Issue 117 | Apr-Jun 2019

Lighting Up Lives

Mr Fairoz Ahmad (Arts and Social Sciences + USP ’06) let an experience from a trip to Aceh, Indonesia, after the Boxing Day tsunami transform him into a changemaker that — through his organisation Chapter W — empowers rural Indonesian women to become entrepreneurs.



Mr Fairoz Ahmad is the founder of Chapter W, a non-profit organisation that seeks to uplift the lives of rural women in Indonesia. Chapter W was named one of 50 Ideas To Change The World by The Straits Times, and Mr Fairoz was presented the NUS Outstanding Young Alumni Award in 2017 for his work.

Mr Fairoz Ahmad, 37, was studying Sociology at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences when — as an undergraduate in the University Scholars Programme (USP) — he had to make a trip to Aceh, Indonesia, less than two months after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami hit. “I was there because USP was facilitating a request from the theatre group, The Necessary Stage (TNS), for volunteers to visit the province and interview the survivors for a play called Boxing Day,” he says. “The play was meant to raise funds for
relief efforts.” 

That venture into a disaster-hit area left a life-changing mark on Mr Fairoz. The impact was so profound, he says, that he came home and “changed completely the direction of my thesis in my final year! Originally, I was focusing on the topic of race in Singapore, but after Aceh, I changed to the sociology of disaster.”

Mr Fairoz went on to found what is today Chapter W, a non-profit organisation that ultimately launched the Mothers of Light programme, which trains and equips women in rural Indonesia to become entrepreneurs through the sale of solar lamps. Most villages rely on kerosene lamps, which cause serious health problems — the smoke inhaled by a child sleeping near a kerosene lamp is equivalent to that inhaled by a two-packs-a-day smoker. Solar lamps are a healthy, clean and inexpensive alternative. The programme allows women to thus earn an income and keep their families in better health. 

Today, Mr Fairoz, who is a lecturer, is the Executive Director of Chapter W on a pro bono basis — committing certain hours each week, being responsible for formal reporting requirements and travelling to Indonesia every month (without drawing a salary). He talks to The AlumNUS about the patience, perseverance and preparation it takes to effect a powerful change in parts of rural Indonesia. 

What was your experience of post-tsunami Aceh like?

I was there with fellow USP classmate Ms Gloria Arlini (Arts and Social Sciences ’07) (who would go on to co-found Chapter W with him). When we arrived, rescuers were still trying to move the dead and bury them; thousands of families had been separated. WiFi access was virtually non-existent in remote areas and mobile phones were still very expensive for the rural poor, thus it was not easy for them to contact each other.

How did you come to start Chapter W (first named Nusantara Development Initiative)? 

After I completed my undergrad degree, I was in the civil service for a couple of years, before returning to NUS to do a Masters in Sociology. I met some Indonesian students from various universities in Singapore who wanted to do rural development work in Indonesia, and I jumped on the opportunity. This was around 2011. One of the first Indonesian members called the initiative NDI — Nusantara Development Initiative, a very typical, almost nationalistic-sounding name!

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
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