Remaking disaster relief

PHOTO: Remaking disaster relief

SINGAPORE - It started with the Sept 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

The fresh graduate from the National University of Singapore (NUS) was getting ready to report for work as a database administrator at Merrill Lynch's New York office in two days' time. He was plotting his route to his new office at World Financial Center, across the road from Ground Zero.

By late afternoon, when he arrived there on foot, he saw mounds of rubble and bodies being carried away in stretchers. Someone handed him a shovel, and he started scooping debris away into rubbish bags. He returned every day for the next week, helping to clear the wreckage and serve food to volunteers.

With the Twin Towers' crash, his new job went up in smoke - the investment bank was too disoriented to deal with new hires - but he found his new vocation. He discovered how he, a disaster zone novice, could help in a concrete way by doing small but needed tasks.

Twelve years on, 38-year-old serial entrepreneur Robin Low has travelled to help out at the scenes of some of the world's worst natural disasters - from the South Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy in the United States, to the Sichuan, Haiti and Japan earthquakes. Mostly, he goes on his own dime, for at least a week.

His experience showed him just how inefficient disaster relief work by governments and big relief organisations can be, and he began to think about how it could be done better, faster and with less wastage. He wrote many letters suggesting improvements to the organisations he volunteered with. The response: silence.

Instead of complaining, he started Relief 2.0, and later Civil Innovation Lab, with like-minded Dominican friend Carlos Miranda Levy, whom he met during the Haiti earthquake.

The two organisations, started in 2010 and last year, use modern technology and social media to forge a more efficient model in disaster recovery. They have since amassed more than 50 active volunteers from around the world and funding from foundations in Britain, the US and Japan.

They are trying to change the way help is rendered in a disaster, with fewer handouts and foreign imports, and more inclusion and dignity. For example, most of the construction materials to rebuild Haiti were shipped from Florida, benefiting mainly American companies to the detriment of Haitian ones, he charges. So when Port- au-Prince villagers wanted to buy bricks to build schools, Relief 2.0 worked with them to build a brick-making machine using locally available materials, helped by open-source blueprints and local technical university students.

Building your own item saves money and you will know how to fix it when it breaks down, he explains. Building a tractor costs about US$8,000 (S$10,000), while buying a ready-made one costs US$40,000, he estimates.

The two men are also working to give back dignity to survivors. They have set up an online global marketplace, Markets Of Hope, where those in disaster areas can hawk craft items instead of relying on donations. "Donations are fine but after three years, if they don't dry up, what does it promote?" he asks.

For the Haiti and Japan earthquakes, they brought in volunteers from retailers Gucci and Uniqlo and design house Saatchi & Saatchi to guide survivors in the shelters to turn their traditional handicraft into something that was internationally viable.

What they are trying to change is the value proposition from pity to desire. "The current system is actually a donor-recipient model. I want to change it to a conscious buyer-generator of wealth model, where the conscious buyer buys something useful, knowing that the money is going to give someone a job."

So far, clothing and coin pouches made in Ishinomaki and Sendai shelters, where they helped out, have raised more than US$1 million in bazaars in Tokyo.

Meeting real needs

Beyond shelter, clothes and food, he says disaster victims most desperately need help to restart their businesses.

Within four months of the 2011 tsunami hitting Japan's Tohoku region, they helped three disaster-hit businesses in Ishinomaki which refused charity - a cafe, a bicycle shop and a florist - get back on their feet by securing loans from other businesses.

First, they interviewed the owners in their gutted shops on video, asking how much they needed and what they planned to use the money for. They then took the video to a neighbouring town and invited local business owners to watch it. Many chipped in by extending a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, which made up the loans of US$15,000 to US$35,000. They were paid back in full within a year, with 3 per cent interest too.

Next, the duo are trying to rope in universities and get more people to study and research disaster management. They have crafted four open courses on sustainable disaster relief and recovery. So far, six universities worldwide, including Stanford University and Ecole Superiore d'Infotronique d'Haiti, have agreed to run them.

Redefining value

Mr Low was the third child of an architect and housewife who never wanted for anything but "wanted things". To buy the latest Discman and gizmos, the St Andrews' Secondary boy gave tuition to primary school pupils. From Sec 2, he averaged $3,000 a month in earnings, importing and selling remote control cars and Magic cards in bulk.

