Many people harbour an ambition to make a difference to the world in some way, and three people who have certainly done that are Malaysians Kim Lim, Swee Lin and Suzanne Ling. Together theyformed the Picha Project, a social enterprise designed to both empower the refugee communities in Malaysia and give them some kind of sustainable financial future.
The trio first met in 2013 when they were university students volunteering at a refugee learning centre. After volunteering and raising funds for the refugee schools for two years, they noticed that many of the students were dropping out.
Kim Lim (centre front), Suzanne Ling (centre back) and Swee Lin (back second from right), the co-founders of Picha Project
“We went to visit our students who dropped out and realized that many of them were struggling financially,” says Ling. “It hit us that no matter how we teach them, many kids will still end up not getting an education when they’re struggling financially back at home. Hence, we decided that we had to find a sustainable way to help the refugee community to be more financially stable and independent.”
The question was how to go about it.
“When we knew that we wanted to start a business to help the refugees,” contines Ling. “We were clear that we wanted to tap on the community’s existing skills and monetize it. We realized that many of them can cook, and since everyone needs to eat everyday, we thought – why not make a business out of it by connecting the delicious food that refugees make to the public? And that’s how Picha started.”
The Picha Project is named after a boy from Myanmar, Pita (but pronounced Pi-cha), who is the youngest son of the first family to join the social enterprise. Not only does the name honour the roots of the project, it also serves as a constant reminder of the enterprise’s purpose, namely to build a better future for the refugee communities in Malaysia.
As with many first-time entrepreneurs, moving from concept to a sustainable business posed a number of challenges, though a combination of determination and third party advice helped them on their way.
“In the beginning, everything was a struggle because none of us had any background in business or the F&B sector,” explains Ling. “We struggled with everything from the business model to accounts, marketing, sales and manpower. The whole lot really! What helped us overcome the challenges was our mentors who are very experienced and extremely supportive of what we do. They guided us along the way and gave us the push that we needed to kick things off.”
Since opening for business in 2016, initially working with a couple of families, the project has grown to now include nine families. The trio have also expanded their staff, adding three full-time staff to help with the increased workload, and have built up an impressive list of corporate clients.
Quality and integrity are at the heart of what the project wants to achieve, so there is a rigourous selection process for any family that wishes to join.
“When we first started Picha Project, we had to actively seek out families, but after or fourth or fifth family, the refugee families started reaching out to us, or our Picha families would refer their friends to us,” says Ling. “We have a very strict selection process which involves a phone interview, face-to-face conversation, food-tasting, background checking, cross-checking with community leaders, and understanding their finances and background. We then enter a two to three month ‘probation’ period where we try working with the family, ensuring they adhere to our strict safety and hygiene standards. All families must also go through a health check-up and get a typhoid jab. Once we think that the family is good to go, we will start marketing their menu.”
As with many start-ups, maintaining a tight control on base costs is essential, and to that end, there is no central HQ, but rather the families prepare the meals in their homes.
“Currently, we have nine different locations and the logistics can sometimes be a real headache,” explains Ling. “However, we work closely with external runners and have someone in the team dedicated to managing all deliveries. We hire runners to deliver food, and arrange manpower for buffet catering as well.”
The catering service ranges from lunch box deliveries to catering services as well as open house events, where customers can enjoy meals in the homes of the refugee families involved in the project and learn about their cultures and stories. The Picha team are also actively involved in giving talks and training sessions to raise awareness of refugee issues in Malaysia as well as social enterprise in the hope that more people will become involved in both areas.
Picha Project celebrates its second anniversary in early 2018, and the team have big plans for their third year in business.
“We want to build a stronger foundation by stabilizing our current revenue streams, which are meal boxes, buffet catering, open house events and on-the-shelf products,” says Ling. “We are also in the planning the building of a backend system to automate certain process so that we can operate more efficiently. Ultimately, this year will be a lot about strengthening the brand and the back end, so that we can grow even more in the upcoming years.”
Picha Project has already made a significant difference to the families it’s been working with to date and has raised the profile of the challenges refugees face in Malaysia, and look set to grow further in the future. The success of this project is evidence that with hard work and determination, an aspiration to have a positive impact on the world can become a reality.
All the photos in this article are courtesy of Picha Project and used with permission.