By Poovenraj Kanagaraj
“From a business standpoint, it has definitely been a very challenging period. We saw projects get postponed, some cancelled. It’s a time of uncertainty,” Rashvin Pal Singh, group chief executive officer of Biji-Biji Group tells Business Today Malaysia.
Like many of its counterparts across the nation, the Group was not spared by the economic destruction caused by the Covid-19 outbreak. The social enterprise much like its peers in the ecosystem saw a decline in business sales in the last couple of months. According to Rashvin, the business had shrunk by 30 percent, but at the same time, they had never been busier. “We are in a critical period,” he says.
“We are also highly needed on the ground on the PPE side of things and this comes as part our role as an intermediary enabler,” Rashvin says. Along the way in the last couple months, the social enterprise have been digesting and responding to the challenges faced by their partners.
When the Movement Restriction Order (MCO) was implemented on March 18 as part of the Government’s efforts the curb the spread of the virus, the Biji-Biji Group which comprises of social enterprise Biji-Biji Initiative, alternative education space Me.reka and learning hub Taylor’s Me.reka Markerspace embarked on a mission to work on a relief strategy to aid frontliners.
Rashvin and his team identified the issue revolving around Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) shortage and immediately got to work. With an announcement calling for donations, more than 30 industry partners had committed to contribute logistics and machinery solutions in order to kick-start the production.
Phase 1 of the Social Textile initiative saw success in distributing over 24,670 face shields, 1505 aerochambers, and 58 patient isolation boxes to 75 frontline organisations across the country.
The movement, which not only aimed to help produce more PPE suits for frontliners, hopes to create opportunities for Malaysians to build a livelihood through the making and distribution of these PPE suits.
“10 social enterprises came together to form a collective that would share resources and skillset in order to make the movement a success,” Rashvin says.
The social enterprise which was founded in 2013 underwent a tough but rewarding journey. As interest from corporates picked up along the way, so did discussions revolving around ethics and sustainability.
“Companies would inquire if the supply chain process they are involved in are ethical and this even extended to the type of materials used,” he says.
However, since the MCO was implemented, Rashvin points out that sustainability efforts have taken a dip. He attributes this to the shift of focus to healthcare and economic issues. “While people see the importance of sustainability, it’s not considered as a critical issue. People are still looking at it as a separate agenda,” he says.
“If we want to avoid future public health crisis, future economic policies must take into account environmental issues. Poor appreciation of environmental issues cannot go on,” Rashvin says.
In terms of awareness, the group ceo points out that over the years it has increased and is no longer just part of conversations among the youth. According to Rashvin, it has since extended to age groups between 35 and 40 and those 60 and above.
“When we started, the awareness level was around 20% and now it has gone up to 50%.”
“People are now more aware because all of it is interconnected however the question remains if the awareness will translate into action,” he says. A number of people, according to Rashvin, still finds the role of a social enterprise novel and in some cases, it is even met with skepticism.
As part of its efforts to increase awareness and engagements, the social enterprise have been engaging with the youth via e-sports competitions and while it has proven to be effective thus far, Rashvin hopes to attract the younger segment to engage with the Initiative on a longer basis.
“Translating the existing engagement into getting the youth to do classes with us for instance is proving to be challenging. It also poses the question of how comfortable are people with using devices for the time being to deliver classes?,” Rashvin points out.
However, things are slowly changing for the community at large. In the recent economic revitalisation efforts by Putrajaya, the Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhiyiddin Yassin announced a matching grant worth RM 10 million through the Malaysia Global Innovative and Creativity Centre (MaGIC) to social enterprises that crowdsource contribution and donations to undertake social projects that address challenges faced by targeted communities through innovative ways beginning from August 2020.
This, Rashvin considers to be a first major step forward for social enterprises in the country and is optimistic of the future of the ecosystem he is in.
“While we have benefitted from the loan moratorium and wage subsidy, which has been useful to us in terms of cash flow planning, access to other financing facilities has been a little disappointing,” Rashvin says.
Short-term relief provided by the government has proven to help social enterprises and other businesses during these pressing times however, when it comes to long term solutions , social enterprises have not had a separate funding carved out for them until it was announced in PENJANA.
The grant from PENJANA, Rashvin says in principal, encourages for more private-public partnerships. The social enterprise aims to use the grants to create new livelihood models and are looking at both digital and non-digital pathways to execute its vision.
“A lot of it now still involves grant kind of funding and it’s more programmatic. I am hoping for future aids from the government to extend into a long-term partnerships. For instance, corporates and agencies should get social enterprises as delivery partners,” Rashvin tells Business Today, further adding that it will not only be about purchasing the product, but at the same time benefiting a certain target population.
“We are an urban-based organisation so we have access to partners in the city as well as knowledge of good work carried out in rural areas. We hope to connect resources that come to urban centres like ours with rural partners we know off,” he concluded.