#HHWT Explorers: How Travel Inspired 2 Singaporean Muslims To Set Up An Ethical Fashion Brand


Shasha Dania •  Jun 17, 2019

Eco-friendly and sustainable travel is gaining more popularity these days - but beyond bringing along reusable utensils, opting for buses/trains rather than short flights, or looking for ethical and cruelty-free attractions, we may not expect to change the community we visit for the better after our trip ends. For cousins Haziq and Nasrul, they ended up deciding to set up their very own ethical fashion brand after returning from life-changing trips to Roopsi village in India!

Project Nomad is an ethical fashion brand dedicated to empowering and appreciating the craftsmanship of rural communities, with proceeds going back to the communities themselves to provide food, shelter, and education. Read on to find out what moved them to set up Project Nomad, what are their thoughts on 'volunteerism' and how you can adopt a more socially-conscious mindset on your own travels!

1. This may be our readers’ first time hearing of Project Nomad. Could you briefly tell us what Project Nomad is, and what inspired you to set it up? How did you encounter the village of Roopsi and was there a specific incident that spurred you to create Project Nomad?

Haziq: Project Nomad is an ethical fashion brand that aims to empower artisans that are living in rural areas by bridging their crafts to the world. Majority of the rural villages in Asia, people are living in poverty despite having incredible crafting skills that have been passed down to each generation, each unique to their own culture, tradition, and locality.

Haziq: The idea came about when I took a year off to backpack around India. Throughout my time there, I had no plans but my journey somehow takes me to incredible off-beaten paths. I end up staying with farmers in the middle of the desert, shepherds high up in the Himalayan mountain and with the Nomadic tribes in the valleys of Kashmir. The long time that I stayed with them makes me connected both mentally and spiritually. I have learned a lot from them in seeing the beauty and appreciating the small little things, however, I have also grown to see their pain. Some of them could barely afford basic necessities such as food, clean water or a roof over their head. I knew that I will come back to create a project to help these communities grow in whichever capacity that I can for all the wisdom that they have taught me.

Haziq: In my following trip, my cousin Nasrul joined me and what we encountered in Rajasthan broke our hearts. I was introduced to Roopsi through a friend whom I was staying within Jaisalmer. I followed him to pay a visit to his friend who runs a small school in the Roopsi village. When we entered the village, kids were running towards us some without any pants, no shoes and the weather was scorching at 40 degrees Celsius. Instead of begging for money, they were asking us for a pen for them to use in school. We were really humbled to see the infrastructure of the school, where children were seating on the floor sharing books. Some wearing oversized clothing that is too big for them, and some with school bags that are torn with holes in it. The school roof was made of straw and it had no toilet. Hence, their backyard became the “toilet”. Furthermore, many of the villagers were living in poverty. That was a motivation for us.

Credit: @theprojnomad on Instagram

Haziq: Knowing the skills the elders possess in leather crafting, we saw an opportunity to utilize the knowledge and resources that they have to create income opportunities and a system to develop the village sustainably. With that, we formed the Project Nomad - wandering from a place to another to help build a better home for communities in need. Through our system in place, not only do we benefit the artisan, but we also run a Nomad restoration project where we create infrastructural facilities or finance key items that would improve the well-being of the villagers.

2. What were some of the challenges you’ve faced through setting up Project Nomad that was personally or spiritually testing, and how did you overcome them?

Nasrul: Initially, when we were in India, the Language barrier is a challenge. As they are not fluent in English, it is hard for us to communicate with them. Most of the time when such a situation happens, we will Google translate or even resort to drawing on paper. As Jaisalmer is one of the more cultural places in India, they really keep their tradition alive. They continue to celebrate many beautiful festivals that the more developed cities do not. Being foreigners, we observe them; how they live, how they interact with one another and we try to acculturate along the way. Similarly, when we were in Indonesia, even though the language is not a barrier, understanding their culture is crucial; their practices and how it affects their work ethics. It is something that we learn and picks up along the way.

3. Is there a large mission you’re working towards with the founding of Project Nomad?

Haziq: We wanted to change how people view fast fashion and the perception that crafts made by rural artisans are not as valuable as those made by the big fashion houses. We want people to know the stories behind the artisan who makes the product that they carry, and commitment to quality is intrinsic to their craft. There is much beautiful craft from these villages that the world has not seen. It carries more than just a utilitarian value, it has cultural traditions, empathy, and soul that is etched into every piece that is created. The rift between developed countries and rural communities within this developing country is only getting wider. As consumers, we have the conscious decision to make, if not us then who? We have the ability to help our neighbouring Asian communities to achieve a decent living environment in the 21st century. Nomad is committed to ensuring that we integrate these communities back into the economy.

4. Are you planning to bring in more artisans or villages into Project Nomad?

Haziq: As of now, Nomad has started another initiative in another village on the outskirts of Yogyakarta towards Gunung Kidul. We aim to replicate this model to other rural communities that could benefit from it by creating home-based industries to create employment. Within the village in Indonesia, we are making plans to train homemakers with crafting skills so that they could earn additional income to support their family, especially since there is no job for the farmers during the dry season.

5. One of the buzzwords floating around now is ‘volunteerism’ (referring to those who volunteer during their travels but may not affect actual change in the communities visited). Do you have any thoughts on this?

