This sponsored post, part of a series on Asia’s Young Social Entrepreneurs, is brought to you by DBS Bank. In partnership with the National University of Singapore, DBS is a proud supporter of the Social Venture Challenge, an Asia-wide competition for social enterprises.
In retrospect, a simple decision to spend the holidays in Cambodia back in 1997 threw Madenjit Singh’s life into a different course. Singh, a Malaysian who had worked for an oil company in Papua New Guinea before moving back to Malaysia to start a motivational magazine for youth, was caught in a bloody political conflict in Phnom Penh.
With the airport shut down, he began to observe and learn of Cambodia’s hardships dealing with extreme poverty and lack of education. Soon after, he moved to Cambodia, joined later by his two sons Dhinu Dhanveer Singh and Raj Ridvan Singh.
Once in Cambodia, the elder Singh turned his house into a makeshift school to provide English lessons to students. He recruited 24 students from rural communities and provided them with food and a place to live while learning. The idea is that once these students returned home, they would become teachers for their communities. This method of creating a cycle of teachers became the foundation for Science of Life Studies 24/7 (SOLS 24/7), the nonprofit formally established in 2000 by the family and now provides education to eager learners across Southeast Asia.
“Our country really needs education. If someone finishes high school, they end up in the field. They don’t have money to continue their education,” said Meach Hoeun, Deputy Director of Operations at SOLS 24/7 in Cambodia. “They have to work and survive. They don’t see any value in education,” he added.
SOLS 24/7’s main activity is a two-year, four-semester boarding program providing peer-to-peer education for free. Besides academic work, students perform everyday tasks such as cooking and gardening, partly because the school lacks resources but also to give students more responsibility and the opportunity to grow as a person. “We teach them real skills. Holistic life skills,” said Hoeun.
In their first semester, students stay at one of over 60 Community Development Centers (CDCs) across Cambodia, learning basic English, math, and other skills for three to six months. Then they move to Teacher Training Centers (TTCs) where they learn intermediate English, math, and computer skills for six months. After this stage they return to one of the CDCs, this time as teachers rather than students.
“We are using Little Less More (LLM) system. LLM system is something we came up with. I know a little, I teach those who know less, while I learn more. So for example, I learned ABC. I will go and teach those who did not learn ABC. So we are using this system to get all these programs to work,” said Hoeun. “We do not have any budget to hire professionals.”
Students return to TTCs for the final six months to learn advanced English, computer, business, accounting, marketing, and employment skills.
“Ninety-nine percent of our graduates get a job immediately. When our graduates finish after two years, they are real, rich humans also. They can go anywhere. And private sector companies just love them,” said Hoeun, who joined SOLS 24/7 in 2002 after graduating from the program.
If graduates do not opt for jobs in the private sector or other organizations, SOLS 24/7 recruits them to continue to serve other students.
After graduation, Hoeun was offered a job that paid $1,000 a month, a more-than-respectable salary in Cambodia. But his inner voice called for a different path: to help build SOLS 24/7 and bring education to others. He declined the job offer, which was a tough decision for his family financially. “To be frank I started that journey and my family did not support me. That was the biggest offer in my life. I did not take that offer and everyone was thinking this guy is crazy.”
In other ways, it surprised himself too. “When I was in high school, I wrote in my notebook that if I can get $150 for my life every month, I think that is perfect, my life would be wonderful,” he said. “I never imagined that I am able to have today, sitting with management and coming up with ideas of developing the country.”
“But you know what, I continued and I’m able to bring my brothers and sisters to come and study in this school. Today my family is really good.”
Reflecting on the organization’s 14-year history, Hoeun feels it’s time to address some weaknesses. The biggest issue is financial stability. SOLS 24/7 provides its boarding program for free. Its only source of income is heavily discounted part-time classes, which doesn’t cover much. Donations from foreigners are what keep operations going. For instance, donors encounter SOLS 24/7’s ex-students now working in the private sector and wonder how they were educated, and end up making a donation to SOLS 24/7.
Hoeun went to Singapore for the first time to join the Social Venture Challenge. The experience helped him become a new person. “It changed my mind completely about starting some business. Before, I have this NGO mind; all this work was given [for] free. And we don’t have big donors.”
“We’re going to find a solution [as] to how can we get enough budget/money running our own activity.”
“There are a lot of possibilities,” said Hoeun. “I want to bring education to all.”
Watch this video to learn more about SOLS 24/7:
Social Enterprise Buzz is a media company dedicated to covering social enterprise news from around the world. We publish a range of stories from startups to entrepreneurship, innovation, and finance, which showcase business making the world a better place. Read more.