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Suzanne Ling, Kim Lim and Lee Swee Lin (L-R). Photo courtesy of Shaffiq Farhan/ Malaysia Tatler. Venue: The Common Ground KL

Founded by three young university students -- Kim Lim, Suzanne Ling and Lee Swee Lin --  The Picha Project is a unique catering business that delivers meals prepared by refugee families living in Kuala Lumpur.

The idea took shape when the current founders were involved in schools educating marginalised communities in the city and realised that the school had a large number of dropouts because the families of the students were not able to sustain their education.

Read also: Five ways to get into social entrepreneurship according to Ganesh Muren

The three dynamic ladies brainstormed about what they could do to help and found the natural answer – food.

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What started off by the simple act of persuading their families and friends to purchase meals prepared by refugees soon took the tone of a serious business model and in a short year, The Picha Project has successfully delivered over 28,000 meals.

Supported by MaGIC (Malaysia Accelerator Global Innovation Centre) Accelerator Programme, the social enterprise has 10 refugee families from Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Iraq and Palestine working with them. Their menu is a direct result of the diverse families they work with and includes mouthwatering Middle-Eastern fare such as falafel, shwarmas, kibbeh, fattet magdoos, hummus, bolani, qhabeli, chicken curry and more.

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However, due to the unique business model, the challenges and the obstacles they face are novel too. Working with vulnerable refugee families, the girls need to deal with loss, anger, frustration, elation, excitement and hope on almost a daily basis.

In a conversation peppered with laughter and some solemn discussions, Kim, Suzanne and Swee Lin share with us the challenges they face in running a social enterprise and how they overcome it.

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What were the early business ‘goof –ups’ you encountered?

Suzanne: We are a catering business and quality of the products we deliver must be absolute. But none of us really had any experience with the food business when we first started. There were complaints about the food not being delivered on time, sometimes there would be loop-holes in logistics where-as at other times we would take up a quantity we were not able to deliver in terms of operations. But we are getting better, we hope!

What business models have worked well so far?

Kim: We are still experimenting with several schemes and business models. Our lunch box delivery and open-houses have shown a decent response. The lunch boxes work well with corporates who often order from us for their meetings and events.

The open houses give people the opportunity to dine with a refugee family in their homes. This basically helps in spreading the word about the refugee living conditions in the city, creating awareness and hopefully garnering more support. It also gives the families a chance to host guests and enjoy a community spirit, something that forms an important part of each of their cultures.

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Has it been demanding dealing with refugee families from diverse social and cultural backgrounds?

Swee Lin: Every family that we work with has a different story to tell. War, ruling governments, oppositions, prosecution and covert religious groups have forced these families to flee their home countries. Some families we work with are still in danger. Over time, we have developed ways to address the issues with more sensitivity and are learning to work our way differently with each family.

How would you describe your relationship with the families as employers and employees?

Kim: We often argue about what our boundaries with the families should be like. But honestly, each one of us is heavily involved with the people we work with. The nature of our work at the end of the day has a humanitarian cause and despite it being a business, we have to let go of traditional work boundaries and be there to support them whenever required.

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What are the highs and lows that you have experienced in your journey so far?

Swee Lin: The warmth and the gratitude that we receive from our families and clients is the highest point in our work that keeps us going.

The lowest has been the passing away of our Syrian cook and a Picha Hero; Zaza. It was this incident that gave us an insight into the magnitude of the problem we are working with.

How has your outlook toward humanity changed in the course of running The Picha Project?

Suzanne: When we first started with The Picha Project, we began with the mindset that we are going to be making a real difference and changing the world.

But after working with the refugee families, we had our encounter with real life problems. Medical bills, loan sharks, safety, unemployment; these are just a few of the snags our families face. Add to that emotional and mental trauma! We are now beginning to see the cruelty of the society we live in. This for all of us has been a massive learning lesson.

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What is the next phase of The Picha Project?

Kim: We would like to focus next on education. All our families agree that education is the key that will help their children succeed and find a better path in life.

Lastly, what makes three young girls give up glamourous career options and work with refugees instead?

Kim: We see a need.

Until this point, we were really enjoying our work and the response we received. But ever since Zaza has passed away, there has been a lot of change. Despite being bed-ridden and in pain, Zaza wished to go around serving meals in mosques during Ramadan. If a man who has lost everything believes in the power of noble deeds, what is stopping us?

The Picha Project thrives on awareness and people support. To know more about The Picha Project or to place a catering order log onto www.pichaproject.com.

Follow the journey of social entrepreneur Jacqueline Fong of Tanoti Handicrafts as she works her way to preserve Sarawak's ancient art of songket weaving. 

Tags: Catering, Social Entrepreneurship, Refugee Families, The Picha Project