Credit: @theprojnomad on Instagram

Haziq: I think it is important to think through the effect and consequences of volunteering. The first thing we should ask ourselves before volunteering is: who is this meant for or why am I doing this? The intention is most important in ensuring impactful volunteering. If the intention is to help a certain community, one would be able to accept the reality and knows that he or she should stop when it is causing more damage than good for the community. It becomes dangerous when one strives to do volunteering simply for personal satisfaction, ego inflation or to post on social media which is becoming a trend these days.

Credit: @theprojnomad on Instagram

Haziq: One method of thinking would be to question what is the chain of events that would unfold after you volunteer, and consider the impact that it has on all stakeholders involved. For example, while volunteering in an orphanage in some village seems like a noble thing to do, each time the child creates a bond with someone that they are beginning to trust, the relationship is taken away from them when the volunteer leaves. This has an adverse effect on the child’s development due to the constant feeling of abandonment. Another example would be travelling with a group to a place for an overseas community involvement program to build infrastructure for the village when many do not have the knowledge to do so. Firstly, the carbon footprint is very high for a single project. Secondly, the amount of money spends on air ticket could be channelled to fund other aspects of the initiative to create a more impactful outcome. Thirdly, this has the potential of taking away jobs from skilled locals who are relying on such projects to sustain his or her family, Lastly, we need to be careful that it actually leads to a sense of dependency and what implication does this create on the community when one stops providing? For those who are interested to know more, you should read up on the social return on investment framework.

6. What advice would you give to travellers who want to avoid volunteerism, or who want to adopt a more environmentally/socially-conscious way of travelling?

Haziq: The little things you do goes a long way! Invest in a proper storage bag such as a lightweight dry sack to pack your clothes in, instead of Ziploc bags or plastic bags as they can be seriously damaging to the environment if not recycled properly. Always have a day bag to carry your trash around (or things that you buy), you might not always find a dustbin readily available, but its still a responsibility to take care of your own trash. Its really painful to see food packagings, plastic bottles left behind by others when they go for a hike or leisure camping. The same applies if you're in the city!

Credit: @theprojnomad on Instagram

Haziq: To avoid the negative impacts or unintended consequence of “voluntourism”, always do your research about the organization you are intending to volunteer with. Understand the beneficiary you are helping, what are their needs and how would you be able to help the organization in achieving their objective to meet these needs. As mentioned earlier, as a responsible volunteer you need to be sure that you are offering more benefit than harm to the beneficiary, consider what are the implications of your involvement before and after. The world definitely needs kind-hearted souls who selflessly volunteer their skill. Make your effort worth it by finding a suitable match with an organization/beneficiary so that you can offer the maximum value for your time. Instead of always giving items, try to think of ways to impart skills or create projects that are self-sustaining for the beneficiaries - share with them how to fish!

7. Do you still travel a lot? How has founding and running Project Nomad changed the way you travel?

Credit: @mnasrulbr on Instagram

Nasrul: Whenever I got the chance, absolutely. Since founding and running it, I prefer travelling to places less commercialized. It makes you take a step back and really appreciate life more as you observe and mingle with the people. Example of places I have travelled to since includes Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia, etc. These are places where there is a lot of natural attraction and you can search for hidden gems.

8. What’s one must-have item you need to bring on your travels?

Credit: @theprojnomad on Instagram

Haziq: I don't have a one must have - but a list of must-haves that I bring to each trip. This includes a compass, Goretex jacket, headlamp, and my notebook. But if I have to pick one - it has to be my Goretex jacket. Protect against the elements since I'm a big fan of the outdoors.

9. What’s your favourite destination you’ve been to? Where do you want to go next?

Nasrul: I would put it as favourite destinations as both places are incomparable. It will be the house of Allah, Mecca and the resting place of our beloved prophet saw, Madinah. The feeling you felt is unique on its own and it really moves you externally and internally. I would love to explore the “-stan” countries like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan with the intention of living with them to understand how they lead their life.

10. What’s the most impact/memorable experience from your past travels? (Apart from the one that led to the founding of Project Nomad)

Credit: @mnasrulbr on Instagram

Nasrul: Home to the world’s third highest peak - the Kanchenjunga - Goechala is perhaps the best trek anyone can go for amidst the huge mountains in India. Against the warnings of the villagers, I went ahead with the trek despite it being the monsoon season. I started having difficulty breathing as I slipped into having altitude sickness as I made my way up. I was half-conscious by this point and almost fell off a ledge. Luckily my guide grabbed me just in time, and he dragged me to the next checkpoint where I continued hyperventilating while he tried to warm me up. I was already having flashbacks of my family by then. Eventually, through medication, hot liquids, and lots of blankets to warm me up, I was conscious enough to make my way down. What if I actually died? I realized I hadn’t done much in life, and I knew I had to change.

11. Do you have other ideas or projects in the pipeline after Project Nomad?

Credit: @theprojnomad on Instagram

Nasrul: Our focus now is to build a solid foundation in Indonesia so that we are able to emulate and bring this playbook to other rural areas where we can create an impact on the lives of the people. We do have other ideas in the pipeline. I will keep it to ourselves for now. Do keep a lookout!

You can follow Project Nomad's products and journey on their Instagram and website.