While well-known for their rich diversity of cultures, religions, traditions, languages and histories, indigenous peoples continue to be among the world’s most marginalised population groups. Meet the individuals who are trying to improve the lives of the
It was in December 1994 when the United Nations General Assembly declared 9 August as the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. While well-known for their rich diversity of cultures, religions, traditions, languages and histories, indigenous peoples continue to be among the world's most marginalised population groups. The Peak meets the people who have dedicated themselves to making a difference to the lives of the marginalised communities in Malaysia.
PROJECT TRY Raviraj Sawlani Founder, Project TRY “I have always felt a need to act on my ideas, especially when it involves making a difference and helping others achieve their goals,” says Raviraj Sawlani, the founder of Project TRY. Established in 2014, the main mission of this social enterprise is to empower youths residing in rural communities by developing learning centres that would provide them with the necessary technical skills that are required to work in Malaysia’s highly competitive tourism industry.
Like any budding enterprise, the path to success hasn’t always been smooth sailing. According to Sawlani, securing funding for this project posed a major challenge, even from the very beginning: “We initially received seed funding from the innovation and creativity centre, MaGIC (Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre), which had just taken off then, but this meant that the funds were delayed.” In the meantime, Raviraj decided to explore other means to get Project TRY up and running. “I had cofounded a private entity called Sky International Academy, which offers courses ranging from learning English to hospitality services management. Using the profits from this business, we decided we could subsidise the cost of education for those who could not afford to attend school on their own.”
“We started off being very idealistic about our approach but, over the years, we realised the importance of working together within the ecosystem of change-makers. It is important to understand the problem you are trying to solve as well as identifying the right partners and opportunities to work with, especially when it involves coming up with a long-term solution. We also try to avoid institutionalised thinking and have optimised structures within our operations to deliver effective solutions despite having a very lean team. When it comes to empowering people, the training process has to be continuous in order to make an impact. As for progress, every milestone comes with its own set of challenges, and we are always trying to figure out how to help these students overcome that.”
According to Sawlani, the company is also in the midst of developing new streams of revenue that will enable Project TRY to thrive. “We work closely with rural communities and a lot of them have access to land. Because of this, we decided to expand our business model so that while we set up these schools, we also develop a livelihood programme that will make their way of life more sustainable by teaching them how to become microentrepreneurs through either farming or even setting up their own lodging and F&B business. The goal is to teach them ways to become independent from existing systems so that they are not entirely dependent on handouts from the government or corporations.”
As for the main reason why Project TRY decided to focus all its efforts on working with the pockets of indigenous peoples residing in Sabah, Sawlani explains: “Here, there are heaps of development and tourism opportunities. There’s also a huge population of isolated communities residing in remote areas that have not been
exposed to formal education. Because of this, we decided to go there to create training programmes that will pair them with the right jobs within the tourism industry. Our plan is for them to make enough so that they can add to their food reserves and invest in their children’s education. In most cases, the only thing that these people really have is land. But instead of just selling it off to the highest bidder, I always encourage them to work with organisations that can help them activate their land, so that they can build a constant revenue stream. At the end of the day, this is all they will have to pass down to their children.
“In the past, we conducted short-term programmes in places such as Mabul, Kampong Tibabar, Kudat and Kundasang. Currently, we are looking into developing our first village, which we target to complete sometime in Q1 next year. The plan for this is to build a village that offers solutions for shelter, food reserves, education, housing and clean energy. While these solutions will be introduced and developed by Project TRY, our ultimate goal is for this village to be managed by the communities themselves.”
As explained by Sawlani, Project TRY is also open to working with other organisations that are eager to be part of the greater good: “I prefer working with partners that offer creative solutions, are efficient and can produce the results that we desire while bringing these new solutions together. We have already secured agriculture partners from Indonesia and energy partners in Sabah, while Sky International Academy will serve as the primary partner for providing education. Although we’re in the education business, we are also looking into developing food reserves and clean energy. If there are any organisations within these sectors who are looking to make an impact on these marginalised communities, they should reach out to us as we’re always looking for new ways to collaborate.”
As for his future hopes for Project TRY, Sawlani explains: “Five years from now, I want to create a model rural community that is completely independent and running in a sustainable way. This means clean energy, having enough food reserves and access to a dynamic level of education. With the Internet and programmes being developed to cater to industry demands, I don’t see why these youths have to be left behind. They are equally if not more energetic, hungry for opportunities and pretty good with vocational work. They are a huge talent pool and play an integral role in developing the country’s economy.”
“With the Internet and programmes being developed to cater to industry demands, I don’t see why these youths have to be left behind.”
EPIC HOMES Loh Jon Ming, Jayne Kennedy & John- Son Oei Founders, Epic Collective It all began with a weekly group gathering where JohnSon Oei, Jayne Kennedy and Loh Jon Ming would meet up to discuss how to become better leaders and individuals. Oei reminisces: “We were just about to graduate from university and enter the work force; we realised that unless we started walking the talk, we will never be able to achieve these goals. That’s when we decided to start our first project in Kampung Jawa in Kuala Kubu Baharu, Selangor, where we built a toilet and painted 12 houses.” It was from this experience that the trio discovered there were many other individuals wanting to volunteer, but the lack of proper platforms made it seem unattainable. “It’s not that people don’t care, but that they feel alone and incapable of making a difference, which prevents them from taking action.”
