ONJA: Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
Charitable Organisations: Immediately household names like World Vision, Salvation Army, Red Cross, Amnesty International, etc, pop into people's minds. These charity organisations are definitely doing their part to help but there are a lot of other unrecognised charity organisations, 'the little guys', also doing amazing work. The only difference being they don't have the same exposure the other charities have. One of those 'little guys' is Onja. An up and coming organisation taking the words Charity Organisation to a whole new level! Nine people including myself, had the privilege to work alongside them as volunteers a few years back, when they were still under the name Project Livelihood, and can 100% vouch for these guys and the amazing work they do. I have seen/ experienced first hand their work and have witnessed the results! Simply amazing!
Fast forward a few years later, Project Livelihood has a new name, a much bigger and more improved vision and are ready to take on the world and help those in need one code at a time!
Sam, the man behind this movement was kind enough to let us interview him.
Peep the interview below.
What is Onja:
Onja is a social enterprise with bold plans to train world class coders in the world’s poorest countries. We’re beginning in Madagascar, home to 101 species of lemur and 500,000 people who should be in secondary school but aren’t, mostly because they can’t afford it.
Onja will train disadvantaged young people in English and programming, who will later work at its outsourcing agency. What really makes Onja special is that the outsourcing work completed by a single graduate will generate enough income for Onja to train 7 additional students! Onja’s first class will contain 30 students, who will effectively fund a second class of 210 students. The second class will then fund a third class of 1500 and so on. The number of students, graduates and families raised out of poverty will continue to grow exponentially over time. I once overheard someone in Madagascar explaining the process to a friend, saying that it’s like a pyramid scheme of coding, I had to laugh.
Why the name Onja? Does it have a particular meaning?
Onja means waves in Malagasy and the organization was designed to bring waves of prosperity to the people of Madagascar through code. It’s pronounced ‘orn-za’ with a soft z.
What really differentiates Onja from the sea of other charities out there?
Charity is good. It helps people, but what we’ve failed to realise over all these years is that buried under the surface of every poor nation, is a huge engine, just sitting there waiting to pull its country into the developed world. This engine is the country's most overlooked resource: it’s capable youth, and all it needs to get going is opportunity. Onja will tap into this resource offering real education and real employment and in doing so will make money, which allows it to educate many more students. Onja is really just a catalyst, and it’s the young people that are doing all the work making the enterprise possible.
What inspired you to start this project?
I volunteered in Cambodia as an English teacher about 4 years ago, and was talking casually about the future with Saroeun, one of my students. I was sure he would do very well in high school, he was a top student, but he explained that might not be enough. Even with good grades and work ethic, it might not be possible for him to find decent work, and paying for further studies may not be an option either. At the time I was an engineering student in New Zealand well aware of the need for skilled coders worldwide. I started to think about ways we could connect people like Saroeun with this booming market. It’s a bit of a long story from there but essentially nine volunteers in New Zealand taught Saroeun, and one of his friends, Veasna to design and code websites over the course of a couple of years, and that’s how it all started.
There are a lot of kids in New Zealand that could benefit from this movement, is there a particular reason you chose Madagascar over your own backyard or any other country for that matter?
Growing up my dad would often say “As soon as we forget that we are all God’s children then we are in trouble,” and honestly I think we are in trouble. I think the world forgets about places like Madagascar. I’m a proud Kiwi. I love New Zealand, and it has its fair share of social problems but the extent of those problems really can’t be compared to somewhere like Madagascar. That’s not to say life in Madagascar is all suffering and hardship, that’s not true at all. I love it, there’s so much beauty and fun being had, but if you start to talk about hardship then it quickly becomes obvious that our problems could be a lot worse.
Just this morning for example I was talking to a lady, who is an instrumental part of Onja here in Madagascar, about corruption in the school system, because it affects the way we find intelligent, but disadvantaged students. She told me of a girl she knew that was always top of her class, but when it came to the important, country-wide exam to graduate from lower secondary school, she failed. How could someone who is consistently at the very top of her pairs fail that exam? Most likely because another student paid the examiners to have their name swapped with hers. A few days after the results came out the girl's mother passed away. There’s a high chance she wouldn’t have been able to continue studying. If she did, she would have to repeat the year (since she failed), and who’s to say the same thing wouldn’t happen again. I don’t know all the details, I was just told the story in conversation, but it’s one example to show how someone that would almost certainly be destined for great things in the New Zealand education system just doesn’t get a chance here, due to only a handful of bad people. We will have to look into it a little more. Who knows, perhaps she could even become one of Onja’s first students. Getting back to the point, given that we are all God’s children, it makes sense to offer something to people that are most disadvantaged.
