Reaching Out Pver Distant Shores

Better education and greater exposure to the world are making Singaporeans more conscious about social issues. And as they live, work and travel abroad, many have become the change they want to see — in Tanzania, Kenya and Cambodia — one cup of coffee, one educational programme, one sewing machine at a time.
By Jeremy Yong

Rebecca Chang, Kenya// Coffee for A Better World

Rebecca Chang, right, and some of her team, who have been trained as baristas and coffee roasters at Wamama Kahawa coffee shop. PHOTO CREDIT: REBECCA CHANG

The expatriate lifestyle suggests, among other things, languid afternoons spent sipping lattes in stylish cafés. Former lawyer, Singaporean Rebecca Chang, had that option when she moved to Tanzania in 2009 to join her husband, who was already working there. Instead of just sipping coffee, Chang decided to get into the coffee business to provide employment to needy Tanzanians. Her coffee roasting business, Wamama Kahawa Coffee Roasters, includes a café that provides jobs to unskilled Tanzanian women.

Tanzanian coffee has given locals like Sifa asecond chance in life — she now works as a barista and waitress at Wamama Kahawa café.

Before Wamama Kahawa, Chang worked at the UN International Crime Tribunal for Rwanda. In 2010, she befriended an expatriate in Tanzania selling hand-roasted coffee as a side business. He ran it from his home, relying on a few people he had trained in roasting, and selling the beans to friends and neighbours. Chang saw the potential in the business and entered into a partnership to take the business to the next level.

Roasting Coffee

Wanting to be involved in something which could help the poor and disadvantaged, Chang considered setting up a charity, but decided against it. “I didn’t think it was the most effective way of helping people. You are always dependent on donors and volunteers and not able to sustain yourself. I felt people needed skills, training and long-term employment. This was the most important thing to do to help them.”

“We started this company to train the women we employ to roast coffee.” she said. “We use very simple equipment and many things are done manually; Coffee roasting is a skill that develops over time. The women learn to identify a good roast by smell and by listening for cues during the roasting process.

Chang says Tanzania exports a lot of its coffee beans to Kenya where it is repackaged as Kenyan coffee, and re-imported into Tanzania. She says, “Apart from giving women skills and an income, we want Tanzanian coffee to earn recognition as well as promote consumption of coffee in Tanzania itself.”

Employing the Unskilled

In March 2011, Wamama Kahawa expanded into the café business by starting the Wamama Kahawa Coffee Shop at Mbezi Beach in Dar es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania, where they employ and train more women. Currently, the company employs seven staff for the café and two older coffee roasters who have little or no education and speak no English. The coffee roasters are supervised by a local manager. Says Chang, “The women who work in the café speak relatively good English but have little formal education and were all unskilled previously. At Wamama Kahawa, they have all been trained as coffee baristas and a few of them are now also able to do basic bookkeeping and use computer programmes.”

Wamama Kahawa has made a real difference to employees’ lives. One coffee roaster, for example, was kicked out of the house by her husband when she became a Christian. She moved to Dar es Salaam with her two children to live with her brother and worked in a quarry breaking stones. Said Chang, “If she was lucky, she could earn 3,000 Tanzanian shillings (S$2) for a whole day’s work. At Wamama, however, she earns up to 10,000 shillings a day, roasting 20 kilos of coffee at 500 shillings for every kilogram.”

Talent Spotting

Women with potential also have the chance to shine at Wamama Kahawa. “I try to give them responsibilities they may not be initially qualified for,” said Chang. Chang taught one promising woman basic computer skills like word processing and spreadsheets. The woman now keys in data for the company’s daily expenses — gaining valuable new skills. “Training, mentoring and personal development are a big part of our relationship with our staff.

We want them to leave with more than what they came in with,” added Chang.

A side benefit for her female workers is that their children are also offered the chance to go to an English-speaking preschool for free because school fees are expensive.

