The Man Who Works Hard For Female Empowerment

Sabina-Leah Fernandez

Angela Sujadi (left) and Fairoz Ahmad (right), Co-founders of Chapter W with the solar lamps sold by their social enterprise.

He already has a full-time job, but Fairoz Ahmad also runs a social enterprise that empowers low-income women in Indonesia. Why? He believes that women are the key to breaking the poverty cycle. 

Fairoz Ahmad is co-founder of Chapter W (previously known as Nusantara Development Initiatives or NDI) an award-winning social enterprise that helps Indonesian women sell solar lamps. The social enterprise has a two-pronged social mission. Apart from giving the low-income women a viable income stream, the solar lamps they sell are a cleaner alternative to kerosene lamps. Although more commonly available in the area, kerosene lamps cause health issues and release carbon emissions. To date, Chapter W's "Mothers of Light" have sold close to 3000 lamps benefitting 12,000 people in 30 villages in rural Indonesia.

Fairoz speaks to Asia For Good about being a feminist, his niece, and why women are the key to breaking the poverty cycle.

Fairoz Ahmad of NDI

Fairoz in a contemplative moment

On the Aceh trip that started it all…  About 10 years ago, I travelled to Aceh as a volunteer to help in the post-tsunami relief efforts, and to write a thesis on how people transition from victims to survivors after a disaster. In the course of my interviews with the Acehnese women, there was a strong sense that what they needed were meaningful jobs and not more aid. Being able to earn your own income gives a person dignity and pride, instead of getting aid. They wanted to be independent. One of the most memorable things [from the trip] was how some of the Acehnese women [in the camps for displaced persons] converted part of their tent into a mini convenience store! 

As a man, being sensitive to the gender dimension of a social issue was not a natural process. It took such experiences and observations to sensitize me.

On starting a social enterprise… I simply find it very strange that the cool or ‘in’ thing right now is to start a tech company that focuses on solving increasingly trivial first world problems, like how I can save an extra 3 seconds if I use this app to book something.  It would be nice if we divert some of these intellectual and financial firepower to something more fundamental.

On a men, women and equality… The argument that it is odd for a man to proactively support a cause that helps women is itself a reverse form of subtle prejudice that implies men in general do not care enough or can’t empathize enough, or somehow are not ‘equal’ enough to the task.

On the multiplier effect… For every $1 a woman earns, 90 cents goes back to their family, compared to 40 cents for men. Mothers are also in general, closer to their children... I realised there is a gender dimension to the issue of poverty and that the very women who are often marginalised or not included in development work are sources of economic betterment for their community.

Ibu Zaimah’s story… I travel regularly to the project sites to speak and understand the experiences of our various Mothers of LightOne of the oldest woman who joined our program was a 60-year-old woman called Ibu Zaimah, from Riau. She did not finish primary school and could barely write.  It was the first time in over 40 years that she had attended a training program. But she was passionate to learn.  One day her teenage son started coming with her to the training sessions. We were not sure why. It was only a few days later that we found out that the son joined so that he could help her revise at night! Within six months, ibu Zaimah sold over 70 lamps, the highest sales figure among her peers. When we asked her what she wanted to do with the income earned, she joked that she wanted to make a set of new teeth.  Then in a more serious tone, she said the additional income had been very helpful for her family because her husband fell ill and could not work for a while. 

On an experience that has stayed with himThe husband of one of our Mothers of Light (in one of the very first villages we work in) passed away 1 year ago. The husband was the village leader and I had known him for close to 4 years. The wife was not only a Mother of Light, but was the program coordinator. I visited him two times before he passed away of cancer. When he was diagnosed, his wife was pregnant with their first child (which he managed to see before he passed away). The wife was very stoic and calm each time we came to visit. I think she knew it was a matter of time because the husband was weakening (the husband switched to herbal treatments because chemo was too painful). I think she was trying to make sense of her world, and how God gave her a child while taking away her husband. In the course of our visits, there was a lot that was left unsaid. And the strength that she displayed during this period and how she held the family together, that stayed with me.

When I visited her house, her entire living room wall was covered with certificates, pictures, and mementos of our training programme.  She said it reminds her that even at sixty, even without a primary school certificate, she can still do so much for others.

Fairoz and Gloria Arlini with the "Mothers of Light" supported by Chapter W

On giving back... I believe that each person has some skill or talent that they can contribute productively. The problem is that some think they don’t have anything to contribute or they ask themselves, ‘Who am I to make a difference?’ Very simple things, such as using recyclable bags instead of plastic bags, will matter once the actions are multiplied at a global level. If you have technical skills like accounting, you can help a non-profit improve its accounting processes. If you are good at art, you can produce pieces to raise funds for your selected non-profit. If you are a teacher, you can educate your students on the problems of inequality so that your students care. Maybe one of them will care enough such that one day, that student will be the one who will end up changing the world.

On his students... I tell them that they have the most powerful device ever created that fits into your pocket (the smartphone) but its kind of useless if you are only using it to comment on cat photos or post food pictures on Instagram. Be more aware of what is going on in society. Be aware of social issues and the various sides of the debates and critically think through these arguments. You live in this society so you should engage it deeper. You can’t force them to be charitable or force them to do good. They must first be socially aware.

On gender equality... It is still work in progress, but we have made far more progress in this area than what anyone could imagine.

Sometimes society stops girls and women from dreaming big. But [it] doesn't impose the same rule on men.

Empowering women is important because…You are empowering future generations.

Words for budding social entrepreneurs... I will have to borrow some words of wisdom from Woody Allen here:  “80% of success is about showing up.”

On the label "feminist"... The problem with labels like ‘feminists’ is that it can mean different things to different groups, hence obscuring the heart of the message. So I prefer not to be labelled and boxed in certain categories. Essentially, I believe equality is crucial for the overall betterment in society.

On men, women & chauvinism... You have highly educated men who denigrate women. For example, the man who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, VS Naipaul, said some pretty awful things about women writers. You also have less educated men who act otherwise. For example, in the village, we have men who have hardly any education but supported their wives’ decision to join our program because they want their wives to gain knowledge and earn an income, and do not see this as a threat. I think the key is socialization. From young, boys must be socialised by their family and media in terms of why its important to treat women in a respectful and equal manner

On setting up NDI... It was really hard for me to start Chapter W a few years back and I had to go through a lot of challenges and personal sacrifice. It is through NDI that I could really help others make a change in their own community in a very tangible manner, as opposed to one off volunteering or ad-hoc help. It is really special to me and something very close to my heart. 

Each of us may only have one chance in our lives to make a big difference in  the lives of others, and perhaps NDI is that 'one' chance for me. 

On his 10-month-old niece... I saw her the first day she was born and it was just the most amazing thing. I just hope that the world she will inherit is a world where she gets to grow into a caring, compassionate and confident young woman. I hope she gets to fulfil her dreams and will not be discriminated in any way, either because gender or ethnicity.

The thing is, the kind of experiences I go through in Chapter W gave me a sense of perspective of what matters in life. Things that used to matter more sometimes feel trivial now.


 A little girl studies by the light of a lamp sold by NDI's solar entrepreneurs

Click the links to read more about Chapter W and their Mothers of Light check out our interview with Fairoz on what the Sustainable Development Goals mean to social entrepreneurs like him.

Interested in socially conscious living in Asia? Check out Asia For Good's social enterprise directory.


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