“We create value”- The story of Shah Rafayat Chowdhury

Written by Arpita Mayesha

July 21, 2020

Shah Rafayat Chowdhury, the recipient of The Diana Award, is the current President of Footsteps Bangladesh. Footsteps is working to create sustainable change in the community and has a unique approach with all of their projects. Here’s what Shah had to say about the emergence of Footsteps and his struggles.

It is important to interact with the community before jumping with a solution. Go into a community, have tea, become friends.

What’s the story behind starting Footsteps Bangladesh?
Back at school in Scholastica, my friends and I were thinking of ways we could help the community. With that in mind, we started the Footsteps Foundation (now Footsteps Bangladesh). Through our first event, “Warm Clothes Distribution”, we realized that such charity events only create a donor mentality in people and doesn’t create any sustainable change. That is when we decided to design ventures that will help a community in a way that they won’t have to depend on any external donation repeatedly.


What made you start “Project Trishna”?
There’s a personal story behind it. I was on a Rickshaw. On the way, the Rickshaw-puller got down to drink water. However, he didn’t have a bottle of water with him, so he drank from a filter outside a building. We understood the urgency of safe drinking water and by collaborating with some companies; we established water systems outside the company buildings. With this, the project began in 2015. In 2018, I got to know from a school teacher that kids would miss school due to suffering from waterborne diseases. Then we managed to get funds to establish the project in 5 schools.


How do you come up with “Corporate Social Responsibilities” plans?
CSR is mainly a marketing opportunity for companies. Initially, we start on the company’s compound and the products that we create have the company logo on them. We create value for the companies, and that’s why they find an incentive to invest.


What was your first project with CSR?
“Project We can” in 2014 was the first. We made dustbins with catchy slogans and neon colours. Within a month we sold 300 trashcans to around 50 companies. We restarted the project this February.


How do you get the community to be cooperative with your team?
It is important to interact with the community before jumping with a solution. Go into a community, have tea, become friends. They’ll share their problems only when they trust you. It would help if you integrated their needs into your solution. Only then they’ll be able to sustain the help you provide them independently.


How did you find your passion for the environment?
It came from my family. My dad is an environmentalist. I saw him fly around the world for different UN Conferences. One day he brought home a book, “The Inconvenient Truth” by Al Gore. That book got me interested in the field.
Interestingly, several years later Al Gore got to know about some work I was doing. He called me to Chicago and trained me for a week. That gave me the courage to start this organization.

Is there anyone who shaped you into who you are today?
That would be my mother. She looked after Footsteps when I was studying abroad. Without her, Footsteps wouldn’t survive.

I’ve heard you wouldn’t sleep in University because you wanted to get your credits fast enough so that you could go back to the country.
Yep. After regular classes, I’d go to the Library and study there. From 10 pm to 3/4 in the morning, I used to work on Footsteps. Day in Bangladesh meant a night in the States. That was my life for 3.5 years.

Can our readers be a part of Footsteps?
Yes. We have a “Changemaker Development Program” for High school and University students. We train them for six months on skill development, empathy-building etc. After that, they can either join as a volunteer or apply for any position we have for fulltime as well.

You’re good at a lot of things. Is there anything at which you’re terrible?
Maths. I may not be terrible. But it gives me nightmares.

How are you spending your quarantined days?
I’m at the office right now. I’m trying to work without going on the ground. Whenever I have time; I read, play basketball and watch movies.


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