Values Change

The café also helps others by selling items made by nongovernmental organisations like Fair Trade Friends (FTF) and Nuru Centre. FTF runs Mama Masai, an income-generating project that supports over 200 women from the Masai tribe. Nuru Centre, on the other hand, works with physically disabled adults to craft mainly paper-bead jewellery items. This year, Wamama Kahawa organised a paper-bead-making workshop at the café to raise funds for Nuru Centre.

Running Wamama Kahawa has been a fun and meaningful experience although, confessed Chang, “it can be frustrating given the cultural differences. For us (Singaporeans), everything must be fast, fast, fast. I’m the typical task-oriented Singaporean who values efficiency. But the pace of life here is much slower and people take their time to greet one another before they start doing anything.”

Singapore intern Lee Huiwen gets a first-hand experience of a social enterprise by working with Tanzanian women.

Tanzania’s business environment also lacks transparency which leaves business owners (especially those run by foreigners) at the mercy of shakedowns from local officials. Speaking frankly, Chang said she often feels discouraged because foreigners or foreign-run businesses are often seen as easy targets for extracting bribes. Getting regulatory approvals or licenses is never a straightforward process.

The coffee industry is also political, dominated by a few big players from influential circles, who do not like competition. However, she says, “I realise we’ve come quite a long way in this difficult environment. We are able to pay staff, we are still growing, we see that people come to the shop and enjoy the food.” Today, Wamama Kahawa roasts an average of 200 kg of coffee beans monthly, up from 10 kg when it first started in 2010. The beans also retail at local supermarkets.

With the business thriving and her husband’s posting in Tanzania an ongoing one, Chang says, “we will be here as long we want and need to.” What happens when home beckons? She adds, “If we ever leave, I hope by then my business will be debt-free, and I’ll able to sell it to likeminded partners who will continue to run and grow it in line with our social empowerment and community serving principles.”

Overall, said Chang, “I still find a lot of fulfillment from what I’ve done. Given the environment, I don’t think I could feel fulfilled if I had a salaried job. I like bringing people together and creating things; seeing the staff grow in their personal and professional lives, and providing a great environment for people serving Tanzania to relax and enjoy a delicious cup of coffee. That, in itself, is very meaningful.”

Lessons from Tanzania

Two Singapore university graduates gained rich insights working at Wahama Kahawa café.

Rebecca Chang’s bid to help unskilled Tanzanian women with Wamama Kahawa Café has opened the minds of some Singapore students to possibilities in social enterprise. It recently helped three university graduates learn the ins and outs of operating a business in Tanzania.

Cheng Xinyi, a Nanyang Technological University graduate, was intrigued by the opportunity to intern there. She roped in friends Zhang Yunxi and Lee Huiwen, and the trio spent a memorable two months working at Wamama Kahawa in Dar es Salaam earlier this year. Their main responsibility was to market the café and manage operations while Chang was back in Singapore on maternity leave.

Said Cheng, 23: “Having just graduated, it was a perfect opportunity to leave my comfort zone, to contribute and learn new things.”

Cheng’s friend, Lee Huiwen, 24, realised how friendly people in Tanzania are. “It’s hard to pass a street without having people greet you along the way,” recalled Lee, a National University of Singapore graduate. “Many a time on my way to work, I will be accompanied by a random stranger who will talk to me about life and things in general.”

Some observations though, were uncomfortable. Lee said,

“I volunteered to teach at a village which is really poor, one of those places where a whole village still shares one TV. But just 100 metres away is one of the most luxurious hotels, with a go-kart course and a water theme park. That type of polarity of wealth is hard to fathom.”

Linda Yeo, Kenya// Life Enhancing Learning

Linda Yeo who runs financial literacy workshops in Kenya.

Also in Kenya is Linda Yeo, a former corporate lawyer who has been working for an United Nations Environment Programme known as Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants since 2001. Yeo, 44, first saw the Facebook page of SMU Pendeza — a voluntary project initiated by Singapore Management University (SMU) students — after having been told about their work by the roving ambassador to Kenya, HE Yatiman Yusof in 2012.

