established Lilo. My inspiration came from Lauren. I was so thrilled when she began to eat better with the ikan bilis powder. That’s when I decided to send some of my homemade ikan bilis powder to my friends, who were also mothers. They came back to me with great reviews of their kids’ appetites improving and the rest is history.

Lilo ikan bilis
You can purchase single bottles, single refill packs or a Best of Lilo Bundle from its website

How did you develop the ikan bilis powder?

We went through many trials, almost too many to remember, with different ikan bilis from different countries. We tried it with and without the fish guts, different soaking timings, different temperatures and timing variations. We once overestimated the time to dehydrate the ikan bilis and ended up burning 10kg worth of ikan bilis.

Product testing aside, what were some of the challenges you faced?

The biggest challenge I faced was juggling between work and family. It’s not easy to balance both at the same time, especially when you’re just starting a new company. In the beginning, the hours were very irregular. But for me, family must always come first. There were times I could only work during the hours my daughter was asleep, often working from 8pm to 3am. Once, my daughter fell sick, but I had to be at an event to promote my products. Things got better when she was enrolled in a childcare centre and I could work during the day.

Lilo ikan bilis
Lily and her daughter, Lauren

What did it take to grow the business, from moving out of a home kitchen to enabling worldwide distribution of your products?

We had to constantly upgrade ourselves, especially in terms of streamlining the manufacturing process and thinking about how we can improve and increase production with the help of technology and machinery. We also invested a lot of effort into undergoing extensive tests for the nutritional information panel and shelf life of our products to give parents the assurance that the products are indeed healthy and free of preservatives, salt and MSG. When the business grew, we had to increase our manpower too to ensure that we can fulfil every order in a timely manner.

What makes Lilo’s ikan bilis powder unique?

Our ikan bilis powder contains about 10mg of sodium per serving. That means you can have three servings of it a day and the total amount of sodium consumed will still be less than that of an egg, making it suitable for toddlers and health-conscious adults and seniors looking to add nutrients and flavour to their food without consuming too much sodium.

What’s more, our products are made in Singapore at a factory licensed by the Singapore Food Agency, where all processes are vetted and certified by industry professionals. From the cleanliness and upkeep of the environment to the storage temperature of food products, Singapore has stringent standards for food production. According to Singapore’s food safety standards, all employees of food manufacturers also have to undergo a course on food hygiene. With a strong foothold in safe food production, being made in Singapore has become part of our branding and gives consumers confidence in our locally made products.

Lilo ikan bilis
Only the finest grains get packed in airtight jars for sale

What are your favourite ways of using it?

I love adding our ikan bilis powder to all kinds of porridges for the added nutrients. It gives the dish a gentle lift in terms of flavour. I also love using ikan bilis powder to marinate meat. My favourite recipe to cook with the Lilo Premium Ikan Bilis Powder is pumpkin minced meat porridge. It’s light and savoury yet sweet, thanks to the pumpkin, and makes a great, simple meal for both adults and children.

What are the benefits of using ikan bilis powder, as opposed to actual ikan bilis?

Whole ikan bilis are typically boiled for the flavour and thrown away. Ikan bilis powder uses the whole ikan bilis, including the bones, so the entire fish gets ingested. This means that we get all the nutrients, such as calcium, DHA – a type of omega-3 fatty acid – protein and iron.

Lilo banner

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