Kitchen On A Mission

Text by Serene Ashley Chen
Photo by Project Dignity

Kindness has no politics. Kindness has no religion. Kindness is blind to the colour of your skin and to the nature of your disabilities. Kindness cannot be preached. Kindness comes from the heart. This is the mantra that drives Mr Koh Seng Choon, founder and executive director of Project Dignity, a Singapore-based social enterprise with a mission to skill and promote inclusiveness, integration and employment of people with disabilities.

In affluent and efficient Singapore, the sight of homeless people or individuals with special needs is rarely an everyday occurrence. Yet, according to the Singapore Disability Sports Council, approximately 4 per cent of Singapore’s population or slightly over 200,000 people suffer from physical impairment, vision impairment, hearing impairment and intellectual impairment. In addition, 2010 data from the Health and Education ministries indicate that 7,000 pre-school-aged children are disabled. Another 13,000 young people between seven and 18 years old have disabilities. Of these, about 7,600 go to mainstream schools and 5,400 to special education ones.

In Singapore, education typically transits smoothly into employment. But for people with disabilities, the journey is a lot less straightforward.

“After they pass out of school, many of the disabled or disadvantaged stay at home because very few employers would want to hire someone with disability as they do not know how to deal with them,” said Mr Russell Kwan, trainer at Project Dignity.

The lack of employment opportunities mean that they would have to rely on someone else to provide for them. Immediate family members, primarily parents, often serve as their main caretaker. The problem comes when their parents pass on or are incapacitated due to old age, illness or accidents. Without acquiring some form of work skill or life skill, the chances for independence and self-reliance remain slim. For the even less fortunate, homelessness becomes a real possibility.

“When I returned to Singapore from the UK in 1994, I was confronted by a strange observation. Why are there no disabled in shopping centres? Where are the beggars and the homeless in Singapore? It was as if they were hidden,” recalled Mr Koh.

The former engineering-trained management consultant then decided to scratch the surface. He started a personal one-day-a-month kindness movement where he would encourage others to spend one day a month doing something good for others. From teaching ex-offenders economics in prisons to taking the elderly on city tours, Mr Koh led by example. In 2010, he decided that he would start a social enterprise that would help preserve Singapore’s hawker food heritage and empower the disabled and disadvantaged with skills.

Kindness does not come cheap. Since the establishment of Project Dignity in 2010, Mr Koh has invested over S$1 million from his personal savings, re-mortgages, loans and inheritance into the initiative. Majority of the investment went towards rent for the physical set up of the training spaces, equipment, materials and salaries.

While the concept of return on investment for business is clear, the measure of impact for social enterprises is less so because it is much harder to define social returns and place a dollar value on the sense of satisfaction one gets in service of others. Seeing society from a frame of trends and growth phases, Mr Koh believes that he is on a trajectory of growth that will define Singapore for the next decade. He believes that the line between traditional business and social responsibility will continue to blur, and businesses that thrive will be those with the ability to successfully balance commercial interests with social needs.

The rewards of running a social enterprise like Project Dignity then come from the excitement of being able to practise innovation on a daily basis and pioneer something with very little to reference.

“When you deal with people with disabilities, you have to be very creative. Training people is difficult. Training people with special needs is even more difficult. How do you teach a blind person to collect money and provide the correct amount of change to a customer? How do you train a hearing impaired to sell coffee and tea in a hawker stall? You need new and untested methods,” said Mr Koh.

In the last four years, Project Dignity has experimented with different models of training. Mr Koh recalled that he had had to learn quickly from mistakes and approaches that did not work. One of the first mistakes Mr Koh made was to have the trainees wear badges with messages such as “I’m deaf” or “I’m blind”. The intent was to make customers and potential customers aware of the condition of the trainee and hopefully this would translate to patience in dealing with them. Business became extremely sluggish. He then realised that the labels deterred people from wanting to transact with the trainees. The labels seemed to trigger some form of psychological resistance in people.

Perception is unsurprisingly the biggest challenge for Mr Koh. To address this, Project Dignity runs social outreach programmes that encourage individuals and corporations to come in and mingle with the disabled and disadvantaged through various activities. Project Dignity has reached out to 3,000 corporates and individuals through its social outreach programmes. These programmes coupled with corporate sponsorship form the bloodline that funds the social aspects of the enterprise.

Over time, Mr Koh has come up with ingenious training methods and customised kitchen equipment that work around the strengths and limitations of persons with disabilities. These become the intellectual capital of Project Dignity. To drive home the message of dignity, the social enterprise pays trainees a salary while they are undergoing training. This teaches them the concept of working for something in return and the value of money.

To date, Dignity Kitchen has trained over 350 Singaporeans with disabilities in hawker skills. Trainees come in via word-of-mouth and stay for a 6-week programme before graduating with a WSQ (Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications) basic food hygiene certification. Thereafter, they are placed in jobs that commensurate with their skill levels.

With some 40 employers waiting to employ graduates of the Project Dignity training programme, the initiative is clearly an indication of market demand. In order to standardise training across batches, it made sense to come up with teaching manual for the hawker business. “Even though the hawker business is a full-fledged business that covers supply chain, food preparation, service, and billing, nobody has developed a curriculum. We are the first to create this pedagogy,” said Mr Koh.

The success of Project Dignity is also evidenced by the fact that its training facility which also serves as a public food court, Dignity Kitchen, is the first food court in the world to attain the ISO 22000 certification for food safety management system. Beyond the shores of Singapore, Mr Koh has been invited to share his insights with various counterparts and replicate his business model in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines.

“I am secular. At the end of the day, everybody dies. Before you die, try to do something good for others,” said Mr Koh with a smile.

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