Why Madagascar as opposed to another developing country?
We researched for over a year and scored hundreds of countries for various factors that when combined, indicate how effective Onja would be in achieving its mission in each country. An example factor is the yearly cost of the food for students, in this case the lower the better, as Onja can spend less money on food and take on more students. Another factor was the level of poverty in the country, in this case the higher the better as Onja aims to work in the poorest communities. Madagascar emerged the clear winner.
What is the one greatest lesson you have learnt from this journey?
Personally I believe that if you want to design something to help people you first have to understand the way they live, why they make the decisions they make, and what they most value. And if you come from a different culture or socio-economic group that can only mean one thing: learning their language and living side by side with them ,so that's what I did, I spent a year living in a small village in the remote countryside with no electricity, no running water, only accessible by canoe. Fortunately the village really took me in, and looked after me incredibly well. They’ve taught me some cool things like ploughing a field with zebu, planting rice, and how to navigate a big river In a hand carved canoe. They’ve also shown me how to live with very little, and probably changed my values a bit. I think I probably value family more now. It's hard to pick one greatest learning from that experience, because it's just so multidimensional, but I would say it's the most incredible thing I've ever done.
Best and worst memories thus far?
Best: For the duration of a week or so I was looking for a rural village to live in. At this point I had only been in Madagascar for two months so my Malagasy wasn’t very good. It’s pretty crazy looking back on it now, but I basically walked into a handful of villages unannounced, and talked with the people and president of each village using my limited Malagasy. Sometimes I would arrive quite late in a village and would have no idea where I was going to sleep that night, but each time this happened someone would take pity on me, feed me and make sure I had somewhere to sleep, and those experiences are just so beautiful.
The worst: I contracted hepatitis A a few months ago along with some parasites. I wasn’t all that sick but I was absolutely exhausted for a couple of months.
What is the biggest sacrifice you have had to make so far? Was it all worth it?
For the past couple of years I’ve devoted my life to Onja. I can't remember the last time I had a weekend and I've almost drained my entire savings on the organisation, just getting it to this point, but I think the biggest sacrifice I make is forfeiting the safety and freedom we enjoy in New Zealand. Madagascar is not a particularly dangerous place by global standards, but it's hard to compare with the level of security and freedom we enjoy in New Zealand. So long as Onja succeeds in offering education and employment on the scale I know it can, then it will be worth it.
What makes you wake up every morning and keeps you doing what you do?
That’s probably a combination of a few things. I believe I was blessed with an idea that can provide opportunity to an unprecedented number of deserving young people, and it’s not going to happen unless I act on it. It’s also something I enjoy, but more than anything else I feel like it’s what I am supposed to be doing.
How are the first students, Saroeun and Veasna doing?
Testament to the volunteers that taught them and their own commitment, they’ve produced some really good professional work. Most recently they did this site (crimsonconsulting.kr) for Crimson Consulting. Things are slowing down now, they’re not making many sites. Veasna is working full time doing IT administration, while furthering his studies part time at a local university. Saroeun was fortunate enough to find someone to sponsor further studies for him, so he’s furthering his IT knowledge at a different university full time. Four years ago, when I first met them, they were in very different circumstances so I am really pleased that they have both come this far and it is their success that really opened our eyes to the potential we have to bring education and employment to the world’s poor on an unprecedented scale. If our group of nine volunteers managed to teach them to make professional websites through skype, then imagine what we can do with an organised, self-funding approach, with intensive in-person training for disadvantaged students that have been specifically chosen for their potential to become great coders.
Where to from here?
We wish to begin with a class of 30 students, and have started searching for highly capable, yet disadvantaged young people. We’ve identified the first candidate, Jerome, an incredibly smart young guy that is currently in middle school and won't be able to continue to secondary school.
We’ve come as far as we can on my savings alone, and we won't progress further until we unlock some real funding, so we’ve just launched a crowdfunding campaign to get us going, with a nice little video starring Jerome as the hero.