At Nanyang Junior College, he was importing 100 digital organisers and cutting $30,000 deals. "My grades were OK. I didn't ask for much allowance, yet I could afford anything I wanted. So my parents didn't see a problem with what I was doing," he recounts.

During national service, he bought a Honda Civic Type-R for $180,000, a Harley Davidson Fatboy and a Honda Goldwing. He hung out with kids who blew thousands of dollars a night on booze and clubs. To finance his lifestyle, he tutored, created websites and started a cafe business.

At NUS, where he read electrical engineering, he juggled a full- time job as a start-up database administrator by day, attending only the odd tutorial, tutoring at night, and mugging on the eve of exams.

He did his third-year industrial attachment at a firm selling prospecting lists in Boston, and made such an impression that it welcomed him back after his failed bid to join Merrill Lynch in 2001.

He left three years later and took evening business classes at Harvard Extension School, paying the bills by doing consulting jobs, fixing up flashy cars and selling them to wealthy Asian students.

At 29, he started a high-end car accessories manufacturing plant with a partner in Taiwan, which made a $2 million profit in the first year but tanked the next, when their products were copied. They also started Greenyarn, a nanotechnology company that develops eco-friendly fabrics with bamboo charcoal in the weave.

Four years later, they parted ways. Mr Low continued managing the Greenyarn brand but sold his stake in the company's factories to his partner. With that, he says he pocketed US$8 million, spent it on real estate in New York City but lost it all to foreclosure in the 2008 financial crisis.

In between losing a fortune and witnessing people losing everything in disaster zones, he found himself. Even though he then lived in a US$7,000-a-month apartment in Manhattan and drove a Ferrari, life didn't feel fulfilling. "I thought, maybe I was not there yet. So should I make more money or should I do something else?"

He decided on the latter. In Boston, where he spends half the year, he traded in his Ferrari for a Toyota Prius, and then a Harley Sportster he had built from scratch. In Singapore, which he visits often, he lives in a five- room Housing Board flat in Toa Payoh owned by his parents and rides a Suzuki scooter.

The Substation chairman Chew Kheng Chuan, 56, who has known Mr Low for more than a decade, sums up his half-humanitarian, half-materialist values thus: "On the one hand, he is certainly seeking commercial success, as is the goal of most Singaporeans raised on the somewhat narrow-minded and pernicious ideology that you are only worth your net worth. On the other hand, one senses an abiding sense of altruism and compassion in Robin, which makes him want to help others and see them succeed as well."

Mr Low is the first to confess he has not given up on mammon.

The urge to drive fast cars has not died, but the need to own them is gone. He still sells sports cars to rich Asian students, even as he runs Greenyarn, which produces odourless socks and had a US$2 million turnover last year.

He no longer chases after net worth but social capital, which he defines as "doing things that are meaningful and which others want to partner me in". He has a Japanese girlfriend, doing her PhD in nursing in Boston, who visits disaster areas with him.

Next, he wants to encourage others to be entrepreneurial self- starters. He says: "I want to let people understand that they don't need to rely on the Government for everything. If the top doesn't react or respond in the way we want it to, instead of complaining, can we take action?"

His next project is to teach entrepreneurship - which he sees as the answer to disaster, poverty and social inequality - to Singapore children aged eight to 14. Next year, he is bringing in Youth CITIES, a Boston-based non-profit initiative helping children drive change by applying entrepreneurial principles. He plans to cap fees for a six-weekend boot camp under $100 so it is accessible to all.

Mr Lee Han Shih, 61, chief executive officer of media company Potato Productions, who is working with him on Youth CITIES, says: "Robin has two distinctive features. First, he is a doer; second, he undertakes whatever moves him. Combine the two and you get someone who cares and gets things done, often outside conventional means."

The best time to start a business, Mr Low believes, is at age 10 as the ego has not set in yet and opportunity cost is negligible.

"Just like for athletes or musicians, being an entrepreneur is the same thing: You have to keep doing the same thing over and over again to be really good at it. By the time you are 20, if you have created five businesses which all failed, the chances of you failing again is much lower," he says, through experience.

The chief lesson he wants to teach kids here? "To know the value of things, not just the price." That's a lesson he wishes he had learnt earlier.

Suelong@sph.com.sg


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.