‘Light of Borneo’ project brings relief to villagers

by Hoi Chee Hoi

Miri is a fast-growing city by the sea widely promoted as Sarawak’s ‘Resort City’ and oil and gas hub of Sarawak. Just a stone’s throw away from the looming crude oil tanks at Lutong, about 12 kilometres from the city, lay an intricate network of small lanes and makeshift houses that make up the Kampung Api-Api settlement.

Facing the sea, Kampung Api-Api is the perfect vantage point to admire Miri’s pièce de résistance – brilliant sunsets that paint the sky brilliant shades of orange, purple and pink. However, for the villagers of Kampung Api-Api, sunsets mean only one thing – their only source of natural lighting has dipped beyond the horizon.

Kampung Api-Api does not have an electricity scheme. The absence of electricity supply creates a host of problems for the villagers, affecting their day-to-day activities, particularly at night.

They rely on generators that run on diesel which costs them more than RM200 a month. The operating cost is a burden, making it impractical to leave the generator running all the time. Hence, at daytime, they are unable to operate basic appliances such as refrigerators and electric fans.

This prompted the Curtin Sarawak Institution of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) Student Branch to join hands with the AIESEC Curtin Sarawak Chapter to find a solution. Jointly, they launched the Light of Borneo (LOB) project with the objective of lighting up rural and suburban communities of Northern Sarawak, especially those in and around Miri, with solar power.

The initiative is in line with the IEEE mission – Advancing Technology for Humanity – and involves the IEEE Student Branch conducting technical workshops to educate and upskill local villagers, organising campaigns in rural communities to raise awareness of renewable energy, and eventually fabricating solar lamps for the less privileged.

Meanwhile, the AIESEC Chapter’s role is to bring in AIESEC volunteers from across the globe including countries like Canada, Pakistan, Oman, Egypt, Indonesia, Poland, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Italy and the Netherlands. Together with local volunteers, the international AIESEC members helped kick off the project in May. It allowed the volunteers to interact with local villagers and better understand how they bring sustainable change to their communities.

A week-long technical workshop on fabricating solar lamps was conducted for the local student volunteers in July during their semester break. They learned basic electricity generation and solar power theory, and perfected their soldering skills. By the end of the workshop, they were able to fabricate solar powered lamps containing batteries that can be charged during the day.

With these solar lamps, the villagers at Kampung Api-Api rely less on generators for lighting at night. At a simple presentation of lamps to a group of excited villagers, state assemblyman for Piasau Dato’ Sebastian Ting pledged his support towards the project and a proposal by Curtin Sarawak IEEE Student Branch chair Francelouis Tie Sing Yong to provide more solar lamps to the villagers in the near future.

The Curtin Sarawak IEEE Student Branch also conducted its Educate Rural Malaysia (ERM) Survey concurrently with the Light of Borneo project to raise awareness of the importance of higher education and engineering in providing solutions to real world problems. Championed by member Saaveethya Sivakumar, the survey helped the student branch gauge the sentiments of the Kampung Api-Api villagers towards higher education for their children.

33 households at the village were approached over the course of two days. Out of the 96 youth surveyed, only 7.3% are currently pursuing tertiary studies.

The majority of the villagers understand the importance of higher education and they hope their children will find success in the future. However, they face many challenges in this regard, especially the lack of finances.

Furthermore, the youth of the village seem to be more interested in seeking employment than completing their studies. For the younger ones in primary school, studying is a challenge due to the lack of electricity and they are unable to revise or complete their homework at night.

Meanwhile, advisor to the Curtin Sarawak IEEE Student Branch Dr Garenth Lim said the student branch does an exceptionally good job in encouraging its members to actively engage with the community, better understand its problems, and help those in need using their knowledge of engineering, science and technology.

The project and survey were made possible through Curtin Sarawak’s partnerships with the Institution of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS) Malaysia Chapter and AIESEC.

Volunteers chatting with a couple at Kampung Api-Api

Villagers beaming with happiness upon receiving solar lamps from volunteers.

Village children learning simple skills from volunteers as part of the Educate Rural Malaysia Survey.