03/05/2021  •  10 mins read

Power to the People

Find out how micro enterprises can bring big changes.

Jacqueline Pereira

Two years ago, without a steady income, 30-year-old Putri Syafika Raja Zuki was struggling to make ends meet. Today, her RM1 Queen Fried Chicken (QFC) has made headlines among the community in Kuala Terengganu as her income increased ten-fold.

Her entrepreneurial journey began when she began selling her homemade Seaweed Cheese crackers, initially made for her youngest child, at a weekend market to support her family. As she received encouraging response for these crackers, her confidence and determination grew. 

So, when the opportunity to enroll in Program MEKAR (Memampankan Ekonomi Asas Rakyat) came about, she seized it. 

Program MEKAR is a Yayasan PETRONAS initiative launched in 2019 to increase income levels of marginalised communities and alleviate poverty in Malaysia. Through targeted mentoring and training schemes, the programme aims to transform ideas into thriving, self-sustaining businesses to help with the plight of these underserved communities. 

With the kitchen utensils she received after her first programme, Putri Syafika’s business grew. Upon completing her second stint with Program MEKAR, she began selling the famed QFC for RM1 in Kuala Terengganu. But she did not just stop at that.

As one who constantly seeks opportunities, she began her third business in the current pandemic crisis. Instead of letting the challenges of lockdown hold her back, her resourcefulness led to the birth of Ganu Runner, a delivery service that is now gathering glowing testimonies from the Kuala Terengganu community. 

“Whether it’s masks or food, on my motorbike,” explains Putri Syafika, “I help people deliver products.” 

She started from zero, she revealed, without even a product, simply relying on whatever she had in her kitchen. With hard work, patience and feedback she now not only supports her own family but, since her businesses have grown, also employs other family and community members.  

“I want to help as many people as I can,” Putri Syafika states. It’s important for us all to progress together.”

One of Program MEKAR’s success stories, she earns 10 times more than when she first started out. Although the pandemic has thwarted her plans to open more QFC branches, she is nevertheless optimistic about expanding further in the coming years.

Inclusive Progress

The COVID-19 pandemic, other than precipitating a health and economic crisis, has inadvertently revealed the stark vulnerability of the world’s marginalised population. The disproportionate impact on lower income groups and small businesses is expected to accelerate in the pandemic’s aftermath. These groups are also at greater risk in developing countries and will bear the brunt in the long term.  

A March 2020 UNDP report states that this devastating social and economic crisis will continue unabated for years to come, with a worldwide loss of income projected to exceed USD220 billion. It also estimates that 55 per cent of the global population have no access to social protection, with losses impacting income, education and even basic food security. 

In Malaysia, among the vulnerable are 2.8 million affected B40 households, declares the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) report on the socioeconomic effects of COVID-19. Made up of mostly low-skilled workers, their hardship will include financial losses, poor health and malnutrition. 

The Malaysian Government has responded rapidly with several economic stimulus measures, among them the first Prihatin Rakyat, a RM260-billion stimulus package. The ILO reports that the required actions in working toward achieving Malaysia’s commitment to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development must turn recovery attempts into real future opportunities.

Some recommendations to "build back better" include investing in the digital economy, enhancing employability and workforce resilience through training and retraining schemes, and building upon the community spirit engendered during the pandemic. 

As the world was still in the throes of the pandemic in August 2020, Yayasan PETRONAS announced that its Program MEKAR will aim to assist 3,400 B40 or low-income families over the next two years. Benefitting a total of over 13,600, the currently targeted districts cover eight states: Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Pahang, Sabah, Sarawak, Selangor and Terengganu. 

The focus will be on creating a more equitable society by narrowing the income gap, through sustainable economic growth among communities in targeted districts.

Yayasan PETRONAS CEO Nelly Francis Shariah affirms, “In order for all Malaysians to experience a better quality of life, socio-economic progress must be inclusive and require a long-term commitment in efforts to reduce poverty and unemployment.”

Sustainable Goals

With the wealth divide continuing to drastically widen, Program MEKAR aims to ensure healthy lives and well-being, as well as promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment, and decent work for Malaysians. In line with United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 3: Good Health and Well-Being, and 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth, as well as pursuing PETRONAS’ Sustainability Agenda.

The first of three phases of the programme’s implementation provide for basic needs, such as water or energy, to improve living standards. In Sabah, for example, the focus is on providing water supply to an area where more than half of its community live below the national poverty line.

Sisters Justah and Ritah Dahlan from Kampung Pulutan, a village in the interior of Sabah, participated in Yayasan PETRONAS’ Planting Tomorrow programme, the predecessor to Program MEKAR. Until then, they had eked out a living from rubber tapping and small-scale farming, like most people in the village. Over nine months in 2017, with advice from experts, ginger cultivation was introduced to the villagers. High-quality seeds were distributed, and expert techniques taught. Lots of encouragement and goals later, the farmers were jubilant when their ginger began to grow in abundance. 

The benefits have been manifold. “Previously, we used to work on our individual land. Now, we help each other, and reap more profit. We also work faster together,” declares 29-year-old Ritah. Justah, 31, adds that before this they had to walk to the river three times a day, filling bottles and buckets before carrying them back. “Now, we finally have water flowing into the village through a gravity-fed system.” 

Both sisters comfortably earn from RM1,500 to RM3,300 a month, from their ginger farm, compared with the meagre RM150 to RM500 previously.

