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Engineering Good: Refurbishing thousands of laptops for needy students

Johann Annuar, executive director of EG shares about the non-profit's quest to bring laptops to students during a period of remote schooling.

A big signal that the Covid-19 situation had turned serious in Singapore was when schools closed on April 8 and moved towards home-based learning. Suddenly, all school children needed a laptop. That was when Computers Against Covid, an initiative started by Engineering Good (EG) to collect pre-owned laptops and distribute them to students in need, was born.

Pre-pandemic, the non-profit organisation had been working with groups that focused on assistive technology for disadvantaged children, so it was natural for those groups to turn to EG when it came to computer needs. “It all started with one small request for 24 laptops from the South Central Community Family Service Centre for its kids,” says Johann Annuar, 46, executive director and co-founder of EG, recalling how quickly those laptops were collected.

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“I thought we would spend one weekend working on those laptops, pass them on and then I would get back to clearing my Netflix backlog,” he says with a laugh. Instead, things snowballed and requests came in thick and fast. Thankfully, there was an influx of volunteers and donations as well.

“At the end of two weeks, we had more than 100 volunteers, over 600 laptop donations and  more than 800 requests,” Johann says. To date, EG has received more than 4,000 laptops, including some that were brand new and others of generally good quality, and given out close to 2,700 of them. The gap represents those that could not be reused or are being refurbished. Donations of money and laptops came from individuals and corporations, whose generosity struck Johann strongly.

“It makes sense to work for things beyond myself, to make the world better than when we found it.”

Going All Out

The personal donations, especially, were substantial – of the more than 4,000 laptops collected, 3,000 came from individuals. Of the corporations, some conducted fundraisers for EG’s goal. “There were other corporations doing what we did but at the organisational level. We chose to do this at the individual level for two reasons,” Johann says. “The first was environmental: to give devices a second lease of life. The second was that in this period of uncertainty, it was evident that we needed to stick together and feel like we were part of something bigger.” He adds, “By personally donating laptops, people would feel like they were giving back to society. And so many people supported and trusted us.” This philosophy of helping others came from Johann’s exposure to people and places through his unique life experiences.

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He was a support member of the Singapore Everest team in 1998, had embarked on an 18-month cycling expedition from Turkey to New Zealand in 2003, and was a board member of Medecins Sans Frontieres (HK) – also referred to as Doctors Without Borders. “It makes sense to work for things beyond myself, to make the world better than when we found it and, by so doing, give my kids a better space to live in,” he says. With students back in school, the ongoing drive has expanded to support adult learners, as well as the elderly who are taking their first steps into digital literacy. “We give laptops but we don’t provide the education or infrastructure required,” says Johann. “We also want to provide IT support to beneficiaries, so we are looking into all those things right now.”

Johann Annuar

Johann Annuar did his part to ensure that every child had a laptop when schools closed and switched to home-based learning.

A Life Less Ordinary

“When I was cycling in Pakistan, I visited a refugee camp. It had at least 100,000 people and it was in the middle of a desert. It highlighted to me that there were people with very hard lives. Also, I was living out of six bags, each the size of a school backpack, for 1.5 years while cycling and that showed me that I didn’t need more. There is no reason for us to take more out of the world. If we do, then we have to give back, not just to the people of the world but also the world itself.”

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Photography: Vee Chin