Doing Good with Food

05 October 2016

These social enterprises are feeding more than just our stomachs.

Food is our national obsession. It is perhaps one of the few things that is guaranteed to bring Malaysians together – that, and a tense badminton final.

Yet, for all of our sentimentality about food, it’s worth asking: can it actually be a bad thing? Malaysians have the highest rates of diabetes in Southeast Asia. We also waste a shocking amount of food: 15,000 tonnes daily, according to recent statistics published by NST.

Around the world, the consumption of food reflects the societies in which we live. At the recent Olympics, renowned chef Massimo Bottura salvaged surplus food from the Olympic Village. Together with his team, he turned this excess food into delicious meals for Rio’s homeless.

Closer to home, Malaysians are also finding ways to rethink our relationship with food. In recent years, we’ve seen a slow but steady trend in social enterprises that aim to satisfy the belly and give back to society.

Project B, an initiative of Dignity for Children and the BIG Group, has been serving up food in Sentul since last year. Their kitchen is a training programme for disadvantaged young people, who can learn skills from growing vegetables to cooking to hospitality.

Come October, Bangsar will also see the launch of Agak Agak – a new café run by chefs Basira Yeusuff and Ili Sulaiman, who will use their kitchen to train aspiring chefs from high need communities who might not otherwise be able to break into the industry.  

This year alone, three new food-conscious social enterprises have launched, with support from the Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre (MaGIC). Malaysia.my spoke to the founders to find out more:

GrubCycle

GrubCycle tackles the issue of Malaysia’s food wastage. The enterprise links customers with cheaper food close to its “best before” date. For example, their team scours supermarkets to buy discounted food, then sells it on to customers with free delivery. They carefully choose the most in demand items, to ensure they almost always manage to sell it off.

“I was researching social enterprises and felt that a lot of them focus on empowering communities. But social enterprises can also be for the environment and for a sustainable future,” says Redza Shahid Ridzuan, co-founder.

Other initiatives under the company include GrubBakeries, which helps cafes to sell off cakes and pastries before closing time; and GrubHomemade, where “ugly” fruit that might be discarded is instead turned into jam.

“Our goal is to reduce 7000kg of food wastage by 31 June 2017,” says Redza, who runs GrubCycle alongside Asyraf Syahmi Sofian, Siti Hawa Khairunnisa Roslan, Charanpirabu and Ayesha Hannah Amer.

With the profits generated from selling food, GrubCycle supports low income families by subsidising bags of essential food such as eggs and rice. But Redza insists that GrubCycle should not be seen as an NGO or charity.

“I always tell my team, we shouldn’t call ourselves a social enterprise until we are profit generating,” says Redza. “A social enterprise is not a business where you do good but you suffer for it! We are a business with the added value of helping the community.”

SevenTea One

SevenTeaOne produces boxes of tea, made from herbs that have been locally sourced from small gardens around Malaysia. The dried herbs are then packaged as tea by marginalised communities. Founded by Majidah Hashim, SevenTeaOne works with Chin refugees from Myanmar, and a group of people with autism, each of which receive a share of the profits.  

A participant of MaGIC’s Accelerator programme, Majidah first got the idea after she started gardening herself. She then made the move from her corporate job of ten years to being a full time social entrepreneur.

Since founding the company in March this year, Majidah has sold SevenTeaOne at small bazaars as well as selling bulk orders for corporate events. The flavours of tea include Thai Basil Telang Tea, Lemon Basil Telang, Telang Flower and Misang Kucing tea, each box retailing for RM35 each.

“Being a social entrepreneur can be lonely because everyone feels you should be making as much money as possible,” says Majidah. Instead, she wants to create social and environmental impact, and a responsibility for other people.

In the future, she hopes to open a community centre where the tea production can be centralised.

Picha Project

KL-ites are usually game to try new kinds of food – and Picha Project is just the way to find it. Picha Project offers a menu of dishes from countries such as Aghanistan, Myanmar and Syria, cooked by refugees who have made Kuala Lumpur their new home.

Picha Project was founded by Suzanne Ling, Lee Swee Lin and Kim Lim, who met while volunteering for a refugee teaching programme, Hands of Hope. All three are now running Picha Project full time, having gained funding from MaGIC and MyHarapan Youth Grant, with two interns for support.

In a single month, Picha Project gets between 1500 – 2300 meal orders. Bestsellers include Mantu & Bolani from Sakina's Afghan Kitchen, Chicken Mandi from Mona's Gaza Kitchen and Chicken Biryani from Zaza's Syrian Kitchen. Most of these meals range from RM10 – RM20 each.

“One of the most rewarding and surprising things is how the refugee families have welcomed us like family members of their own,” says Suzanne, who adds that all the recipes are authentic to each family.

Yet, since all three founders came from different backgrounds, it has also been a challenging process. “The three of us had zero background in running a business, what more a social enterprise,” says Suzanne.

“MaGIC has given us a platform to learn important knowledge and skills needed to run an SE, connect with influential and well-experienced individuals, and experiment on our business model and product.”

For aspiring social entrepreneurs, Suzanne emphasises that the journey is just as tough as for any other start up.

“Every time things get bad, what keeps us going are the refugee families that we are impacting. That's where our passion is.”

 

By Ling Low

Photos of GrubCycle and Picha Project courtesy of respective establishments

 

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