Providing economic opportunities to unrecognised refugees — The Picha Project’s approach through food

Helping communities that are cut off from lawful employment make a living.

Image courtesy of The Picha Project.

As it stands today, Malaysia does not formally recognise refugees. And one major problem that comes with it is the longstanding struggle refugees face in seeking lawful employment.

As of the end of August 2018, there are a total of 161,140 refugees and asylum seekers registered to the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia.

That’s over 160,000 people that have trouble making a living as they wait for their fates to be decided.

While there are non-governmental organisations and activists providing assistance where they can, social enterprise The Picha Project believes their catering business model is a sustainable approach to providing economic opportunities to refugees that can be scaled even bigger than its present form.

The Picha Project co-founder Kim Lim says that each family they work with are practically given the opportunity to run their kitchen as their own independent business.

“Operationally, we basically work as an agent. We purchase their food, then package and market it to sell to customers,” she says.

Each kitchen or family directly benefits from how well their food sells, which effectively allows them to participate in economic activity. With that access to making a living, Kim says the families are then freed up to be much more independent in other aspects of their lives.

And to remain accountable in their role as gatekeeper, The Picha Project makes their “Governance Framework” public on their website to be transparent with how revenue is distributed.

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Co-founder Kim says none of the founders actually had any dreams of running a food business before they established The Picha Project.  — Photo by Wong Yok Teng

Founded in 2016, The Picha Project is the brainchild of Kim and fellow co-founders Lee Swee Lin, and Suzanne Ling.

They met while working together on a fundraising concert for a social cause but found the donations-based process inefficient, which led them to think of other ways to raise money. They ultimately decided to go into the food business.

“None of the founders had any dreams of creating a food business before we started,” Kim says, laughing.

She says that a food business just makes sense to them because Malaysians are inherently foodies, and it would be the perfect medium for a cultural exchange.

“Malaysians eat all day. If you go to Europe, people only eat two to three meals a day, but Malaysians eat three to five meals.

“If you open a food business and you really vet through your process to maintain consistency in quality, you’re going to do fairly well. Our job right now is to make sure that our quality is up to par. The demand will then grow on its own,” says Kim.

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Despite being a fairly young business, The Picha Project has been recognised with many accolades. The most recent of which is reaching top five in the international Chivas Venture competition. — Photo by Wong Yok Teng

Two and a half years on, and The Picha Project model currently supports a network of 11 families with the capacity to support up to 15 families right now.

Kim explains that the 11 families totals to approximately 60 people.

The team shows no signs of slowing down, especially having recently being recognised internationally for being the first Malaysian social enterprise to reach the final five stage of the Chivas Venture competition that saw them walking away with USD 50,000 in funding.

Aside from catering and meal boxes, The Picha Project also sells snacks and condiments. — Photo by Wong Yok Teng

“Of course we would like to grow more. And it will never be enough because there are so many people who need help,” Kim says.

She explains that The Picha Project’s ambitions are much larger than what they’ve achieved so far, aiming to grow big enough to become a platform for all marginalised communities, and also eventually expand beyond food.

“We want to have a holistic approach to addressing different interconnected problems. For example, we make it a criteria that the children of the families we work with must attend some form of school,” she adds.

On top of that, healthcare is prioritised not only in regards to the handling of food for the business, but also to ensure that everyone’s wellbeing is taken care of in the long run.

“But we’re specifically focused on the food sector as our core business for at least the first five to ten years,” Kim explains.

“We’re still learning along the way. But we want to make sure that eventually the whole chain is addressed, whether its finances, healthcare or education.”

Have an event coming up? Then check out The Picha Project’s menu. They currently cater Palestinian, Iraqi, Syrian, Afghan and Burmese meals.

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