Poly students lend a hand through overseas projects

Under learning scheme, S'pore Poly students address problems in developing countries

On finding that a farm in Vietnam was producing excess milk, a group of students from Singapore Polytechnic (SP) came up with a way to stop it going to waste and even help the farm make some cash - by turning it into soap.

Students from SP's chemical and life sciences school developed a recipe to convert cows' milk into soap during a two-week trip to Cu Chi village near Ho Chi Minh City in 2017.

The trip was part of SP's learning express programme, which brings together students and their peers from overseas educational institutions, to design solutions for problems in developing countries.

More than 5,000 students have gone on these trips since the programme started in 2013.

The programme now has more than 30 partner institutions across countries in the region, like Thailand and Indonesia, and is looking to expand beyond to Japan and India, among others.

The plan is for more than 20 per cent of each SP cohort to go on these trips by 2021, up from about 18 per cent currently.

Mr Wee Eng Soon, who is part of the staff team overseeing learning express, said: "We are not aiming for all the ideas to become real solutions, but if there are outcomes, that would be icing on the cake."

  • FAIRE SOAP

    $13k

    Sales generated by the project - selling soap made with cows' milk in Vietnam - since last May.

    BINHI TOMATO JAM

    300

    More than this number of bottles of tomato jam have been sold in the Philippines so far.

More than 15 projects over the years - ranging from food production and agriculture to engineering solutions - have been implemented in local communities.

Some have been adopted by SP's business students and turned into business ventures.

Mr Sieng Chun Hon, 22, along with three coursemates, took on the project in Vietnam last year and turned it into a handmade artisanal soap business called Faire Soap.

Every soap bar is handmade in a home studio in Vietnam using natural ingredients, like bamboo charcoal, rose clay powder and pure essential oils. The cows' milk makes up about 20 per cent of each bar.

Villagers earn extra income by selling about 15 litres of milk a week to Faire Soap, which pays them $2 per litre.

"Being business students with no knowledge in chemical processes, we were quite lost at first. All we had was the recipe," said Mr Sieng, who has since graduated and is preparing to enlist for national service.

"But we saw potential in the idea, did a lot of self-learning, attended workshops and watched YouTube videos to learn how to make soap."

The Singapore team members focus on sales and marketing, while their Vietnamese counterparts, who have graduated from the University of Economics in Ho Chi Minh City, handle the procurement of raw materials and production.

Both sides pumped in start-up capital of a few hundred dollars and recovered their costs within a month. The project has made about $13,000 in sales since last May.

Faire Soap, which has more than 20 clients, has since clinched deals with organisations such as property company Mapletree, which purchased soap bars as door gifts at a property launch in Vietnam.

It is also working with Singapore cosmetics brand 13rushes to supply customised soap bars.

In 2017, another enterprising group of students went to a village in the Philippines, where they found a way to deal with a surplus of tomatoes.

The community in Marcos village in Isabela province had been making tomato jam but it did not prove popular.

Ms Joan Charlotte Tng, 20, who has graduated from SP's hotel and leisure facilities management course, said: "It didn't taste right and no one was buying it."

After the trip, Ms Tng and three coursemates sought help from a lecturer at SP's school of chemical and life sciences and tried out food preservation techniques to improve the villagers' product.

"We experimented with shortening the time taken to make the jam, testing different flavours, and went around the school and Lucky Plaza to do blind tests," she said.

After a year of research and development and five prototypes, they came up with a product called Binhi Tomato Jam that tastes slightly like Indian chutney. It has received positive feedback. Using natural preservatives, the jam has a shelf life of at least six months, up from three to four days previously.

The students made a trip back to the village last year to teach their peers from their partner university and the villagers how to make the jam.

More than 300 bottles of the jam have been sold in the Philippines so far, with plans for it to be commercialised by September.

Ms Tng said: "We named this project and the jam 'binhi', which means 'seed' in Tagalog, because we wanted to plant seeds in the community of villagers and help them find alternative sources of income."