LOCAL NGO Barefoot Mercy, which has installed micro-hydro systems in nine off-grid communities so far, is now exploring potential social enterprise collaborations to improve the livelihood of the villagers.
This comes after its latest light-up ceremony to mark the completion of three projects in the Lawas highlands – a 7.5kw micro-hydro system at Long Lidung, 10kw system at Long Resina and 12kw system at Long Beluyu, providing round-the-clock electricity to over 380 people.
Along with Barefoot Mercy members, the team which visited the villages for the occasion included representatives from the Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre social entrepreneurship unit (MaGIC SE) and Singapore-based Rucksack Group, who were interested in potential collaboration opportunities.
Barefoot Mercy founding member Anna Wee said fruitful discussions took place during the trip on various ways to help the villagers develop a sustainable source of income.
“Giving them electricity supply is just the first step. After that, we want to help them upgrade their livelihood. We’re looking at possible social enterprise ideas with Rucksack and MaGIC.
“For instance, the villagers already have great products like vanilla pods, avocados, semah fish, rice and natural salt. These are all artisanal products but they cannot market it.
“Perhaps we can look at how to help them develop and sell their products,” she said.
Samantha Chan from Rucksack Group said her organisation was looking at setting up a homestay programme as a social enterprise with the villagers.
“I was very touched by the hospitality of the Lun Bawang people. They are naturally very hospitable and will give their best to visitors.
“We went there with a micro-hydro system being set up but I think it shouldn’t stop with providing them with electricity. The next thing is their livelihood and one area we can contribute is the hospitality business,” she said.
Chan’s idea is a homestay where urban folk can experience village life and learn about values such as humility.
“During the trip I realised that city folk like us take everything for granted. Having experienced the environment and interacted with the people, I understand what it means to be at a real disadvantage.
“How our organisation can come in is to give the Lun Bawang people a sense of livelihood. In exchange they can teach urbanites what is real humility.
“Urbanites are rich in material things but poor in spirit. The villagers are poor in material things but rich in spirit. It’s a good exchange,” she said.
Chan said Rucksack and Barefoot Mercy were working together to identify the right village to start the homestay programme.
“It will be a genuine partnership. We’ll provide the expertise to manage and market it but the villagers will have to sustain it,” she said.
MaGIC SE’s community programme manager Hairol Ahmad was impressed by the level of collaboration involved in Barefoot Mercy’s rural electrification projects, from fundraising to the installation of the micro-hydro systems by the villagers.
From discussions with Wee and the villagers, he said some potential ideas worth exploring included the vanilla planted by the Ba’Kelalan villagers, ecotourism at Long Lidung and handicrafts at Long Beluyu.
“The view at Long Lidung is scenic and the breezy weather and winding river full of semah fish will appeal strongly to tourists. At Long Beluyu, the villagers’ workmanship in turning old newspaper into baskets is admirable,” he said.
For Wee, the prospect of following up on these ideas was an exciting one.
“Out of this trip, we have great collaboration and we’re brainstorming ideas on starting a line of Barefoot Mercy products,” she said, adding that Barefoot Mercy was also processing applications for the next micro-hydro project.