It was a cross-border assignment that took four undergraduate students, supervised by Professor Ivan Png, to remote parts of Indonesia where they worked with local farmers. The aim? To propose an innovative, zero-burn solution to the weighty issue of the haze that regularly affects Southeast Asian countries.
The assignment was a part of Field Service Project (FSP) for NUS BBA honours students, done in collaboration with WWF Indonesia. At the end of the stint, undergraduates Ying Siang Kane, Lee Heejin, Alvin Lim Kai Hui and Lewis Tay Zhi Hao produced a proposal that has won the support of Temasek Foundation and which may eventually be presented to the Indonesian government.
In December 2013, the undergrads set off on a site trip to Pekanbaru, the capital of Indonesia’s Riau Province and one of the core regions affected by the annual haze. They visited the Segamai and Mamugo villages in order to gain a first-hand understanding of farmers’ needs, their farming practices and the community ecosystem through conducting focus group interviews with farmers and various stakeholders. The team also researched forest fire hotspot trends through conference sessions with WWF and Jikalahari, an independent governing body for forest rescue.
“Interaction with the farmers was necessary to understand their underlying needs and motivation,” said Lewis, one of the four team members. “Our plan is catered for the farmers’ use, so we targeted them to improve the take-up rate of the initiative.”
Ying Siang, another team member, agreed that the field visits and direct interactions were essential to give them a deeper appreciation of the circumstances in which the farmers live, and subsequently to develop a unique solution for them.
With insights gained from their interactions, the team produced and presented to WWF Indonesia a proposal to replace the forest fires that lead to haze with a zero-burn mechanical land-clearing programme, backed by a five-year financial model of estimated revenues and expenses.
As Singapore residents, all four students felt strongly about the effects of haze on not just themselves, but also their friends and families. This was one of the main reasons they cited for taking up the project.
“The haze is an issue that everyone living in Singapore experiences regularly, hence I was motivated by the challenge of being able to solve it. Given that many nations in the region are trying to solve this perennial haze issue, it’s truly been an honour to contribute,” said Ying Siang.
Being able to apply classroom knowledge to an unconventional setting was another deciding factor for Alvin. “I’ve applied various concepts from my university courses to the project; such as the risk pooling concept that I’ve learnt in supply chain management under Associate Prof James Ang – to create a centralised distribution network for the management of equipment. Through this experience, I truly understood the importance of connections, time and resources in the commercial world” he said.
The project was appealing and challenging to Heejin, who was drawn to it because of its real impact and applicability. “I could apply my financial knowledge in developing a financial budget for the mechanical clearing programme,” she agreed.
For Lewis, the opportunity to work with WWF Indonesia on a major regional project was an added bonus. “As soon as I found out that WWF Indonesia was looking to work with students in NUS Business School on this major regional project, I grabbed the opportunity,” he said.
While undergraduates are given the option of choosing FSPs based on their interests and availability, this project was a rare opportunity to work with a global organisation like WWF to contribute to an international issue and make a real impact.
“This project, especially since it was a cross-border initiative, brought us out of our comfort zones,” added Lewis. “We worked closely with the officials in WWF Indonesia, we conducted primary research and visited the farmers, the primary beneficiaries of our plan, despite our language and cultural barriers.”
“Although our journey was fraught with obstacles, we were glad that we had undertaken this project together, and emerged as better team players to prepare for the corporate world,” he said.
“Ultimately the value of a project is measured by how much it fits the needs of its stakeholders and how directly it is able to solve their problems. This visit allowed us to bond with the villagers and understand their problems. It is a very important visit as it provides meaning for the things we do,” added Alvin.
The best thing is, what started as a project as a part of the NUS BBA programme could potentially end up being implemented by the Indonesian government to improve the lives and health of many in the Southeast Asia region. Congratulations to the team for a remarkable achievement!