As a business administration student at the National University of Laos, Panalath Lathouly has always been interested in starting her own business. In order to sharpen her entrepreneurial skills, she joined many international business competitions and managed to win several of them, notably the Best International Team at the Youth Innovation Competition on Lanstsang-Mekong Region’s Governance and Development 2018.
The first time Panalalth discovered about the eMpowering Youths Across ASEAN (EYAA), she learnt that this initiative is a partnership programme between the ASEAN Foundation and Maybank Foundation that aims to alleviate poverty and improve social and economic well-being of communities across ASEAN through youth volunteerism and social innovation.
The programme encourages youth between the ages of 19 to 35 years old from all 10 ASEAN Member States to leverage their experiences and knowledge to put their project ideas into action and create meaningful change for the local community in the region. Additionally, the programme aims to build the capacity of youth in ASEAN region to achieve the ASEAN Community building and contribute to the implementation of the 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint 2025 of becoming a more open and adaptive ASEAN.
After learning about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Panalath decided to apply to the programme and she became one of the ten Laotian youths who was chosen to be part of the EYAA: Cohort One in 2018. She was then placed in a team with 9 other youths from other ASEAN countries and was assigned to tackle the thematic area of ‘Environment Diversity’ in Cambodia.
Panalath and her team wanted to create a project that would solve a real problem. After many discussions, they learnt that the community they were assigned to was located near the river and was well-known for planting mangroves. There, the people depend on tourism activities to survive as their main source of income. However, the head of the village shared that people from the community lack the knowledge and skills to develop a tourist attraction in the village. Furthermore, they are concerned that big companies will take over their place.
Based on that observation, the team established Project EcoNurture, which is an ecological preservation and restoration management project in Trapeang Sangkae Community of Kampot, Cambodia with a mission to plant more mangrove trees to support the signature of the village, help educate the local people in the community regarding the ways to preserve the environment and ecosystem, and decorate the village so it is more eco-friendly and attractive to tourists.
Being in a team of 10 youths from different ASEAN countries, Panalath shared, “I was fortunate to work in a team of dedicated and passionate people. We are all from different backgrounds yet we share the same mission." Throughout their project, the team faced some challenges but they got through it together. “Although our group faced a very unique experience compared to the other teams, we had each other back and were willing to support one another,” she said.
In February 2019, Panalath and her team traveled to Cambodia to implement the two-week volunteer community project. In a relatively short amount of time, they managed to reach several key milestones, such as reaching out to 9 committees of Trapeang Sangkae Ecotourism and 196 community members to increase the awareness of waste management, upcycling, environmental restoration, management and marketing.
Further, the team also managed to engage and coordinate with 6 local government officials, including police officer, member of the commune, head of village and fishery officer, 11 Red Cross Cambodia volunteers and 20 Cambodia youth action volunteers. They also managed to plant 1,000 mangrove seedlings in the coastal areas of the community. Lastly, the team conducted a preliminary demonstration to the community on transforming their village to a rainbow village to attract tourists by painting the walkways, making murals, installing strip lights, and making English-related sign boards.
“I believe that EYAA provides a fundamental platform for youth to gain knowledge and practice skills in working on a project," Panalath said. "During the one-week workshop in Bangkok, I have improved my understanding of project implementations that I never get to learn before in my home country." The trainin made her realise that being empathetic is essential for working in a community and with people who have different cultures, different languages and different ways of living. She also felt that EYAA gave her and the other youth an opportunity to connect with other young passionate youth across ASEAN countries.
Thankful for her experience, Panalath highly recommends students to apply to the programme. “I recommend young people to apply for this programme because this is a real life changing experience for youth," she said. "It’s a chance for you to get out of your comfort zone and improve your skills in volunteering, leadership, and it will make you become more self-aware and also strengthen your relationship with other ASEAN youth by working with passionate ASEAN friends.”
When asked about the lessons she took away from this programme, Panalath said, “This opportunity has helped me to be more open-minded and made me more thoughtful, patient and flexible while working.” It has always been dream for her to start her own business. But after immersing herself in a two-week community project in Cambodia, she came to a realisation that having a profit-oriented business is not enough. "I now know the importance of integrating sustainable development aspect into my business," Panalath said. "My involvement in EYAA inspired me to build a social enterprise that can benefit the community.”