Social Entrepreneur - Onja.
Ask most people what they know about Madagascar and chances are you’ll be met with a blank stare.
It’s not a country we hear very much about, yet for alumnus Sam Lucas the small island nation off the coast of Africa has become his life’s work.
After leaving high school and backpacking around the world for nine months, including spending time in Africa where he taught maths at a local high school in Ghana, Sam says the experience had a dramatic impact on his outlook and what he wanted to do with his life.
“With very little money, I relied on and came to trust in the kindness of strangers. I lost count of the number of people who took me in, gave me a place to sleep, food to eat and unreserved kindness that I could never repay. This experience really increased my desire to do something meaningful for others.”
Returning to NZ and enrolling in a Mechatronics Engineering degree, the seeds of Sam’s latest venture in Madagascar began during his time at university.
“In late 2012 I volunteered in Cambodia, teaching English to students from poor backgrounds. I was inspired by the incredible commitment my students demonstrated to their studies but alarmed to find that few would ever be able to attend higher education or find well-paid employment. Knowing that such brilliant young people could find well-paid work in developed countries, I spotted an opportunity to connect the two together. The idea to prepare young talent in the developing world, to meet outsourceable needs in developed economies was established and I began to conceive the idea of a social enterprise model that was to become Onja.” (a Malagasy word that means 'waves').
Returning to NZ and graduating in 2013 with a Bachelor of Engineering with First Class Honours, Sam spent a year at Fisher & Paykel Healthcare before deciding to take the plunge and move to Madagascar to make his dream of scaling Onja a full time reality.
Onja itself began in 2013 when a group of eight volunteers began skyping two students from a tiny room in the Engineering building, teaching valuable IT skills over the course of a year. From there, full-scale operations were started in Madagascar, where research indicated Onja’s model could be most impactful. Surprisingly, despite its poverty, Madagascar does have reasonably good internet and IT infrastructure.
In preparation for beginning Onja’s operations in Madagascar, Sam walked into ‘Ifasina’, a remote village where he lived for one year. In time, the village came to accept him as one of their own. “I am very proud that even now, people still refer to me as a ‘son of Ifasina.’ The community taught me to speak Malagasy (you can watch a clip of Sam conducting a TV interview in Malagasy on Youtube!), live with very little, and even learn the traditional Betsimisaraka (a Malagasy tribe) way of farming rice!
Living in the village had a profound effect on me and gave me a unique understanding of the hopes, dreams and daily challenges of its people. The village has no running water or electricity, few toilets, and people work strenuously with limited nutritional intake.”
Despite this level of hardship, few describe themselves as poor, and most point to education and careers for their children as the highest priority. Unfortunately for most it’s a long shot: few young people are able to complete high school, and fewer still find well-paid employment while less than 5% of the population can afford to go to university.
Sam says he has huge gratitude to the people of Ifasina who looked after him so well.
“Unknowingly they played a big role in Onja’s early success: only through them was I able to truly discover the needs and values of the community and shape Onja’s operations accordingly.”
Onja has now partnered with Madagascar’s Ministry of Education and have developed a unique recruitment strategy, used to pinpoint 30 exceptionally talent-rich, opportunity-poor students from an initial pool of 250,000. Starting in December 2018, these thirty students will learn English and coding for two intensive years free of charge and transition onto life-changing work at Onja’s sustainable outsourcing enterprise.
“This whole venture has come about as a result of the financial support of friends and family. I haven’t been back to NZ to see my family for a while due to funding but I understand some of my friends are pooling their money to help buy me an airfare so I can get home for Christmas this year.”
With the work completed by a single graduate of the programme funding an estimated seven future students, Sam believes Onja has the potential to grow rapidly and spread large-scale opportunity in some of the world’s poorest communities.
This is a story it seems that is only just getting started. Watch this space!