SIX years ago, just before he turned 20, John-son Oei co-founded a small company called Extraordinary People Impacting Community Collaborative Sdn Bhd (EPIC). Being an entrepreneur at such a young age is an impressive achievement but what is truly extraordinary are Oei and his company's purpose and approach.
EPIC is a social enterprise. It is not a charity although all its endeavours must "give back to society to make the world a better place", says Oei. The company's main project, EPIC Homes, raises funds and builds homes specifically for aboriginals (orang asli). The homes, designed by architects and engineers who volunteer their time and effort, are targeted to be completed within three days. Construction is done by volunteers who want to give back to society and are willing to pay for the experience. Most "builders" are young urban professionals with limited to zero experience in working with their hands. Yet, despite the inexperience and small budget for raw materials, the end result is "a home that you can be proud to give and proud to live in", says Oei. EPIC is currently manned by a full-time team of five, including Oei, and all of them are in their 20s.
To avoid building ubiquitous low-cost housing that do not fit the householders' lifestyle, Oei involves each beneficiary in the entire process — from its design up to the actual building. Homes are modular, which means the size and number of rooms vary, depending on the size of the family that will live in it. Recycled timber is used for the flooring, the outer walls are made of fibre cement sheets and the partitions in the house are made from bamboo, traditionally used by aboriginals. The houses do not come with toilets (the orang asli say they prefer to use the jungle) but come with a large verandah, a vital space in their daily life.
To date, EPIC has built five homes. Oei says this experience has refined its processes and gives it the ability and confidence to build 200 homes in 2013. "We plan to engage the corporate sector. It's a win-win proposition for them. A company can sponsor a few homes as part of their corporate social responsibility [CSR] initiatives. Then, they can send their employees to build the homes as part of their team-building activities. Building a home for a family is a very powerful experience. All our past volunteers will attest that morale [is heightened] and relationships are formed. After three days together, strangers become close friends," says Oei.
Oei is also planning to allow corporations or individuals to finance the use of professional labourers. These skilled workers are much faster and should allow EPIC to hit its formidable target of 200 homes for 2013, says Oei. Once that is completed, he plans to do much more. Oei has identified 12,000 orang asli villagers who are in need of proper housing.