Advocates: Alvin Yong

"Whenever I find a social problem, I’ll create a business to solve it."

Advocates: Alvin Yong

Nearly half the world still lives on less than $7.50 a day. Tigerland Rice Farm, which provides rice-farming eco-vacations, supports hill tribes by helping them create self- help enterprises; Stone Edge Experiential creates social transformations through similar concepts for the poor and disadvantaged in India and Kenya.

“I was first exposed to poverty-stricken communities during an expedition to Nepal in 1984, and later, in Africa during my university days. I was intrigued by how much joy and contentment I witnessed there than in the wealthier society of Singapore.

“In my 40s, I chanced upon Professor Muhammad Yunus, who founded Grameen Bank to reach out to the poor and is the father of social business. His words set me on my path to social entrepreneurship: ‘Whenever I find a social problem, I’ll create a business to solve it.’ This became my mantra.

“My modus operandi is to earn well from my businesses — Avita for wellness products, and clay-street.com, clay-making for individuals and team bonding — so I have no personal financial interests in my social enterprise projects. The social enterprises I design seek to enable sustainable transformations, teaching and equipping the beneficiaries with tools to generate their own income.

“My family first visited Kitt Watasittikul and his family’s Tigerland farm in Chiang Rai in end 2007. We returned twice in 2008 to plant and harvest rice six months apart, and I experienced three eureka moments.

“In June 2008, I asked Kitt’s dad, Father Gun, ‘Who owns all this land?’ He struggled to respond in basic English, but it turned out to be such words of wisdom, ‘Men do not own land. We take care of the land so that it takes care of our family. When it is time for me to go, I will pass on the responsibility to my children, who will do the same.’ I was embarrassed at the shallowness of my capitalist question. This farmer had so much to teach me about how sacred land and nature are.

“When Father Gun brought us to the river, I asked, ‘So many fishes! Do you catch and eat them?’ He responded, ‘Recently, we noticed this river is a little tired. We decided not to fish in it to let it recover.’ I was impressed by how environmentally responsible the farmers are.

“Half a year later, when we were harvesting the rice, my then 10-year- old daughter Robyn told me: ‘Now I know why you say not to waste rice, because there’s so much love — from Mother Earth, the sun and rain, and Father Gun.’ Such a realisation would not have been possible through classroom teaching or watching Discovery Channel!

“I founded TigerlandRiceFarm.biz in 2009 as a for-profit eco-tourism business. I kept 30 percent revenue share for marketing and business development until about 2013.

“After the business stabilised, I declared it a social business, using my 30 percent share to run social projects for the local village community. The rest remains an important source of income for the Watasittikul family. Now that they are better off, we support the surrounding hill tribe community through projects like Raise-a-Piggy and Raise-a-Moo-Moo-Cow.

“The beneficiaries work on simple principles, for instance, a donation of $60 allows a child to have a piglet, which she will be taught to raise and sell for $300 as a pig. She gives $60 to a selected hill tribe family with schoolgoing children to do the same; this goes on.

“My wife and I took Robyn on a year-long journey in 2011 to experience different cultures. Through our social enterprise Stone Edge Experiential, we started raising awareness for the Tribal School Project in Jharkhand, India; we had Robyn coach the youths in digital photography and PowerPoint presentations.

“That same year, we got to know about the Children’s Garden Home & School in Kenya, a home for orphans, destitute children and homeless street kids. There, we initiated more self-help enterprise projects for the kids. All these projects have changed my outlook in life—that the meaning of living a successful, happy and enriching life is to make our world a better place.”

This story first appeared in the August issue of A.

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