Innovation For A Blue Future
Founder and Researcher Rahinah Ibrahim of OceaNori is Transforming the Ocean, One Village at a Time
As part of our GIST Oceans Series, we were lucky to have the opportunity to share a discussion with Rahinah Ibrahim, one of our all-star founders and an incredible member of the GIST community of global innovators. She is the co-founder of Oceanori, a Malaysian startup which works to implement wastewater technology interventions for supporting marine-related economic development activities. Her work has begun to transform communities and countless lives, as she helps to provide communities with the tools for healthier coexistence with their ocean home while providing for a higher quality of life and meaningful development opportunity.
We got the chance to gain some amazing insight from her experiences, from navigating engineering challenges, working with governments and a multiplicity of stakeholders, to the unique contributions women and girls, and communities all over the world, can make towards building a better blue future. Read on to learn more!
What is the state of your venture, OceaNori, and what has the last year been like for you?
At the last interview, I was actually on site installing tanks for ACT Malaysia in the Lok Urai water village project in Sabah. It was completed successfully, and we were very surprised the project was nominated by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) for the SDG Best Practices recognition. In July we celebrated that news. Because it was so successful, the UNEP team proposed we continue building our impact in moving forward. The project team actually got another UNEP fund for capability training. The first funding focused on the tanks, and the second funding focused on the people.
During the first process, we learned quite a few things. For instance, we realized we needed additional water for the cleansing and maintenance process (of our tank technology) despite the site being located in a tropical region. The key lesson learned is to facilitate collecting rainwater which the residents did not have to do before having the ISTP wastewater system locked into their current water closet.
One thing we were surprised by in our learnings was how much the girls in particular really appreciate the toilet. We put one tank in the school, and the girls flocked to it. The headmaster said once it was installed, more children were attracted to going to school. We agreed with the headmistress that the children sought out a dignified place to use the toilet, and came to school for it. So that was an unexpected social impact, in addition to the environmental impact.
Further lessons learned: we realized we perhaps had underdesigned for a water settlement context. Although our tank was designed for the standard 5 people occupancy in a household, in the actual context, majority houses range from 8 to 14 people. In conventional circumstances, this situation called for an increase in the tank size. However, it is not possible due to the ocean condition below the houses. The housing materials are mainly of timber and some homes were dilapidated and would cause the homes to sway heavily following the changing currents of the ocean. Any larger size than what we have now would make the whole home less resilient especially in extreme weather conditions like the tropical monsoons. So moving forward, we are researching ways to increase the treatment efficiency instead of its size. We are also looking seriously for available sludge digester solutions that would reduce the need to remove treated sludge that could operate within the confine of the tank.
I was invited to participate in a program by the Ministry of Higher Education Malaysia which aimed at documenting impacts from R&D outputs from universities. I’m happy to know that the projects we are doing at the local level are having national and more so international impacts. As a researcher, I’m now learning how to evaluate SDG impacts, which is very new for me and other Malaysian researchers. I found it helpful in assisting the project stakeholders to create the necessary publicities. More so, as we need to raise funds to install 200 tanks for the project. In the impact documentation, we are trying out a new value package deal where we offer sponsorship packages of $60,000 USD with integration of a strategic sensor system where funders can know the household where their sponsored tanks are located. It can help promote visibility of their brands through satellite imagery that would allow sponsors to associate their brand with ocean biodiversity conservation. This association may allow the sponsors becoming partners with a United Nations project. We all agree that education plays a critical role in conserving biodiversity by protecting our natural environment. We are specifically targeting younger school children where some of the proceeds will be diverted to increase the community’s environmental conservation awareness through onsite training. The project plans to collaborate with more NGOs and universities with regards to socioeconomic development, while we focus on the technology side. I really appreciate what we are working on so far, because we really combine both the technology with the social and cultural aspects of making this impact for the selected communities.
Another development that is picking up is working closely with Kota Kinabalu City Hall, where the mayor is very interested in the promotion of ecotourism. We are happy to help the Mayor where her focus is on making Kota Kinabalu City the choice entry point for ecotourism. It’s interesting, because here I’m not selling tanks; I’m selling the clean water the tanks help create by reducing raw sewage. We need to work together with the authorities, especially when it comes to bringing the technology forward, and understanding the local people and context.
To do the approach successfully, we are immersing ourselves by working closely with the local NGOs. As I am a technologist, I’m still learning how to be an entrepreneur in this effort. Likewise, despite having over 25 years of humanitarian experience, I’m still in awe at working with different communities. I had never been to these water communities before since my work involved the landed communities. There are so many differences, such as how you go up to the house is different, the layout is different, there is so much infrastructure we took for granted in the city that isn’t available in these coastal regions. Thereby having the NGOs who understand the language, as well as the politics and geography of these regions, is critical.
When you’re working in this grassroot market, you need every stakeholder involved to be on board with your work. Definitely, you need to be very, very patient. I find it very satisfying to know our technology will work, but the challenge of getting it to work in practice which we know requires a lot of patience, and it takes time. We know we have to work closely with the State’s leadership and the Mayor's office; we know we have to create new guidelines for enabling sanitation at water settlements; and we know we may have to modify certain international standards in a way that works better for these water communities. It is exciting to know that we now have an opportunity to create new, ocean-friendly guidelines to shift the way we do development throughout the entire coastal region.
