“He was involved in a gang fight and had gotten his hand sliced. He was rushed to the hospital to have it reattached. And we realised that he needed a focus,” Kuhan shares.
Along with two partners, he pooled together RM15,000 to buy a “white pasar malam truck” and got the friend to manage the food truck with the help of a local cook. The mobile business, which started in 2015, grew in the vicinity of Kuala Lumpur City Centre.
However, the partners – professionals in various fields – did not have much need for an additional income and decided to channel the profits toward subsidising meals for the homeless.
This, says Kuhan, helped build empathy in this friend, who is also recognised as a co-founder of the company and, today, helms Masala Wheels as the chief executive officer.
“We wanted to make him realise that he can also be the giver,” he says.
They also started taking in more at-risk youths; training them with skills relevant to a food catering business and giving them a purpose to focus on.
The food truck continued to gain support from consumers over the next two years and sales picked up.
Upon realising that Masala Wheels has built up a strong social brand among the folks of Klang Valley, Kuhan decided that it was perhaps time to scale up its social impact.
“A food truck can train one or two people. Parents were sending their kids to come and learn about food (business) from us,” he says.
In 2017, Masala Wheels opened its restaurant in a quiet corner of Petaling Jaya’s Section 1. The outlet is staffed by marginalised youths with no access to employment or better education.
Sustaining the business was no small feat. Kuhan recalls many an occasion when things went horribly wrong, like when one of its stainless steel trays was leaking at a catering event.
“One of our guys took a knife and stabbed it into a catering tray. Why? Because he was so frustrated. When we asked him where was the knife supposed to go to, he said ‘his head’. They are emotionally challenged.
“People will compare our growth with a conventional f&b and say that we could have been a larger brand. I remain contented. Because it is not me who is managing it, but the people who take their time to turn over a new leaf who are managing the business. They are going at their own organic pace and growth.
“So where it is today is something they had thought was unachievable in their lives and something they never would have imagined, and yet, it is where it is today. It was built by the people who benefited from the social enterprise,” he says.
Masala Wheels has since become a beacon of success for other social enterprises hoping to grow as an entity while balancing their social causes.
Kuhan believes that social enterprises should directly impact their target groups. This is a belief similarly held by Efinity Social Enterprise founder Teng Yu-Mein.
Teng’s invention may be little known to the public, but her water filter system is making a big impact in orang asli villages and in remote places where clean water is somewhat elusive.
She had spent some time with the orang asli community in Negri Sembilan and discovered that their drinking water was of poor quality.
Although the village had piped water, it was murky and traditional filtering methods including rocks, sand and cloth were of little help. They could not use conventional water filters either because they lacked the right water pressure and electricity supply.
Moved by the problem, the soft-spoken mother of one started pondering on a possible solution that would help communities have access to cleaner drinking water. She eventually identified the low water pressure as the root problem that she needed to address and somehow stumbled on a way to fix it while ironing her clothes – pumping. The simple pumping motion could create enough pressure to run murky water through a filter
She took six months to design, conceptualise and come out with a prototype pressure cap that would easily fit onto a 1.5 litre plastic bottle, which can be hooked up to a simple pump and filter.
“I was persistent to do this because I thought that it can really help people,” says Teng.
And she was right.
When she brought her prototype to an exhibition, she received some encouraging responses which spurred her to further work on her invention.
“Someone from India wanted to buy the product straight away because they really like the product. But I told them no, because it was only a prototype,” she explains.
By mid-2017, Efinity started supplying its product to NGOs who would then bring them to the targeted communities. Teng has packaged the cap with a simple pump and ceramic filter to create a portable water filtration system that has been used in areas such as refugee camps.
Teng isn’t the only one who saw that her skills could be used to better the lives of the indigenous community.
Sarawak-based Tuyang Initiative co-founder Juvita Tatan Wan kickstarted the initiative two years ago to help her community keep in step with progress while holding on to their culture.
“For members of indigenous communities, being set in a contemporary world is tough. The way of life has changed. And they face challenges similar to the low income groups – income generation, electricity, access to healthcare and education.
“As members of the communities ourselves who have had the opportunity to break out of it, we thought about how we could give back. We wanted to create opportunities for income generation through something that is unique to our community, and something that no one can ever take away, and that is our cultural heritage,” says Juvita.
The Tuyang Initiative works with communities in Sarawak to come up with performance art pieces, workshops and showcases.
Juvita notes that one of the challenges faced by the community is the growing number of paid performers for cultural-related shows who are not actual practitioners of those traditions or are not from the communities.
“Can you imagine how disempowering it is for members of the actual community to see someone else capitalising on their culture, their stories, their songs?” she asks.
She emphasises the need to educate people about the importance of returning a sense of pride to the communities by giving them the opportunities to showcase their traditions and earn a living.
The growing number of social enterprises that have emerged in recent years are slowly, but surely, making their impact felt among the grassroots. However, social enterprises say there needs to be a greater buy-in from policymakers right down to consumers to ensure sustainable growth and impact.
Push for recognition
There has been a marked increase in support for social enterprises in recent times. Juvita notes that there are more conversations on social enterprises at the regional and national levels.
But Teng points out that there has also been a wide misuse of the term “social enterprise”, causing many to be suspicious of the label.
“They would think that you are hiding behind the name to cheat them,” says Teng.
