Hands-on Business Training for Home-based Chefs during Covid-19

Asnita Abd Hamid sells baked goods for a living.

THE FIRST MCO was especially paralytic for women from the lower tiers of the B40 and M40 groups, who sold homemade kuih-muih and finger foods for a living. Some of these were single mothers with children and elderly persons in their care, while others were married but supplemented the family income with home-cooked meals.

Concurrently, non-healthcare workers in other essential services such as sanitation, delivery and maintenance as well as street cleaners had difficulty obtaining food during the lockdown. Under Project Kuih Raya, a three-month programme organised by the Jawatankuasa Pembangunan Wanita dan Keluarga (JPWK) and Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC), 49 of these women were recruited across the five districts to lend a helping hand. From a donated sum of RM62,540, each woman received RM1,276 for grocery purchase and to cook meals for these non-healthcare workers.

“The kuih-muih became a gift to this community of workers; the women earned a small income and a community of sponsors came in to offset the costs. It was a win-win situation all around and also a way to thank this particular group of essential workers,” says Ong Bee Leng, the chief executive officer of PWDC.

It was a deeper win, however, for the women. They learned to tweak and improve their recipes, to package and clearly label their “best-sellers”, and in the process, they enjoyed a close working relationship with the officers and volunteers assigned to them. When the lockdown ended, PWDC hosted a food-tasting event where the women could exhibit their popular food items. The vote was a collective one, Penang’s acar was declared the winner.

Project Kuih Raya also led to the development of Wanita Jana Rezeki, an intensive nine-month-long part-time mentoring programme to train 10 women, on a grant of RM1,000 each, as micro-entrepreneurs. Nine women (one dropped out) enrolled for the course last August where they learned business management skills, food production techniques, packaging and distribution of food items, marketing strategies, publicity and communications, bookkeeping and time management.

“My confidence is higher from the knowledge I have picked up. The mentoring programme has made me think of different ways of cooking, marketing, building networks and clients.”

More focused skills included brand identity development, using social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp, WeChat, and Facebook for product marketing, growing market share and consistency in food quality. On a more personal level, these women were encouraged to learn, practise and master self-confidence and self-esteem.

Officers from PWDC also visited the women’s homes to assess their cooking and storage space, their packaging and the kinds of cooking utensils, pots, woks, stoves they needed or used, as well as the hygiene level of the food production.

JPWK is presently drawing up a plan to sell the cooked food items at various locations via social media, preparing marketing catalogues and building up a best-seller food item for each constituency in the hope that Penang would become a showcase for specialised food items.

One Wanita Jana Rezeki participant is 47-year-old Asnita Abd Hamid. She is a mother of two teenagers, a boy and a girl. “To be included in the programme is like a dream come true,” she says. Asnita was married to a belligerent husband who forced her to give up her part-time studies as a beautician. She did, and took up the role of a factory administrator instead.

She finally broke free with her two children, and returned to her mother’s home in Butterworth. Then her daughter fell seriously ill with a genetic blood disorder; to nurse her back to health, Asnita quit her job and began relying on making kuih-muih and selling these at the ferry terminal, close to where they live.

Containers of yummy treats.

With the money earned, she buys medication for her daughter and helps with utility expenses. During Hari Raya, Asnita says she is able to earn RM1,000 a month, though her average income hovers around RM600-700 on most months. She was slowly but surely getting back on her feet when in January 2019, her mother’s home caught fire. The house was razed to the ground. With donations and help from Bagan Dalam’s assemblyman Satees Muniandy, the home was rebuilt and was ready for them to move in by April that same year. Asnita continued baking and did some sewing on the side. When approached to join Wanita Jana Rezeki, she readily agreed.

Through a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis, Asnita was able to identify her weak points. “I’m shy to talk about the food I make. Customers aren’t aware that they are specially made or that my cupcakes come in different flavours.” It took several attempts, but Asnita finally plucked up the courage to widen her business network, reaching out to friends at factories to let them know of her baked goods.

She has regular customers now and is on the lookout for new locations to market her food items. “A petrol station near my home is a good spot.” Asnita says she has not used the RM1,000 grant yet but, combined with her monthly earnings, she hopes to purchase a big enough oven to bake more cupcakes and Florentine cakes.

She is very proud of where she is in life right now. Her 17-year-old son is close to completing his apprenticeship at an automobile shop and her daughter, though on life-long medication, is studious. “My confidence is higher from the knowledge I have picked up. The mentoring programme has made me think of different ways of cooking, marketing, building networks and clients. It has given me hope. I am very excited.”

Asnita is among the 45% of women in Malaysia who are not in full-time employment; and those who are, earn 79 cents to every Ringgit that a man earns. During retrenchment, the first workers to be booted out have been women, but it is also often the case that these women are the ones who sustain the family, either by setting up home businesses or by providing services like childcare and cleaning. The income earned is shared between the family or saved for a rainy day.

Many of these efforts show entrepreneurial potential. These include Sambal Garing Che Nor, whose selling of bottles of sambal for RM10 became a market leader in just two years, with sales volume of RM6mil; and DelimaQueen, which is run by a mother of seven children who effectively coordinates orders and deliveries of 6,000 boxes of pomegranates from Egypt, using Facebook as her main platform.

Wanita Jana Rezeki is one way of building skills and the confidence of women in becoming better home-based entrepreneurs. Assuredly, the programme is poised to grow into a larger scheme.  

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