The co-founders of the refugee-helping social enterprise speak to us about their humble beginnings, how The Picha Project operates and their recent victory at Chivas Venture Malaysia.
For the past two years, The Picha Project has been striving to provide financial empowerment to marginalised refugee communities in Malaysia through a sustainable food catering and delivery business. The three co-founders, Kim Lim, Lee Swee Lin and Suzanne Ling, and their team employ refugee families who leverage on their existing cooking skills to cater authentic, traditional meals to the public. In doing so, The Picha Project acts as a platform through which refugees can refine their professional skills, while earning an honest living. Let’s find out more about this enterprising trio.
Take us to the beginning, how did The Picha Project start?
Suzanne Ling: It started, I would say, quite accidentally. Back when we were still in university in 2013, we were volunteering in a refugee school, teaching the children and from there we organised a fundraising concert to help raise funds. We knew that most of them were struggling financially and we were thinking of a more sustainable way to help them and keep the children from dropping out of school to work for the family. That was when Kim came up with the idea of starting a food delivery business. Since everyone needs to eat and all the families can cook, we thought why not we sell their food and help them earn. Once the idea popped up we started working on it right away. Within 4 months of trying we realised that it can actually be turned into a sustainable business and we decided to do full time. That was two years ago and we’ve been at the business until now.
How did you get the refugee families to come on board with the plan?
Lee Swee Lin: To tell you the truth it wasn’t difficult because they know this is a way to help them. So the word Picha is actually the name of our first cook’s youngest son, who should be about 5 years old now. The families have a skill, which is cooking, and they understand that we are helping them by repackaging, marketing and selling what they make. Since the refugees in Malaysia can’t work or send their children to public schools or get medical care, they are always happy to be able to get the income.
However we also have strict criteria who want to join us. For starters they must have good attitude, all their children must be in school, and follow our safety guidelines for food handling like getting the typhoid jab. Besides, Picha is selling the food so for us the brand and the reputation is very important, because, god forbid, if once someone gets a stomach-ache or finds something wrong with the food, then the whole Picha brand will be affected. We don’t want it to happen so we pay careful attention to the hygiene of the cook and the kitchen.
Apart from food delivery, you have since begun doing catering and going on roadshows. Tell us more about this progression.
When we started because we didn’t really know how to do it, so we started with a very ugly packaging which was just a plastic case that we stapled. But then some of our clients at that time complained like “Oh my god, what if I eat the stapler bullet?” So we were like oh.. But we didn’t know anything about it and if we were to order from a supplier we would need to print in the thousands. But at that time we didn’t have money, and we always just bought the 15 packs. And from there slowly we improved our packaging to proper packaging.
At the same time people also always ask us like “oh can you do buffet”, so we were like okay, why not we explore on buffet. And at that time we had a bit of profit, so we took that profit and we reinvested to buy our own chafer. Even the chafer, we asked around because we didn’t know where to buy; we googled, we asked our friends and things like that. Then we personally drove to chow kit and we negotiated with the aunty to give us a cheaper price. Later we expanded into buying our own plates and other atas equipment.
Congratulations on winning the Chivas Ventures Malaysia! What’s next for The Picha Project?
There are a lot of things that are happening right now. Of course, for the next six months, we are hoping that a lot of the branding and recognition is there but we are also developing our own non-perishable product this year. Hopefully we can get 5 items out by end of this year and also we are going into different companies to do community outreach, besides talking to more and more customers trying to see if we could also venture into the B to C model or not. Because that requires a lot of data and a lot of understanding of our customers. So that’s what we are currently doing at The Picha Project.
Did their story move you? The Picha Project now need your help to vote for them so that they could win the first US$200,000 of the total US$1 million Chivas Venture fund. Voting ends on the 25th April, 9am UK time so choose wisely right here!
*All images by Chivas Venture.
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