Raising funds to light up Sarawak
By Danielle Sendou Ringgit
The night was full of laughter as the guests attending Barefoot Mercy’s (BFM) benefit dinner at Borneo Convention Center Kuching (BCCK) were entertained by comedians Rizal Van Geyzel, Kavin Jay and Jonathan Atherton while enjoying a feast of local indigenous cuisine on October 1st.
Underlining the entertaining tone of the evening which also saw Alena Murang and The Murangs performing was BFM’s mission to raise funds towards future projects that would help alleviate the plight of many rural communities in Sarawak.
BFM is an apolitical group focused on raising funds and implementing micro hydro systems to provide electricity in rural areas.
“We called ourselves barefoot, in a way that reflects the way we operate. We provide basic amenities as cost efficiently as possible, we aim to provide solutions that work which are simple enough that communities can do the upkeep themselves,” said Elaine Chan, one of BFM’s co-founders during her speech at the benefit dinner.
She also mentioned that when BFM first started in 2011, statistics revealed that 30 per cent of Sarawak did not have access to electricity.
“There seems to be something morally wrong that people living in the 21st century in a state as rich as ours are still functioning by candlelight. A life without light means a shorter productive day, making everything you do indefinably more difficult without lighting,” said Chan.
The benefit of electricity, Chan went on, contributes to food security, enabling those living in the rural areas without urban conveniences like supermarkets or grocery stores to run small fridges and freezers which can help sustain a steady supply of food.
“Without electricity and no means of food preservation, you can go into a feast and famine as when food is available,” she explained, adding that electricity also allowed for economic possibility.
With electricity provided for the rural communities, she posited, villagers can become empowered and be involved in social enterprise.
While providing and maintaining micro hydro systems are still BFM’s main community initiative, BFM is also venturing into helping villagers be empowered and involved in social enterprise through electricity.
As of this year, BFM is helping the villagers at Puneng Trusan through a pineapple products workshop initiative which enables them to turn their abundant pineapple harvest into products and have them introduced and sold in the city.
To enable this community enterprise, BFM acquired a dehydrator for the villagers where the pineapple products are dehydrated and packed by the village women before being sent to Kuching.
Among the products created by the villagers are pineapple jam, dehydrated fruit, pineapple digestive enzymes, mountain spring salt from the highland called ‘tucu’ and basket products.
“Having electricity is more than lights,” said BFM co founder Anna Wee. “It empowers you to have a fridge, to have a dehydrator as well as do a lot of stuff like sell merchandise for their livelihood. They are the spill over benefits, so to speak.”
According to Wee, BFM mostly concentrates on the isolated villages in the highland areas of Sarawak, as most of these areas do not have good infrastructure or basic electricity.
So far, BFM has implemented eight micro hydro systems (seven in Lawas and one in Lubok Antu) since 2012 as well as providing technical support to a village in Lawas.
To bridge the rural-urban divide, the rural communities are in charge of organizing themselves to install the micro hydro systems with technical support from BFM.
While BFM hands the system over completely to the rural communities for management after the installation, it is important to ensure that the community feels ownership of the project thus making it a community-based project rather than a handout.
“We are clear that we do not give money, and we are clear that you must participate where there must be community participation,” said Wee.
Depending on the state of the river currents and water levels, the micro hydro systems can support the usage of normal everyday electrical appliances such as refrigerators, televisions and washing machines.
“But they can’t switch them all on at once because sometimes when there is a drought and the river is dry, the turbine does not work,” said Wee, although she assured that it did not affect the lighting.
While some areas are easier to have the micro hydro system implemented in their areas, others can be quite difficult as their water sources essential in running the micro hydro systems are either too far from the village or not available.
“If there is no water source, we would give them solar lanterns, which we also do. So we must buy quite a lot,” said Wee.
IN 2014, BFM supplied three villages at Long Laman, Batu Bungan Kindy and Long Ajeng in Miri with solar lanterns.
During that time, BFM also had the opportunity to meet Lim Siok Hong who founded Tadika Pawah in Long Laman, a Penan village.
To date, there are four kindergartens in four villages; Long Lamai and Long Ajeng in Ulu Baram, Batu Bungan in Mulu and also Long Laman with 83 children.
To help support the education of the Penan children in the kindergartens, a Penan Preschool Fostering Program was carried out during the benefit dinner where guests got to donate towards helping the children.
During the benefit dinner, among other items up for sale were dehydrated pineapple from Puneng Trusan, pineapple jam and salt, in which the proceeds will go to BFM’s future projects.
Also in partnership with BFM for the benefit dinner were local jewellery-maker Left & Right displaying their gorgeous handmade jewellery for sale.