What were your dreams for NDI and how did you make them come true?
A few of us decided that NDI was going to be different from the majority of student-run volunteer groups that did one-off projects. We would behave as a professionally-run non-governmental organisation (NGO) with programmes that could measure social impact and withstand scrutiny. All this was immensely difficult to achieve. Many members left because they could not commit to this level of professionalism. We were students, and none were getting paid. It took almost three years — with me juggling full-time work, and many false starts and headaches — before we crafted what would become our defining programme, Mothers of Light. From a voluntary university-level effort, we are now a formalised NGO with full-time staff, and a legal entity in Singapore and Indonesia. As we grew, we decided to change our brand name to Chapter W — the W refers to “women” — we are helping these women write their own stories, their own chapters in life.
Tell us about this programme and how it grew.
I came to realise that the rural poor actually are the complete opposite of how we think they should be. They are just like us, with aspirations, dreams, hopes and skills. The image of them as passive and dependent is an expression of the ‘saviour mentality’ that many of us are guilty of, reflecting the misunderstanding of the lived realities of the poor. Mothers of Light is a complex development project that integrates technology, community mobilisation, rural supply chain, financing, revenue-sharing, monitoring mechanisms and entrepreneurship. We did our pilot in a sea village in the Riau Islands; it succeeded wildly. We then had the confidence to pitch our idea at start-up competitions, and won a couple of them. We received funding from foundations and companies who believed in our cause. Eventually, we met advisors in the social impact space who helped us transition to a formally-registered social enterprise. In 2016, we moved our office from Singapore to Jakarta (and now Jogjakarta), so that we could hire local full-time staff — we now have four — to run the projects.
How did you get the people’s buy-in to this idea?
It was by getting to know the communities, and understanding their world view, and the competitiveness
of the idea. They were mostly using kerosene lamps and thus had to buy kerosene every week. Understanding their habits, expenses and pain points helped us design a programme that fits their needs. For example, we teach the women to sell the solar lights on a weekly installment basis, at a price that is lower than the weekly spend on kerosene. This helped many people to make the switch to solar lights.
Were there any role models at NUS who inspired you to think of being an agent of social change?
I never thought of myself back in NUS as someone who would be involved in the areas I am in now, but the opportunity to go to Aceh was one defining moment. Another factor was the encouragement from, and conversations with, Professor Albert Teo (Arts and Social Sciences ’86), a former Deputy Director in USP. He was very passionate in the area of community development and social impact.
You are a USP alumnus. How did the USP shape you into the person you are today?
In USP, I was exposed to different fields and knowledge, and to very different kinds of students and professors. I got a sense of a broader world, realising there are many ways to overcome a problem. This indirectly influenced my early work in Chapter W, where the system we designed was influenced by insights from various fields — sociology, economics, business, engineering and psychology.
What is Chapter W’s ultimate goal, in your view?
The ultimate purpose of development, borrowing from the economist Amartya Sen’s words, is to expand freedom — what one can actually do and be. Poverty limits freedom. So, instead of just asking “Do you have money” we should also ask, “What can you actually do and be?” One day, the Mothers of Light programme will end, because those who need light will have it. We hope that the women we have empowered can use the money, skills, confidence and knowledge they have gained through the programme as a stepping stone to be what they can be, and to do what they seek to do.
Text by Theresa Tan