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Part 1: Why the "Enactus Experience" was so crucial to my entrepreneurship journey

Keith Tan
August 27, 2017

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I was first introduced to Enactus in 2008. I was 19, a student in Singapore Polytechnic's (SP) School of Business. In my years in school, extra-curricular activities like joining the clubs and societies did not interest me. I was terribly busy with running an apparel printing and corporate gifts business, while juggling my studies.

One of my lecturers had put together a team of several business students to take part in the Enactus 2008 National Competition. Many students from other faculties - Engineering, Environmental Studies and Built Environment, had already begun a community service project in South India - building a greenhouse and a compost production facility for an orphanage. Our task was to bring "enterprise" into an otherwise staid, direct-aid project.

Conducting the landscape study, we found that the land area around the orphanage was semi-arid, due to years of using chemical fertilisers. Only 25% of the land around the orphanage was farmable. The orphange had the original idea of running the greenhouse and compost production facility has a sideline business, and selling the saplings and compost to the farmers. Bringing the business lens to the fore, we saw a unique opportunity to use the power of entrepreneurship to change the face the surrounding village of some 50 farming families. Its name was Sevapur.

There were a few facets to our strategy. First, was selling the saplings and compost, not at the market price as intended, but at a price lower than the market price, while still giving the orphanage a profit. This price point incentivized the farming families to buy the products from the Orphanage, rather that other vendors.

Second, was researching the type of crop which would have a high market value and would be able to thrive in this semi-arid environment. This is where our Environmental Studies friends came in. They found the answer - Moringa, a herb with health and healing properties.

Third, was researching the type of organic compost which would support the growth of Moringa, and rehabilitate the land. Again, the Environmental Studies students, together with their capable lecturer Dr. Adrian Elangovan, found the answer.

The results were absolutely shocking -

1. We did such brisk business that profits from the venture covered half of the orphanage's operating costs

2. ~50% of the farms converted to using our organic compost, so the environmental impact.

3. The one thing we were not able to measure accurately was the impact on the incomes of the farmers. But anecdotal evidence pointed to a general increase income due to increases in land utilisation rates.

In 2008, social entrepreneurship was not yet the field of intense interest that is it today. But this was social entrepreneurship, on a scale that changed the face of a village, and the lives of hundreds of people. It really is difficult to put into words how profoundly such an experience changes one's worldview. Later, in 2011, as a direct result of my Enactus experience, I co-founded Start Now, a social enterprise, technology company that aims to connect people to good causes.

The amazing thing about Enactus, is that the entire project was spurred by the simple idea of friendly competition. And even as much as competition is sometimes derided, the Enactus competitions harness a certain unbridled energy that brings forwards positive change in the world. Even 9 years since my 2008 participation, this experience is indelibly etched in my memory.

 

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