In the first two sessions of The Rector’s Programme (TRP), USP students met and interacted with Ms Euleen Goh (USP Rector) and Mr Lim Siong Guan (GIC Group President). For the third TRP session on 8 September 2015, we had USP alum Mr Fairoz Ahmad (Sociology + USP, Class of 2008) back with us to share on how a Singaporean can make an impact abroad in the non-profit sector, specifically, sustainable development work in rural Indonesia.

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Many would know Mr Fairoz as the founder of Nusantara Development Initiatives (NDI), an award-winning non-profit social enterprise featured as one of 50 Ideas To Change The World by The Straits Times in 2014. Aside from running NDI, Mr Fairoz also holds a full-time job as a lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic.

Establishing a non-profit organisation (NPO) was not in his plans back when he started his study in NUS. What planted the seed for him was a trip to Aceh in its post-tsunami days and an observation of its infrastructure and sanitation facilities.

The trip left him deeply perturbed by a question: How does a recipient city of millions of dollars of aid remain so undeveloped and poor?

Subsequently, Mr Fairoz initiated NDI, a project by undergraduate and graduate students seeking to empower the poor in Indonesia. After completing multiple projects, NDI officially became a non-profit organisation two years ago, and it continues to reach out to villages in Indonesia today.

NDI’s progress is testament of Mr Fairoz’s dedication and perseverance, but his honest and heartfelt sharing that evening at USP was one with a distinct reminder that true charity involves sacrifices that can be painful. “NDI is a labour of love and also a lot of pain. It is not easy to start a non-profit [organisation] and make sure that it continues to grow,” he shares, preparing us for a journey of challenges, failures, and rewards.

2Getting Started

Access to clean, affordable, and healthy light sources is a huge problem in Indonesia. Many villages rely on kerosene lamps for energy sources, and this causes chronic health problems for the poor.

Mr Fairoz says, “A child who sleeps in a room with kerosene light one night; the smoke [s]he inhales is the same as a guy who smokes 2 packs of cigarettes a day.”

Mr Fairoz’s solution to this problem is a simple business model of training women to become solar light entrepreneurs. This provides households with clean light sources while the women can earn a better income for themselves. Coming up with a business idea involves making many decisions, from the choice of who to employ to the selection of solar lamps. Mr Fairoz and his team made these decisions based on the clear principle of what their beneficiaries needed most.

The Challenges

The conversation at the Master’s Commons was very interactive with many questions asked. One student asked Mr Fairoz if the financial challenges of managing a NPO have been alleviated given the rise of business models for NPOs to “do good” while earning a profit. Mr Fairoz explained that NDI earned an income by selling a solar lamp at a price slightly higher than its cost price. However, for NDI, it was only in recent years that its projects have begun to break even. The “profits” were also unable to cover operational costs such as transportation costs.

Another challenge is getting the right people into the NPO. Mr Fairoz gave the example of hiring a medical doctor based on his high qualifications and without a proper interview. After three days, it became apparent “it’s not working out.” Recruiting the right people is imperative, even when an organisation has to spend months doing it. “You have to find the people who share the same values, share the same worldview as you,” he emphasises.

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The Failure

“I put in a lot more effort for the second project but it failed miserably,” Mr Fairoz shares candidly when asked about his failures.

Having had immense success with the first village, NDI started the training of women entrepreneurs in a second village enthusiastically without doing a rigorous assessment.

Upon reflection, Mr Fairoz realised that they never considered if the second village truly ever needed the project. And by the time it was evident that the need was not there, the village leaders already lost interest in the endeavour and the money invested was lost in corruption. After pushing it for a year, NDI eventually called off the project with losses.

The Reward

The journey taken by Mr Fairoz was one with many lessons learnt the very hard way. The importance of building a team and assessing the “right” projects to “invest in” are his key insights over the years, each insight gained with a painful story of failures and consequences.

So what’s the reward? He tells us the inspiring story of the “Mothers of Light,” or the woman entrepreneurs, and he speaks of one fondly. Ibu Salimah is one of the oldest woman entrepreneurs. She is 60, illiterate. Everyone back then thought she would “disappear” from the training sessions. However, today, she still works with NDI and is in fact one of the most successful entrepreneurs. At the end of the day, these true stories are what matter to him.

 

As of October 2016, Nusantara Development Initiatives (NDI) changed their name to Chapter W. If you want to take that first step towards changing lives and making a positive impact to this world we live in, check out the projects and missions by Chapter W and perhaps, sign up as a Chapter W volunteer. Alternatively, check out the storyboards and videos on their website http://www.chapterw.org/ to be inspired by USP alum Mr Fairoz Ahmad.