The Picha Project: Empowering refugees in Malaysia

This social enterprise is making refugee families self-reliant, one meal at a time.

by Aisiri Amin

The Picha Project
Co-founders, Lim Yuet Kim, Lee Swee Lin and Suzanne Ling (L-R)  © The Picha Project

Named after a three-year-old boy from Myanmar named Pita, pronounced as Pi-Cha, this social enterprise set up by three Malaysians is not only helping refugee families become financially independent and self-reliant but is also building an inclusive and accepting community.

The Picha Project was founded by Lim Yuet Kim, Lee Swee Lin and Suzanne Ling in 2016. Today they have scaled and are being recognised all over the world for their powerful idea of helping marginalised refugee families turn their existing cooking skills into a source of stable income.

There are more than 150,000 other refugees in Malaysia who are denied basic rights which creates a vicious cycle of poverty. With no proper jobs, children drop out of schools to help their parents and in turn get trapped in the endless struggle to earn hand-to-mouth income.

The Picha Project is working towards changing that. The platform connects those who need catering to refugee families with refugees’ home kitchens. As the founders say, “As they are putting food on your table, you are putting food on theirs.”

They won the Chivas Venture Malaysia and are being featured in the Forbes’ list of 30 on 30 Social Entrepreneurs 2018. We talk to one of the co-founders, Lim Yuet Kim about what inspired the idea, the struggles they faced and what worked for them.

INKLINE: Refugees are allowed to enter a foreign country but not allowed to work which often adds to their financial strain and excludes them from the community. The Picha Project’s innovative concept is changing that. What made you start this?

Lim Yuet Kim: The Picha Project happened when the three of us were volunteering at a refugee learning centre and we witnessed a lot of our kids dropping out of school. To figure out why, we visited their homes. It was when we got to know that these students came from homes where the families were struggling to make ends meet. So, these students were dropping out of school so that they could assist their parents instead of studying.

This was the trigger we needed and it was then that we decided to come up with a sustainable solution to address this matter. A lot of brainstorming sessions led to the Picha Project which aims to make marginalised families self-reliant by providing them with job opportunities by creating a platform that connects those who have cooking skills with those who need catering.

Open House Sharing at Iraqi Hse_Credit Joe Kit Yong (1)
With the help of the revenue generated through Picha, refugee families are able to earn a sustainable income to pay their rent and put food on the table. © The Picha Project

I: What was the one thing that worked, that gave your vision the right push to make it a change in action?

L: It worked because all our stakeholders came together to make this vision work. Be it the Picha families or supporters and customers who we call our Picha Heroes. Our mentors also played a very big role in pushing as well. Most importantly, it’s all because of a very tight team who are compassionate and diligent to deliver amazing results in terms of revenue and social impact.

I: How has life changed for the refugees who are part of The Picha Project?

L: With the help of the revenue generated through Picha, refugee families are able to earn a sustainable income to pay their rent, put food on the table and most importantly, send their kids to schools and save money in case of medical emergencies.

We have refugee families with a huge amount of debt that they took out of desperation to pay off their rental or for food. The baggage of debt while still struggling with to a stable job was a constant worry until Picha. With Picha’s help, they feel confident about providing for their family. Also, for women, it is a more powerful source of strength and a self-esteem boost.

Some families have hospital bills to pay as well so through partnering with Picha they are also able to save some money in case of emergencies.

Food during Open House_Open House Sharing_Credit Joe Kit Yong
Through regular interactions and sharing the table, the stereotypes surrounding refugees are replaced by genuine empathy and laughter. © The Picha Project

I: In bringing people together, what are some of the recurring preconceived notions about refugees that you have come across?

L: The perception that the refugees are people who visit Malaysia to steal the citizen’s jobs or people who bring in diseases to the country. But probably the worst mind block towards refugees is the assumption that they are terrorists. Through regular interactions and sharing the table, gradually these destructive assumptions were replaced by genuine empathy and laughter.

“We are very determined to grow Picha and make it a household name across the world so that people understand refugees more closely.”

I: Which are the most popular dishes?

L: Some of the most appreciated dishes are: Mantu (chicken dumpling topped with yoghurt and dhaal) from Afghanistan and Musakhan (Chicken wrapped) from Palestine.

I: What has been the most challenging part of this journey?

L: To help the refugee families move past the constant struggles, the emotional trauma and focus on bettering their present.  Sometimes it is very draining for the refugee families and our team to deal with the emotional roller coaster but we see the positive change Picha brings into their lives and we feel motivated to face it, to go on.

Sometimes it is very draining for the refugee families and our team to deal with the emotional roller coaster. © The Picha Project

I: What has been the most uplifting part of it all?

L: Watching kids receive the education they deserve. To see them grow into wholesome human beings with dreams shining brightly in their eyes. Also, to see the relief of the family members because they don’t have to worry about whether they will have enough money to eat the next day. For them, stability is the comfort they need.

I: What does future look like for The Picha Project?

L: We are very determined to grow Picha and make it a household name across the world so that people understand refugees more closely. Also, we want to create the awareness that sustainable solutions such as The Picha Project can help them find their footing in a foreign land.

There are plans in place to grow Picha in different communities in Malaysia or internationally and we hope to be able to scale faster and also build a much stronger team to make this happen.

I: Like you, there are thousands of millennials around the world witnessing the socio-cultural chaos that the world is entangled in. If there is one thing you could tell them, what would that be?

L: Don’t just read this! Instead, join the global movement to bring about the change you want to see in your community or your country. Each and every one of you are capable of creating a sustainable solution, in changing the world in their own way.  So, go do that.

Share the positive!