Entrepreneur

This Initiative By 2 Friends Wants To Elevate The F&B Workforce In Malaysia

Ili Sulaiman from Dish by Ili and Basira Yeusuff of Root Cellar KL are no strangers to the local F&B industry, and this year, they have something big stirring in their hearts and kitchens. This power duo is teaming up to bring us Agak Agak, a socially-driven enterprise that simultaneously aims to help the underprivileged, change attitudes towards the F&B industry and of course, serve scrumptious food.

It’s a tall order (pun intended) but Ili and Basira might just be the ones to push this forward. Both are successful ‘foodpreneurs’ who started their businesses out of their homes in Bangsar.

Ili is currently hosting an Asian Food Channel programme; Basira has worked in a two Michelin star restaurant in Berlin and was trained in Switzerland. Their exemplary cooking skills coupled with their eloquence, passion and determination to bring change to an industry that does not garner much respect in Malaysia, are what they are bringing to the table with Agak Agak.

What’s In A Name?

Ili conducting a class.
Ili conducting a class.

Agak Agak’s name will resonate with many Malaysians and it was chosen to refer to cooking that guided by senses instead of following by-the-book measurements of ingredients. The Agak Agak team compare it to the feeling of watching your mother or grandmother cook, with “a bit, a dash and a splash of various ingredients”. The name was actually the brainchild of their architect designer and Ili fell in love with it because it perfectly summed up her own cooking methodology.

The team felt moved to start this initiative when they realised what a poor perception many Malaysians had of people working in the F&B industry. Many of the workers were lacking in skills with no proper training and their wages were low. Ili and Basira also want to impact society for the better and give opportunities and second chances to those who might not succeed otherwise.

The Agak Agak eatery will officially launch in June 2016 in APW Bangsar and it aims to hire individuals from high needs communities for a one year apprenticeship. This will create more job opportunities, provide practical, on-the-job learning for those individuals and also help to train a skilled work force for the F&B industry.

From Strangers To A Community

Basira in action
Basira in action

Since Ili and Basira’s respective food businesses are doing well, it would be normal to just keep doing what works, instead of sticking their necks out for a project like this.

However, as Ili told Vulcan Post, “Basira and I are already employing and training individuals in our team who come from high need communities and have been doing so for the last 2-3 years but we have not gotten the community involved until now. Our business needed to grow and our team naturally needed to grow as well and we felt the need to make this information public so everyone who wants to get involved and wants to make an impact can now contribute.”

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Agak Agak is relying on crowdfunding to secure the resources they need, and this comes with its own unique brand of challenges. Ili elaborated on their decision to choose crowdfunding, rather than other methods.

“We have opted to go through the grant application and crowdfunding route because we feel that it’s a community driven initiative but so far it’s been extremely challenging to secure funds because the monetary importance of the infrastructure of initiative is very difficult to justify.”

They have found it a chicken and egg situation, where they need a kitchen and a training centre in order for them to employ the apprentices and create impact. However, the community wants to see apprentices first before they contribute.

According to Ili, overcoming this is all about taking small steps. “We have decided to make do with what we have and reach out to partners who can assist us gradually. Going back to growing organically and not to rush it if funding is one of the biggest challenges. At the end of the day we still have a business to run and that will generate income so we will just have to work a little harder and possibly reduce the number of apprentices we hire for our first batch.”

Revamping the F&B Industry

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Ili and Basira are joined in their love for community and family, and this is part of what makes their partnership work. “Basira and I both agreed to join partnership because we both value our relationships with our family and we both are very close to our family. I can honestly say that our family have always been so supportive of us and our career choices.”

The Agak Agak team is only too clear that a career in the F&B industry is often looked down on, with the hard work, low pay, and all the generic stigmas associated with the job. They credit their families who have encouraged, supported, and cheered them on to pursue their dream of being of service to people.

“They are possibly the reason why Basira and I feel so strongly about wanting to change the way people view individuals who choose the F&B line as a career,” Ili said.

agak agak dishes

Their own partnership is also founded on mutual trust and respect. “Our partnership is one that is based on complete openness to communicate what we honestly think. We both have a high understanding of our key strengths and we work on that and trust the other person. I am sure we will face some challenges in the future but if we both continue to acknowledge that whatever decision we do is for the best interest of the business and initiative that is all that really matters.”

Agak Agak is set to make a big impact in the F&B industry of Malaysia. Ili has some parting words of advice for other young foodpreneurs who hope to change society and do some good. “We are very excited to be doing this so passion is very important.

Also know and understand the seriousness of how big your commitment and impact as a social initiative is, I would say do your research, start small and grow organically. Don’t be afraid to learn and it’s ok to make mistakes but make sure you don’t do the same mistake twice. Basira would say pivot if necessary. She constantly reminds me it’s ok to tweak our plans because we can never foresee everything.”

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