Following the success of their first project, the group decided they would continue their efforts for the next three months to see how far they could go with this endeavour. Seven years on, the group now known as Epic Collective has blossomed into a burgeoning social enterprise that not only builds homes for marginalised communities but also creates, invests and discovers various different social initiatives. In April this year, the company celebrated the 100th home that was built through its non-profit initiative, Epic Homes. “We never expected it to become what it is today,” says Kennedy, who serves as the COO at Epic Collective. “It’s also exciting to observe the culture of the team behind this collective, which currently stands at around 30 people. This is not just about the three of us but about how we can bring everyone else along with us on this journey by empowering the people who are part of Epic Collective. As we continue to expand, we are also searching for other ways to enable the team and share this vision to help shape how this company will work, which will be one of our biggest challenges in moving forward.”
To this, the group’s CFO Loh adds: “I think the more personalities there are, the richer a company culture becomes. While not everyone might be technically sound or super-capable, everyone who works at Epic Collective has a passion to grow with this company with integrity and honesty. Most important of all is to be genuine with what you want and what you are doing now to achieve that goal, while ensuring that both these elements are aligned with each other.” For Oei, who serves as the Group CEO, the importance of finding the right individual makes a big difference to the success of the company: “At Epic Collective, we believe it’s not about what you do but who
you become. Instead of having achievements or ticking things off their lists, the people who are part of this company are looking for ways to make a difference... at the end of the day, they believe that through this process, good work will get done.”
When asked what made the group decide to focus on the plight of the orang asli community, Oei explains: “These initiatives are designed to build bridges between the orang asli and urban volunteers. Through building these homes, relationships are formed and trust is created. We also encourage both parties to remain in contact so that they can empathise and find ways to support one another. On one end of the spectrum, you have a family that’s being sheltered so that they don’t have to worry about where to live and can focus on their bigger goals, but you also have these urban volunteers who are being exposed to the orang asli way of life.”
In speaking with the group, it becomes evident how working with this marginalised community has left a deep impact on their own outlook on life. “You can really learn a lot from these great people, who have such a rich heritage. Not only are they incredibly resilient but they also have great values – a sense of community, the importance of family and wanting to take care of one another. These values are also what impact the urban volunteers the most. Additionally, volunteers can also impact one another. While many might start out as strangers, the way we’ve designed these projects pushes them to go beyond their own boundaries, which, in turn, enables them to discover a side of themselves that they might have otherwise never known,” says Oei.
For Kennedy, the benefits of building relationships between people from various walks of life are crystal clear: “Most people today prefer to work in their own silos and will hardly interact with one another unless it’s for functional purposes. For us, it’s about breaking the stereotypes, building connections and getting people to recognise what they can do now by using the knowledge that they’ve gained from this experience. For example, Epic Collective works closely with a lot of property developers and other people within the same industry. When they get involved in building these homes, they start to realise just how difficult hard labour can be, which makes them aware of the need to treat their construction workers better. Through these experiences, the volunteers involved will be able to implement changes within their own circles, ultimately helping create a better world for everyone.”
As for what’s in the pipeline, Oei reveals: “Epic Homes is mostly run by volunteers who are operating in different roles and responsibilities on a construction site outside their day-to-day jobs. Currently, we have a community of over 5,000 people that have been trained through the experience of serving. The way we sustain our social business model is by selling this experience as a teambuilding exercise to companies, while the money is used to fund the construction of these homes.” In addition, Oei also highlights the need to consider the various other aspects that are involved in improving the welfare of a particular community.
“Because of this, we’ve decided to launch two new companies under Epic Collective. The first is Epic Communities, which looks at developing cooperative, resilient and self-sustaining communities. We are not just looking at building shelters but also harvesting clean water, renewable energy, food production, improving accessibility and so forth. Epic Communities will also accept commercial projects and will operate similar to how a consultancy works. The second company is Epic DNA, an experiential company that specialises in using service experiences for personal, team and leadership development. Our plan is to tie up with educational institutes, such as primary and high schools as well as universities, colleges and other companies, to see how we can enhance the skills of their people while giving them the opportunity to serve others.”
This month, Oei will be travelling to Louisville, Kentucky, to attend the Fifth Annual Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards, where he will receive the Dedication Award. “It’s definitely a huge honour. At the same time, it serves as a reminder that we actually have a lot more influence than we think, and that we have a responsibility to do even greater things.” According to the 30-year-young entrepreneur, this acknowledgement also provides a sense of closure for a personal tragedy that occurred 17 years ago. “It’s my first time going to US. My father went there for an operation and passed away but they couldn’t send his body back. Many kind people came to my family’s aid during our time of need, which wouldn’t have been possible if not for this tragedy. I certainly did not know that all this was going to happen but it has, which makes this award even more of a meaningful milestone for us at Epic Collective.”
“On one end of the spectrum, you have a family that’s being sheltered so that they don’t have to worry about where to live and can focus on their bigger goals, but you also have these urban volunteers who are being exposed to the orangasli way of life.”