Rohingya curries and Syrian sweets from refugees are making start-up a hit

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Rohingya curries and Syrian sweets from refugees are making start-up a hit

  • A food delivery start-up operating out of refugees' home kitchens is cooking up a thriving business
  • Although the founders have no entrepreneurial experience, the Malaysia-based start-up is profitable after only a year
  • The young founders, who were selected to attend a Stanford-backed entrepreneurship program, want to show that there are sustainable business solutions to social issues

It's an 80-square-foot kitchen that barely holds three people at a time, but Jasmina has made thousands of meals, many of them aromatic Rohingya curries, there over the last year.

The cooking is a sorely needed source of income, about 2,000 Malaysian ringgit ($490) each month, for the 43-year-old mother of eight, as she is a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar who has been living in limbo in Malaysia for more than 20 years.

Jasmina, who declined to give her real name for fear of the authorities, works with Malaysia-based start-up The Picha Project, which operates just like any other catering service — except that all its chef-partners are refugees.

The young company said it has also achieved profitability — a milestone many start-ups can't reach — and it's delivered more than 40,000 meals from refugees' home kitchens.

The Picha Project is trying to solve a prickly issue in Malaysia.

While there are more than 150,000 refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Southeast Asian country, they find themselves in a difficult grey area: They're allowed in the country, but not allowed to work legally.

As a result, poverty is endemic in the refugee community, leaving many vulnerable to exploitative practices.

The financial problems that refugees face prompted an unlikely trio — Kim Lim, a musician; Suzanne Ling, a psychology graduate; and Lee Swee Lin, a finance professional — into action.

The young women — Lim is 27 while the others are 24 — decided to start the Kuala Lumpur-based company last year with the aim of creating a sustainable source of income for refugees.

The three founders told CNBC that they had observed through volunteering experiences that the children of refugees often dropped out of school because their families had trouble making ends meet.

While they had previously organized fundraisers, they realized that there were limits to charity. And, despite having no prior entrepreneurship experience, they saw a potential business.

"Malaysians all love food. Through food, we can bring the refugee community and Malaysians together and, at the same time, help them to earn an income," said Ling.

Their bet has paid off as their fellow countrymen have responded warmly to the company's unusual food offerings.

A Syrian sweet called basbousa, made by a refugee working with The Picha Project in Malaysia.
A Syrian sweet called basbousa, made by a refugee working with The Picha Project in Malaysia.

The 10 refugee partners of the start-up come from countries like Myanmar, Syria and Iraq, and the chefs make hard-to-find food options from their home countries.

Those include Rohingya curries, a traditional Syrian sweet known as basbousa, as well as crowd favorites like hummus, stuffed Afghan flatbread known as bolani and dumplings covered with yogurt and dhal called mantu.

It may sound difficult to make a sustainable business with just 10 refugee families cooking from tiny home kitchens, but The Picha Project has made a profit and managed to scale.

The start-up has been open for about 18 months and has made nearly a million Malaysian ringgit ($240,000), Lee said. On the back of that success, the company hired new employees in September, growing from a team of three to 12.

An open house event hosted by a refugee working with Malaysian start-up, The Picha Project.
An open house event hosted by a refugee working with Malaysian start-up, The Picha Project.

The founders operate as a sustainable business — not a collection of volunteers— paying market-rate salaries for their employees.

"We don't want people burning out, we don't want people to have to worry about putting food on their own tables, before putting food on other people's tables," said Lim.

Lim credited some of the company's business strengths to attending a "life-changing" Stanford-backed entrepreneurship program in August this year.

She said it helped the founders re-assess their strategy and refine their purpose in starting a business.

"We want to be able to get more revenue and families on board. Ultimately, we want to be the face for sustainable solutions," said Lim.

The average age of the team is just 24, but they have lofty ambitions. They have big plans to grow the number of refugee partners, hit profit margins of 20 percent in six months' time, and set up a central kitchen.

"We aspire to replicate this business model in other places and countries for more communities to be impacted through this food business," added Ling.