Fulfilling a Million Lights in the Philippines
- by Heena Khoja
Penn International Business Volunteers (PIBV) is a student-run nonprofit that coordinates pro-bono consulting projects that allow students to utilize their business and leadership skills toward identifying and solving operational problems for NGOs in developing countries. PIBV summer trips are open to undergraduate students in all years and majors and tend to span a diverse set of countries. In the summer of 2013, this list included Malawi, Chile, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Costa Rica, Morocco, Peru and the Philippines. Having been a general member of the organization since the fall of my freshman year, I figured it was finally time for me to apply for one of these trips, especially after joining PIBV’s executive board last spring.
From composing a business plan for a bottled water enterprise to crafting a marketing strategy for kilim-weaving artisans, there were so many diverse and amazing project options that it was hard to choose one. Ultimately, I applied to work with One Million Lights Philippines (OML PH), a youth-run nonprofit founded by a fellow Penn student, which aims to provide clean, safe, and accessible lighting to the 22 million Filipinos without access to electricity. My team included four other students, all freshmen and sophomores with a wide range of talents and experiences.
The five of us headed to Manila together right after finals on May 9, 2013, for three weeks. Our goal was to help OML PH improve its internal structure and measure its external impact on the community. The expected culture shock did not come right away; it turned out that our housing accommodations were extremely comfortable and most people in the urban areas even knew how to speak English. In fact, we were fortunate enough to spend our first few days shopping and sight-seeing with the founders, who were all around the same age as us. This was one of the best aspects of our particular trip. After working on our project in the afternoons, our new friends would take us out to dinners, movies and karaoke joints at night. One of my most memorable experiences was going horseback riding for the first time at a country club in the Tagaytay Highlands, a mountainous region overlooking lakes and volcanoes.
On most days, we worked with the OML PH team in office settings to accomplish our overarching deliverables. However, they also wanted us to experience an actual distribution of solar-powered lighting to impoverished, off-grid communities. During our second week, we accompanied OML PH and its sponsor, Energizer, to four distributions. One of the sites was more than eight hours away. These distributions showed us the value of the NGO’s work. For me, being able to bond with some of the ecstatic villagers who had just received light—despite the huge language barrier that we faced in communicating with Tagalog speakers—alleviated my trivial concerns about the heat, flies and stray animal.
The following week, we returned to some other communities to interview OML PH’s past beneficiaries for the purposes of compiling an annual impact assessment report that could be shared with the nonprofit’s donors. We had to hike up a mountain and walk across shallow rivers to get to one of the villages while it was “sobrang init” (very hot)—another experience I won’t forget.
Overall, I think I chose the best project for what I hoped to gain. Thanks to our gracious hosts, we were able to seamlessly blend working on our deliverables with exploring the country. On the final day, we presented the NGO with a slideshow and final report, which entailed a modified organizational chart, a sponsorship guide, an impact assessment report, and other tools and tips for measuring impact and improving internal communication. Aside from the skills that we learned and the help that we were hopefully able to offer to this incredible organization, PIBV gave me the chance to meet four wonderful friends that I would have never gotten to know otherwise. I could not have asked for a better team, and I look forward to spending my remaining two years at Penn getting to know them even better.
Editor’s note: This post first appeared on the Wharton Undergraduate’s Student Voices blog on July 8, 2013.