YOUNG KIWI’S MADAGASCAR DREAM

Westlake Boys’ High School has an envious record for producing high achieving boys. Last year 12 of them were awarded scholarships in a number of fields from chemistry to physics, biology and physical education.  In the past, I taught night classes at this school and was impressed with the high degree of organisation I found there. It’s more than can be said about some of the other high schools I have had experiences with!

Some Westlake ex-boys have excelled in the sports world including Dean Barker who has been one of the world’s top yachtsmen. He skippered New Zealand boats to a number of wins and is currently skipper of the Softbank Team Japan. Chris Dixon, another internationally successful yachtsman also went to this school. Chris was world youth champion three years in succession. Basketball star Tim Abercrombie is another sports success story.  Away from the sports arena, one ex-boy is currently making waves in Madagascar with his dream to help intelligent but underprivileged young people achieve success in IT.

Sam Lucas (Auckland.ac.nz)

After leaving Westlake Boys’ High School, Sam Lucas graduated from the University of Auckland with a Bachelor of Engineering degree in Mechatronic Engineering. This is a multidisciplinary branch of engineering that focuses on both electrical and mechanical systems. It encompasses robotics, electronics, computer, telecommunications, systems, control, and product engineering.  

With his degree in his pocket, he took a year off to backpack around the world and was amazed with the hospitality local people offered him. With this experience, he became interested in helping others. He recently told a newspaper reporter: “In late 2012 I volunteered in Cambodia, teaching English to students from poor backgrounds. I was inspired by the incredible commitment my students demonstrated to their studies but alarmed to find that few would ever be able to attend higher education or find well-paid employment. Knowing that such brilliant young people could find well-paid work in developed countries, I spotted an opportunity to connect the two together. The idea to prepare young talent in the developing world, to meet outsourceable needs in developed economies was established and I began to conceive the idea of a social enterprise model that was to become Onja.” (a Malagasy word that means ‘waves’).

BIRTH OF A PLAN

Sam’s vision flickered alive in 2013 when a group of eight volunteers squashed into a tiny room in the Engineering building at Auckland University and began skyping two students in Madagascar. They taught the pair valuable IT skills over the course of a year. Sam chose Madagascar to set up his enterprise even though he had never been there. He believed Onja’s model would be most impactful in this Indian Ocean island because it has reasonably good internet and IT infrastructure, something required if the venture was to fully succeed. The aim is to provide talented young people with code skills allowing them to enter the rapidly expanding IT industry.

A NEW WAY OF LIVING

In 2015 in preparation for beginning operations, Sam walked into a remote Madagascan village called Ifasina where he lived for one year. During this time, he learnt the local language while the village came to accept him as one of their own. “I am very proud that even now, people still refer to me as a ‘son of Ifasina.’ The community taught me to speak Malagasy and to live with very little.” The villagers even taught him the traditional way of farming rice and he has huge gratitude for the kindness they showed him.

Living in the village had a profound effect on the young Kiwi and gave him a unique understanding of the hopes, dreams and daily challenges of its people.

The village has no running water or electricity, few toilets, and people work strenuously with limited nutrition. Despite the hardship, few of the locals considered themselves as poor, and Sam discovered education and careers for their children to be their highest priority. Unfortunately for most it’s a dream as few young people are able to complete high school, and fewer still find well-paid employment while less than 5% of the population can afford to go to university.

VALUABLE EXPERIENCE

The year he spent in the village gave Sam the experience and knowledge to fully shape Onja’s operations so his plan would be a success for both him and the students he would select for his enterprise. Onja has now partnered with Madagascar’s Ministry of Education. The collaboration is tasked with developing a recruitment strategy to locate 30 talented but opportunity-poor students from an initial pool of 250,000.  Sam visited 10 different regions of the island to make sure he was as inclusive in his search as he could be. I have had experience with selecting young people for work in the film business. I fully understand how challenging it is to find kids with motivation, focus and a will to succeed so I can empathize with Sam as he went through this same process. I also know how fantastically rewarding it is when these students go onto become successful professionals. I can say to Sam, the effort involved with finding and educating successful students is all worth it. Helping others succeed makes you feel great!

ENTERPRISE UNDERWAY

In December 2018, the first intake of 26 students began a two year free course in English and coding. They will then go onto work at Onja’s innovative outsourcing enterprise. At this stage, they’ll be professional software developers and begin exciting careers that will open them up to a whole new world of possibilities. Sam believes Onja has the potential to grow rapidly and spread large-scale opportunity in some of the world’s poorest communities.

Onja’s campus is located in Mahanoro, a peaceful beach town on Madagascar’s East Coast. It is away from the tourist trail so Sam considered it ideal for focused studying. The classes take place in what had been an abandoned two storied house a little out of town, on the beach, and surrounded by beautiful forest. It is here, the ex-Westlake Boys’ High School pupil has seen his dream to help others less fortunate than him become a reality.

Ceidrik Heward