SMU Pendeza’s motto was ‘A Cause to Love’. And their mission — to help Kenyan children come out of poverty through education. Impressed, Yeo decided to get involved.

When she came home for Chinese New Year this year, she met with SMU team leaders who are sponsoring the 180 orphans of Our Lady of Grace Orphanage (OLGO) in Meru, Kenya. She wanted them to understand the social-economic challenges Kenyans struggle with daily before introducing the financial literacy syllabus to them.

On why she became part of it, Yeo says “I found it refreshing that a group of Singaporean business students earned recognition for their idea to improve the lives of other students in a developing country.” She had learned that Team SMU won the Shirin Fozdar Grant — given out to SMU students — for the best community service idea. It was also a finalist in Project Inspire, a global UN-Women-Mastercard grant initiative.

For SMU student Adam Reynolds, the SMU Pendeza project in Kenya taught him to love others unconditionally. PHOTO: SMU PENDEZA

When Team SMU organised a trip to Nairobi in May, they met with Singaporean Anna Mosby, a lecturer at Carlile Nairobi College who made arrangements for them to visit Kibera, one of Africa’s largest slum settlements. They were also introduced to another Singaporean, Lam Yeen Lan who runs Rafiki Foundation Kenya, which houses and educates over 130 orphans.

The students then headed north to Meru to spend three weeks at Our Lady of Grace orphanage. Yeo connected them with two local companies —, a social enterprise that runs a radio station and comic production project and Meru-Greens, a local agri-business. Talks on financial literacy and enterprenuership were organised for the orphans.

When they returned to Singapore in June, Team SMU formalised plans for a 2014 return visit to Kenya by forming a committee and got Yeo’s acquiescence to continue partnering with them to keep the project with the OLGO a sustainable one. Yeo is currently launching a series of financial literacy workshops for Kenyan women and their families.

For more about SMU Pendeza, see

Jimmy Yap, Cambodia// Beating Child Trafficking

Riverkids founder Jimmy Yap with a Cambodian child who lives in a boat on Tonle Sap Lake. PHOTO CREDIT: JIMMY YAP


Former Straits Times journalist Jimmy Yap and his wife help to combat child trafficking in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

“We set up Riverkids Project after we adopted four children from Cambodia and saw for ourselves the effects of child trafficking,” said Yap, 45. “Two of them, six and two at the time, ended up getting sold to an orphanage by a trafficker. The kids had been wrenched away from their parents and siblings and thought they would never see them again. They have had to deal with the trauma of separation, and the question of why it happened to them. It was a happy ending — the kids eventually reunited with their biological parents.

“When we went to Cambodia to adopt our kids in 2001, they were living in an orphanage where they did not get proper dental or medical care; and the youngest briefly lost the ability to walk. The orphanage did not have trained caretakers or a good ratio of caretakers to babies.”

One of Riverkids’ largest programmes is school support for about 350 children. They also help the parents of these children find stable jobs, which is a challenge as many of them have little education and few skills. In the slums, the children often drop out of school to start working, often in illegal or dangerous work, perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Helping parents get a better income means their children can continue to stay in school.

Riverkids tried microfinance, but some participants simply ran away from their debts. “Instead, we have found success in providing them with piecework such as sewing school uniforms,” said Yap.

The women learn sewing skills on machines rented to them by Riverkids. They earn profits and gain experience in running a business — sourcing for raw materials, meeting customers, getting measurements, organising the sewing, ensuring quality control and delivery of the finished product — until they finally take over the daily operations from Riverkids’ trainers. Riverkids also helps the women to eventually own the machines they work with.

Those who struggle with sewing uniforms are taught to make simple crafts at home instead. For some of them, these skills are the first step towards a better job. “By helping both parents and children, we have a better shot at keeping the kids in school,” said Yap.

This strategy seems to be succeeding. Two Riverkids children have made it to university this year, the first ever in their families. Added Yap, “We hope more will join them in the coming years.”

The Riverkids Project is at






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