"We used to walk to the river three times a day, filling bottles and buckets before carrying them back. Now, we finally have water flowing into the village through a gravity-fed system.”

Justah Dahlan (Kampung Pulutan, Sabah)
Participant of the Yayasan PETRONAS’ Planting Tomorrow programme

Extending Opportunities

Many people in underserved communities flounder on their own, sometimes even grasping at straws to put food on the table. Owning a successful business is beyond their comprehension. Extending product lines and social media promotions are not on their radar, either. 

Program MEKAR’s second phase is based on income generation, with skills development aligned with state economic development plans. Through targeted upskilling and entrepreneurship training, this stage aims to enable beneficiaries to increase their annual income by between six and nine per cent within a two-year period.

Yayasan PETRONAS first collaborated with the Northern Corridor Economic Region (NCER) in Kedah in mid-2019 in support of its empowerNCER initiative. This was rolled out under Yayasan PETRONAS' Program MEKAR which placed an emphasis on upskilling B40 communities including youth, women, Orang Asli and other disadvantaged groups by providing customised hard and soft skills training. To date, this initiative has seen recipients in five districts record sustainable and significant income improvement, with some earning 10 times more. 

Not long ago, the fifth of 11 siblings, unemployed Ubal Kulim, 32, lived in abject poverty. As an Orang Asli, he was aware that the generations before him looked to the forests, land or nature for yield. As a millennial, Ubal was quick to break through limited mindsets and resources, as well as cultural stigma, to venture into entrepreneurship. He even tried selling products online, but that failed. Sporadically, he earned about RM300 a month selling chicken nuggets. 

As a participant of empowerNCER funded by Yayasan PETRONAS under the banner of Program MEKAR, he learned the necessary knowledge and skills to begin his own business. Grateful and excited for the opportunity to be trained to run his own burger stall, he confided, “I am probably the first Orang Asli in this village to open a stall. I hope other young people in my community see me as a role model. If I can do it, so can they.” 

Ubal arrives on time every day at his stall in Kampung Lubuk Legong in Baling to prepare before the first of his regular customers appears. His sales grew as he added drinks and Som Tam (Thai green papaya salad) to his menu. Today, on average, he earns between RM1,020 to RM1,600 a month.

“I used to worry about my finances, but now I’m able to support my family and even have some savings,” declares Ubal. Knowing what it’s like, he also donates some of his profit to needy families.

Scaling Solutions

To upscale micro-businesses, Program MEKAR’s third phase strives to extend the scope of these businesses beyond their homes, villages and small towns. Business networking opportunities help to sustainably strengthen B40 communities’ income stream. Additional business acumen connections such as financial literacy, management, marketing and branding help these businesses grow into their next level. Scaling up includes solutions, sustaining enhanced skills and market access.

Courageous single mother of five and cancer survivor Che Wan Mon Omar feels she has been given a second chance at life. After her husband had passed away and having been diagnosed with stage-four lymphoma cancer, she now accepts each day as a gift to spend with her children. 

Her recovery offered her renewed hope to live, too, so she became motivated to find ways to support herself and her children. A simple homemade ice cream, a longstanding household favourite, sparked purpose. “My children, who love my ice creams, gave me ideas on flavours to begin with.” They decided on Choki Choki and Oreo flavours. 

Making 200 sticks per week, Che Wan was soon a hit with the neighbourhood children. She built a regular customer base while carefully not overexerting herself. Even then, a monthly income of RM300 insufficient to sustain her family. 

The empowerNCER training funded by Yayasan PETRONAS gave her the opportunity to think big and envision growth. She got creative with her ice cream flavours, with bestsellers including Vanilla Choki, Oreo and Kiwi Fizz. Today she makes around 500 to 700 sticks in over 15 flavours. She also accepts orders for customised flavours and enjoys experimenting and matching specific requirements with expectations. 

Meanwhile, her income has multiplied almost five-fold, and she earns approximately RM1,400 per month. She supplies her ice cream to local shops and has even appointed an agent to expand her reach. She’s certain of her next move after the pandemic: “I want to sell my ice cream in jars, and I know people will love it!”

Helping Hand

Most of the unemployed and micro-business owners are barely able to make ends meet. With families to house, clothe and feed, they can be days away from slipping through the cracks, if disregarded.

Yayasan PETRONAS believes that underprivileged communities can effectively climb the income ladder given skills, support and access to economic opportunities. MEKAR is about providing these enablers so that those with less means and the unemployed can be self-sustaining.

As the Corporate Social Responsibility arm of PETRONAS, Yayasan PETRONAS envisions enriching lives for a sustainable future through its focus areas - education, community well-being and development, and the environment.

While some have hailed the pandemic as the great equaliser, the long reach and impact of the public health crisis is far from narrowing disparity in society’s unserved segments.

A recent BBC article, "Coronavirus: How can society thrive post-pandemic?" asks experts to answer the biggest questions as we move toward a post-COVID society.

In answering how inequalities and the economy will continue to be connected, Heather Boushey, Washington Center for Equitable Growth President and CEO, states unequivocally that COVID-19 has laid bare a vast network of underlying fragilities. While she refers to the continuing threat to US health and well-being, its global equivalence cannot be denied.

Boushey feels current crises present us with a moment to reset. She calls for economic equality to reduce long-standing inequities across society. It is time, she adds, to act collectively, “…to create an economy characterised by growth that is strong, stable, and broadly shared, one that measures its success by the degree to which individuals and families have a chance at a prosperous life.”

It is time to see whether that collective action will happen.

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