Following the government’s announcement of an income tax exemption on donations to social enterprises in Budget 2019, there was a surge in people calling themselves social enterprises, adds Kuhan.
To counter that, the Chamber for Social Entrepreneur Development pushed for a clear definition of social enterprises and accreditation system to reduce the abuse of the term.
Juvita hopes this will lead to more meaningful accreditation and business matching opportunities with the Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre and Ministry of Entrepreneur Development as well as better access to funding. This will give more social enterprises the chance to truly research, develop and come up with innovative solutions which are profitable and provide positive impact.
Kuhan emphasises the government’s role in building awareness for social enterprises and in laying the bricks for a strong ecosystem given their stake in social development.
“They need to say that a portion of social development should come from social enterprises. And we can deliver because we have the experience,” he says.
One of the main things that he thinks the government should focus on in growing the sector is to coordinate and map out social enterprise efforts across policies.
“Identify and know the social enterprises that exist in Malaysia and get to know their expertise. For example, there are social enterprises working on education in low-cost flats. Is the Ministry of Education engaging them?
“The Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change talks about developing green technology. There are social enterprises that have cross-subsidisation schemes whereby for every solar panel that is installed, another panel will be installed in an orang asli village.
“But there is no coordination. There should be a consolidation (so that you spend less effort and resources to develop similar pillars). Social entrepreneurship should be seen as a tool to social economic transformation,” he says.
Kuhan also hopes that greater recognition for social enterprises will open up more market access for these companies. While there is a market for their products and services, having a supportive procurement policy will compel larger conglomerates to be more proactive in making acquisitions in a more responsible manner.
Neighbouring countries are opening up market access through regulation and some enterprises in those countries are already exporting their products. In the UK, he points out, social enterprises contribute significantly to their gross domestic product.
Last year, Masala Wheels crossed the RM500,000-revenue mark and the company is eyeing sales of over RM1mil this year. Masala Wheels is also eyeing social franchising opportunities in Singapore where profits from a community kitchen will be used to impact marginalised youths there as well as back home.
For Teng, she hopes to work with more NGOs to put more water filters into the hands of those who truly need them, and getting the recognition and exposure would certainly help.
“We hope that we will be able to work together with international humanitarian bodies like the United Nations, World Health Organization, Red Cross and so on. Locally, we hope that our National Disaster Agency, Mercy Malaysia, Rotary Club, Lion Club and even agencies will use our innovations in their missions well,” she says.
Teng says one of the challenges when it comes to public or social procurement is that many NGO and government agencies prefer to carry out big, visible projects as opposed to practical efforts. For example, a huge amount of money would be spent installing big water filter tanks in orang asli villages without considering if the people are able or capable of maintaining them. Instead of installing a huge centralised system for the whole community, which most times end up becoming white elephants, she says it will be more practical and economical to provide one small system to each family which they can maintain themselves.
“In the pipeline, we are currently working on a new system which will be able to remove heavy metals from the water. None of the water systems used for the orang asli and even in our urban homes today are able to remove heavy metals.
“Many of the people living in the estates and plantations are drinking water from wells which are contaminated by the chemicals and fertilisers used for their trees. It is a time bomb waiting to happen and we need to do something before a disaster happens,” she shares.
Entrepreneurs reckon that a growing and maturing social enterprise sector will benefit the overall business landscape in Malaysia. If there is greater awareness among all the stakeholders – government, the private sector, academia and consumers – there would be a greater shift towards running businesses responsibly.
“Businesses will be inspired to be more competitive to do what you (social entrepreneurs) are doing. They will want to get onboard. When social enterprises become matured, people will start conducting their business responsibly and contribute to social and business impact. People see it as value.
“Then you will have much higher civic participation and civic awareness. They say a country is gauge by the people’s mindset. And people want to be involved in building the community,” says Kuhan.
Consumers, he adds, will have the option to support social development through their purchasing power.
“At the policy level, there should be opportunities to truly assist in the growth of promising social enterprises. We could all benefit from profitable businesses that think about the impact they make in their day to day decisions.
“Consumers also need to make social enterprises accountable and ask the hard questions when you set out to buy something, or even to acquire a service. ‘Where are these vegetables from?’ How much did the farmer receive?’ or ‘How much of this fee goes back to the musicians?’
“Social enterprises are the growing forces in the general business landscape. They are a part of the pool of SMEs, which make up the biggest segment of businesses in Malaysia. It speaks volumes about the good it can do, not only in an economic sense, but also in the wider context of addressing various challenges or issues,” says Juvita.
Tuyang Initiative is developing more strategic partnerships with the private sector, both regionally and internationally, to be less reliant on government funding. The company made revenue of over RM200,000 in 2018 and aims to double that this year.
It is also seeking impact investors who are interested to grow such an initiative with the company.
Sustainability is an important element of a successful social enterprise. But as Teng puts it: The success of a social enterprise is not only based on how much money they make, but also how many lives they touch.
Star Golden Hearts Award is an annual award by The Star and Yayasan Gamuda that celebrates everyday Malaysian unsung heroes. Each year since 2015, the Award has been presented to ten deserving winners comprising Malaysian individuals, non-profit organisations and social enterprises whose selfless acts have made Malaysia a better place. Nominations are open at bit.ly/SGHA2019 until 15 July 2019.