Four years ago, Suzanne Ling, Lee Swee Lin and Kim Lim started The Picha Project, a social enterprise that engaged refugees to cater meals from their respective cultures for a food delivery service.

The three young women were barely out of college at the time – they had no experience of running a business and zero funding to get their idea up and running. What they had in droves was a dogged determination to improve the lives of refugee families in Malaysia and to empower them with financial independence and confidence to get back on their feet after the trauma of having to flee their homes.

Most of all, The Picha Project wants to give refugee children a second chance at life – the opportunity to go to school, make friends and have a happy childhood.

“We saw how these families struggled to put food on the table. And when living is a struggle, sending their children to school became less of a priority,” says Ling, sharing why they started their initiative. They started off with three refugee families and within six months, Picha had prepared some 3,000 meals for Malaysians who were curious enough to support their novel idea.

Today, the women have nine refugee families on board (from Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar and Sudan), who have collectively served over 50,000 meals.

Ling, Lee and Lim find themselves being empowered by the refugee families they work with through The Picha Project. Photo: ART CHEN/The Star

“One thing we are most proud of is the trust that we have built with our Picha families. All our families joined us when they were struggling with debts. They were always short on money to cover even their basic living expenses but we have seen their lives improve. Most have cleared off their debts and are able to sustain themselves and send their children to school.

“We have also seen the bond between the families grow … we see them supporting each other and coming together as a community. This is one of our greatest successes,” shares Ling, 25.

Refugee families are paid 50% of the sales of the meals they cook, from which they bear the costs of ingredients used to prepare their food. The remaining 50% of the sales revenue goes towards the packaging and delivery of the meals, marketing and operations costs as well as salaries for the team. So far, The Picha Project has managed not only to be sustainable but profitable.

Along the way, the team has grown: there are now six young women running the business, all determined to make a difference and not just a living.

“Some seasons we do better than others but last year, we were able to make a profit. We have six ladies on our team now. Apart from the three of us, we have Logeetha (Balakrishnan) and Ila (Nur Qalilah Hussain) who are full-timers and (Chong) Yong Yee who works with us part time. All three had corporate jobs but they decided to join us because they saw a purpose in what we do at Picha.

“We are an all-girls team and we take care of all the aspects of running this business, which includes sales, marketing, finance, business development, community outreach and also taking care of our Picha families. We also do the catering, delivery of stocks and meals and carry all the heavy catering equipment ourselves,” says 25-year-old Lee.

Although they take it all in their stride, running and growing their startup is an all-consuming job, often leaving them little time for much else.

“It takes up our whole life, really. But self-growth is important to us and we try and pursue our own passions when we can. Kim (a musician who was part of scoring the Ola Bola movie) still does music on the side, Logeetha is learning Spanish, Ila is part of a classical music band, Swee Lin enrols in training courses in F&B and other areas of her interest and Yong Yee runs another NGO. I do play therapy courses in my free time.

“But it takes a lot of discipline and time management to balance hustling for our cause and taking care of our own needs and spending time with loved ones … it’s a lot of sacrifice. We rarely step into a mall or shop and we don’t have much leisure time. We’re all still learning but what’s great is we are there to support each other and we know that all the hard work is for a greater cause. That makes it all bearable,” says Ling.

Part of their mission is to change public perception about refugees – not merely their stories but also the fact that they have little or no basic rights or access to education as well

As such, Picha meal boxes have a tidbit about the family that cooked the meal.

They also organise a “Picha Open House” where refugee families serve meals in their home, allowing diners to get a glimpse into their culture and get to know their hosts.

“We are really proud and happy to have built a community that is supportive of one another … not just our Picha families but our partners and supporters. It’s amazing seeing people from different countries, backgrounds and industries coming together for a bigger cause.

“But the most fulfilling part is seeing lives being changed … not just the families but everyone whom we have crossed paths with,” says Lim.

The Picha Project gives Malaysian a chance to get to know refugee families living in Malaysia and experience their culture through their food. Photo: The Picha Project

Last May, their community lost one of its earliest recruits, Syrian refugee Mohammad Sad Zaza (fondly known as Zaza) who lost his battle with cancer.

“We were worried about his wife and son after his passing but she surprised us with her amazing strength. She came back stronger than before and although Zaza was the chef, his wife is still cooking with us and earning a stable income for her son and herself,” shares Ling, adding that they are constantly empowered by their clients.

This year, the Picha girls are bent on strengthening their brand and their business model.

“We want to accelerate our growth and are trying things fast, failing fast and learning fast,” says Lee, adding that they also have plans for pop-up kiosks in malls and offices, as well as on-shelf products.

The road ahead remains challenging but the young women behind The Picha Project have long learnt that great things are possible if they stay focused on their vision.

“Before we started The Picha Project, so many people told us not to go into food delivery because it would be tough. They told us not to work with the refugee community because it’d be tricky. They urged us not to grow too fast because we would break down.

“But we’ve never let anything stop us. We believe in our vision. We listened to advice of our mentors who believed in us and pressed on. We hustled, we failed, we cried, we got our hearts broken but we told ourselves that we will never give up. If this business fails, we will start all over again – not for ourselves, but for all the Picha families, and more families that we have yet to reach out to,” says Ling.

Their message to young girls: “Don’t be afraid to try, don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t let others tell you that something can’t be done.”