Food Aid, Powered by Technology

Text by Carolyn Hong, Photos by Dialog Group

Carrying a basket of groceries, the woman walks to the counter and pulls out her Malaysian identity card. The card is swiped, she enters a pin number and walks out of the shop with her food.

It’s all cashless, just like any debit or credit card transaction.

Except that this was a welfare transaction, and the woman a recipient of aid distributed by MyKasih Foundation under a unique technology-driven welfare system.

MyKasih is the corporate social responsibility initiative of the Dialog Group, a listed oil and gas company co-founded by Tan Sri Ngau Boon Keat, and is also his family foundation.

The cashless payment welfare system was the brainchild of Ngau, 66.

The idea struck one Sunday seven years ago when he heard an announcement in church for volunteers to deliver food bags to the poor. He wondered if this was the best way to distribute aid.

“How many bags can be sent out this way? How many will benefit?” he said.

He realised that his Dialog Group had the answer: a cashless payment system that it developed 15 years ago for a petrol company using the Malaysian identity card which has a readable chip.

The system was, however, left on the shelf as the corporate venture did not take off. E-commerce was still in its infancy then.

Ngau immediately saw how this system could help in distributing food aid.

That was in December 2008. They applied to the Central Bank for a licence to run a cashless payment system, and set up a pilot programme for 25 families.

It got off to a roaring success because the system was so easy to use, and every Malaysian has an identity card with a chip.
Each family nominates a recipient whose identity card is loaded with RM80 a month. They can then go to a selected supermarket to buy food, and the amount is deducted from the card.

Best of all, they can choose what they want. The card can only be used to buy essential food items like rice, milk and eggs, and not cigarettes and alcohol. But the recipients can choose from among the different brands available.

22. Shopping with MyKasih“This gives them dignity as they can make their own choices instead of being given handouts which they may not need,” said Ngau.

They can shop as everyone else does.

With that successful trial run, MyKasih Foundation was born in April 2009. MyKasih means My Love, in Malay.

The system was gradually rolled out, and now covers most of Malaysia including Borneo. Seven years later, over 290,000 families have benefited. MyKasih works with non-governmental organisations to identify needy families in a target district.

“Race and religion are not the criteria. The only criteria that matters is poverty and that they need help,” said Ngau.

The programme is funded by donors whose donation goes entirely to food aid. Administrative costs are borne by the Dialog Group and rental proceeds of MyKasih’s building.

It’s an extremely transparent system as donors can easily track every cent of their donation through an online system which logs all purchases by their adopted family. A monthly report is also sent to them.

“Every ringgit meant for a recipient will go to the recipient, and donors can see exactly how it’s spent. In many other charities, they don’t know how much goes to the cause and how much to administration,” Ngau said.

“It’s very targeted and transparent because how do you get the trust of the public if you are not transparent?”

This transparency eliminates the sort of leakages that tend to mar many charity programmes. As a result, MyKasih has been entrusted with over RM200 million in CSR funds from some of Malaysia’s biggest companies like its oil company Petronas, banks and multinational firms.

It also manages some of the welfare funds of state governments and religious agencies, and recently ran a pilot programme in Jakarta for 100 families.

But MyKasih realises that food aid alone cannot break the cycle of poverty. A welfare scheme, in fact, can easily turn into a permanent crutch.

Hence, it limits each family to two years on the aid list. In that time, the family also receives other assistance such as financial literacy and skills training, job placements, and micro loans to start a small business.

Its system is not just transparent but also flexible, and can work anywhere with a phone line, even a satellite phone, for the card reader.

Hence, in the interior of Borneo Malaysia where the native groups are skilled at living off the land, the list of available items cover toiletries instead of food. After the massive floods in Malaysia in 2014, recipients received extra money to buy household items like detergents.

Under a school programme, students can use their cards to buy stationery, books and food in school, and in some cases, to pay the bus fare.

MyKasih is today one of the more successful welfare programmes in Malaysia, and certainly among the most innovative CSR initiatives.

“I have tasted hunger when I was young, and people helped us with food. That’s how we survived, and I remembered that. I want to give back, and I find joy in it,” Ngau said.

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