Where do you get the confidence and strength to keep going with your projects, even when there are challenges?
You need to see their faces (in the communities we work with)… you want to do it for them, because no one else is going to do this for them. So I take it as a challenge, for me as a mentor, as well as researcher, and working with my team. If we cannot do this for the community, who else will do it? If you’re talking about a purely industrial company coming in, and it doesn’t make money, they leave. Simply, it’s purely a business decision.. And for us, within the university and outside of it, we know we need to assist them, because no one else will do it. We have to be creative in finding the necessary funding to be sustainable.
What makes you excited for the future?
The other existing technologies to help mitigate sewage pollution are very, very complicated. When we built this (when we installed the tanks), the water villagers we were working with couldn’t believe how simple it was to install the tanks. The next question we got from the communities was, “Can we build this for you?” and “Can I be part of the crew?” Can you imagine that fishermen are becoming our installers and maintenance crew? The community knew that this was a real potential for them where they could go out all over the state, to other islands, and they can continue to do this work. So, in bringing in the community for the installation work, 10 fishermen we had trained can work in the water, bringing in their traditional techniques, which we in turn, actually the project was able to learn and apply. They are very poor, but they are very excited to be part of this process, and they are proud they can be a part of maintaining this ecosystem.
Are you surprised by the ripple effect you have experienced in the social outcomes of this work?
The girls were a big surprise for us, and something we never really considered unlike with the fishermen, which was somewhat planned. What makes me and our collaborators with the NGOs very excited is that we can create a mechanism that we can mobilize many local communities to do what they would like to do and take advantage of the information and opportunities.
I can honestly tell you that the communities really don’t like handouts, and yes, even though they are very poor, they are very proud people. They have no money to buy the tanks since everything goes to their food and livelihood. With this kind of intervention, it’s amazing what kind of changes they can experience. For the first time in their lives, they know they can export their skills which makes them feel really wonderful. My team and I, and the NGOs are learning so much from them, such as simple underwater construction done in the traditional way with simple tools, and solving the problems themselves. At this point, our tank is being installed in traditional ways, which means a simpler implementation process, and we are so excited for this achievement.
Have you seen local communities empowered by this work? Have women and girls in particular been inspired?
Yes, definitely! We’ve seen fishermen being so excited, saying all the time, “What’s next?” We call them our fishermen technicians, and we’re teaching them scientific processes, like how to gather samples, and so on.
Whenever I go to these local communities, the girls don’t see themselves beyond high school, even elementary school. They tend to get married at an early age and start having a family. I know some of the ladies we’ve met can dive very well, going 30 feet underwater! This is their home, living in the water, it’s not just the boys who can do that. The girls are often surprised to see me, thinking that this is a man’s job. When they see me, this lady, and they know I’m the project leader, and they are not shy to ask me about, “what do you do, do you go to the university?” I will always take such an opportunity to say to them, “You know, you’re very good with the water, with fish…At my university we have this expertise that we can train you, make use of your natural knowledge, and you can make something of your life.” Truly, they have these amazing natural skills, knowing the fish, the corals, which I think formalizes their knowledge! They know so much about these underwater ecosystems, they often know more than the researchers! They think they are not clever, yet they know so much! By letting them know about their capability and capacity, I can encourage them to continue going to school, and when they return to their village, they will fit perfectly in the work they already knew. In other words, finish your schooling, girls and the boys, and once you have the degrees, your life can change. In fact, the ones that did go get their education, they almost always come back to the village because they want to be back near the ocean. It’s their home. However, this time, they bring that formal knowledge back with them.
Is there a linkage for you between the role of women and girls and protecting our oceans?
Absolutely. The role of women is critical, especially because children are close to them. After a certain age the children would venture out to the ocean, and learning their community skills, they learn about diving, about the ocean, all through their elders and peers. Since the children are close to their mothers, the women can talk directly to the future generation about caring about the environment. The women, more than anyone else, have a sense about the quality of fishes, and about the ocean. This informal learning is essential for generating interest in these topics.
Through our partnerships, we’re working with village leaders to balance business interests with keeping our waters clean. It cannot be that we expect the poor people to take care of the waters for everyone else, and then not receive any compensation for it. We would like to see a balance; it must be a whole ecosystem balance. It’s about building a culture for men, women, and the elders. It’s about building and maintaining a culture of natural preservation. These villages have been here for hundreds of years, and the people are always working with the ocean. Best is, we need to learn from them, and make sure our tanks are working with them.
If you had one final message for world leaders about the importance of our ocean health, what would you say to them?
You know, one of the reasons why we do not care about the ocean is because it’s still blue in color. If you were using the water deeply, you would know the saltiness is not what it used to be, that the color is actually not blue, when you get close to it. The color has changed, the water has changed. These communities can see it. Here, we have the opportunity to cheaply, meaningfully make a huge difference at the local level. 50% of our oxygen comes from the ocean and if we don’t take care of it, who will? These local communities care deeply about their ocean, but they have no resources on their own. So the least we can do, as leaders, is divert resources to build up these communities so they are empowered to do this work, which helps the wider society! They are happy to do the job because it is their home, and they live there! I believe that's the best suitable people for this work, that you can, instead of exporting human resources from one place to another, let the local people contribute in their well-being. We need to help them, if only even a little bit.