When Madeline Chan was a lawyer for refugees in Thailand, she was struck by how her clients struggled to meet their daily needs of money for food and rent. Although helping the refugees fight for asylum status was important, she felt that refugees also needed recurring income to get back on their feet.
Chan, who graduated from the London School of Economics, quit her corporate lawyer job in 2019 and moved moved to Bangkok to work with a legal clinic called Centre for Asylum Protection, which offers legal services to refugees passing through Thailand.
“All I could give them in the arena of international law was declaratory judgments. Words on paper that had no tangible effect on their day-to-day life. This made me think that, for refugees at least, the solution might be outside the law,” the 28-year-old said in a recent interview with Yahoo Finance Singapore.
Chan returned to Singapore in early 2020 and used used her savings to open Mad Roaster, a cafe which uses a novel approach to help refugees earn a living. Each product from the cafe is branded with a Mad Roaster logo sticker that is coloured by a refugee. For every sticker that is coloured, each refugee will earn 50 Singapore cents.
Chan is currently on no-pay leave at the law firm which she joined after she returned from Bangkok.
In coming up with the idea, Chan looked to selling consumables as they provided a more stable cash flow and are in higher daily demand than non-necessities such as embroidery, which are common products in existing refugee livelihood programs.
“People buy a tote bag and don’t need another for the next few months, which means the refugee artist behind that tote bag doesn’t get work for another few months. But she still needs to eat. I needed to sell something as recurring as their needs,” she said.
Mad Roaster first began as a hawker stall at Amoy Street Food Centre, with Chan selling western coffee and brioche toast. In 2021, when the food centre was closed for renovations, Mad Roaster opened an air-conditioned cafe outlet at Bukit Merah, with an expanded menu including cold brews and babka (sweet braided bread).