Lee Swee Lin of PichaEats on helping Malaysia’s refugees: Startup Stories

A sustainable solution for those who found a new, safe home in Malaysia.

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Lee Swee Lin of PichaEats on helping Malaysia’s refugees: Startup Stories

In Malaysia, as is the case in many places, refugees and asylum-seekers often find it difficult to lead dignified lives. Often, these individuals lack access to legal employment and formal education.

But there are social enterprises that have set out to change this situation. Three years ago, Suzanne Ling, Lim Yuet Kim, and Lee Swee Lin established Picha to do just that, naming the company after the first child of their first cook, a refugee from Burma. This serves as a constant reminder that they must be steadfast in their mission to assist marginalized groups in Malaysia.

Later rebranded as PichaEats, the company now taps into something unique that refugees bring to Malaysia—their nations’ cuisines. It offers a menu that includes Syrian sweets, Palestinian hummus, Iraqi falafel, and Afghani dumplings, just to name a few.

KrASIA recently spoke with Lee Swee Lin, one of PichaEats’ co-founders, to learn more about the social enterprise and how they managed to do better than break even within a year.

KrASIa (Kr):  How did PichaEats come to be? Did any of its founders work with refugees before starting this social enterprise?

Lee Swee Lin (L): Along with my co-founders Kim and Suzanne, I volunteered at a refugee learning center six years ago. While teaching as a volunteer, I witnessed a high drop-out rate as these kids had to find paid work to sustain their families, so they weren’t able to attend school.

We realized that these refugee families have great potential when it comes to perfecting an essential life skill—cooking. We thought to ourselves, if we can start promoting and selling home-cooked food made by refugees, they will be able to make money to sustain themselves and send their kids to school. And that was how PichaEats came about as a food business selling meals prepared by refugees.

Kr: Could you tell us more about the lives of refugees in Malaysia?

L: Refugees in Malaysia mainly come from Myanmar, Syria, Palestine, Sudan, and Pakistan.

As Malaysia is not part of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention [which defines the rights of refugees], these people aren’t allowed to find work, making it a challenge for many of them to find ways to put food on the table, pay rent, and send their kids to school.

Kr: Empowerment lies at the heart of your social enterprise. How does this drive what PichaEats does?

L: Being able to find a way to connect refugees with customers through food has allowed them to earn a sustainable living in a dignified manner. At PichaEats, that’s the scenario we want to see, to see that these individuals have a chance to fight and transform their lives.

Kr: It has always been a struggle for startups to turn a profit, especially for social enterprises. How did PichaEats manage to achieve profitability after only a year?

L: While we started with no capital, we managed to work out a business model with the families to ensure that both sides are able to profit from the sales.

By having no centralized kitchen, we save on operational and overhead costs. More importantly, we have no bad debts as customers will have to pay upfront before getting their food delivered.

Kr: Can you share how the PichaEats platform helps refugees refine their professional skills?

L: As refugees take around eight to ten years to resettle, by cooking with PichaEats, they would have trained themselves to cook food from various menus in different volumes with professionalism.

We also plan training sessions for families to develop their experience.

Kr: What’s one piece of advice you would give aspiring entrepreneurs who are on their way to starting their own enterprises?

L: If you have an idea, immediately execute it. If you wait for that perfect solution, you might never actually bring the idea to fruition.

This article is an entry of “Startup Stories,” a series where KrASIA’s writers speak with the founders of young companies in Southeast Asia.