How A Malaysian Food Startup Is Helping Refugees Rebuild Their Lives
“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” said Winston Churchill. The former British prime minister reportedly said the now-famous line when he was trying to pull together countries to establish the United Nations after the Second World War, the deadliest conflict in history.
More than half a century later, the world is facing another crisis that's taking a huge toll on humanity. Lim Yuet Kim, the co-founder and CEO of PichaEats, a social enterprise empowering Malaysia's refugee community through its food business, is taking the crisis as a challenge to innovate faster.
Since establishing PichaEats in 2016, Lim and her co-founders Suzanne Ling and Lee Swee Lin—all of whom are Gen.T honourees—have served over 135,000 meals cooked by people from refugee communities in Malaysia. At present, they support 14 such chefs, many of whom hail from war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Palestine.
“We chose food as our business because everyone needs to eat, and it's also a universal language,” says Lim. “We wanted to tell stories of other cultures through food and change people’s perspectives about certain cultures and communities, while also helping the refugees build a stable livelihood for themselves in Malaysia.”
Food As A Universal Language
Each chef has his or her own menu of dishes to cook, but PichaEats also employs a group of local Malaysian chefs to ideate and experiment with fusion food recipes. “We provide this as well to open people’s eyes to how different cuisines and cultures can come together.”
As Malaysia is not part of the United Nations Refugee Convention, it technically doesn’t recognise refugees as asylum seekers. This means refugees in Malaysia are not allowed to be formally employed. “While Malaysia has very open borders, the message our country sends to refugees is, put simply, we welcome you, but you can’t work,” says Lim.
Therefore, to work around the system, the 14 chefs PichaEats supports prepare the food in their own homes according to strict quality standards. The dishes are then picked up by local part-timers, who deliver them to the final destination—be it an event or a customer’s home. The chefs earn their income based on the number of orders they receive.
We want to empower the refugees we support to stand for themselves.
Making A Quick Pivot
Since mid-March, Malaysia has put in place its Movement Control Order, or MCO, to control the spread of the coronavirus. For PichaEats, this meant that it couldn’t operate its catering arm, which was its main revenue generator, as there weren’t any events to cater.
Rather than focusing on what’s not possible, Lim saw the opportunity to grow the business in other areas. “We had to find ways to survive because we have people we’re accountable for. We have become the pillar of support for many of the individuals we work with,” says Lim.
In early June, PichaEats launched a selection of microwaveable ready-to-eat meals as a way to accelerate its food delivery service and expand the offerings on its e-commerce platform. Customers have the option of purchasing three to nine-meal bundles prepared by the chefs that PichaEats supports. Later this month, Lim says PichaEats is also planning to roll out a subscription plan for its ready-to-eat meals targeting busy individuals who are strapped for time and families who don’t cook at home.
See also: This Is How Founders Are Preparing Their Businesses For A Post-Covid World
Helping Others Regain Control Of Their Lives
Regardless of how PichaEats expands, Lim says its core mission will always remain the same. “We want to empower the refugees we support to stand for themselves,” she says.
For Lim, the focus on empowering these individuals is key to the social enterprise’s long-term success. “In our line of work, we can’t overuse sympathy. If we’re always sympathetic and always wanting to give everything of ours to those we support, issues may arise,” she says. “Instead, we practise empathy and we empower. This means we set some rules and ensure that the individuals we support will comply with them. It’s important for us to stay true to our principles as a social enterprise and remind people that we don't give out free stuff because we’re not a charity.”
But Lim admits that knowing the stories of the refugees can make it difficult to separate emotions from work. “In the first two years of starting PichaEats, I did struggle mentally and kept asking why things were the way they were,” she recalls. “And there will be conflicting perceptions and feelings because you want to help these individuals, but you also need to put in regulations and restrictions. You want to ensure that your business is sustainable because people’s livelihoods are at stake. So it can be tough.”
Nonetheless, four years running the social enterprise has taught Lim to focus only on what she can achieve. “There’s no point dwelling on what’s unfair or what can’t be changed. Being too fixated on the past will only hinder our growth," she says. "Instead, we stay focused on how we can provide these refugees with a good livelihood here in Malaysia before they resettle in another country, how we can help them get back on their feet.”
See more honourees from the Food & Beverage category of the Gen.T List 2019.