Published on 15 Dec 2022

Kenya Calling

Gabriel Teo, NBS accountancy alumnus and the founder of Tana River Life Foundation (TRLF) in Kenya, believes that quality education should build character and impart values beyond academic results.

Holidays, Gabriel Teo laughs, can sometimes be a dangerous thing. So, a day after his final year examination in 1988, he jetted to Kenya, where his brother was a volunteer. That holiday changed his life forever.

“It was a mind-blowing, eye-opening experience for a 22-year-old,” he explains during a Zoom interview with NBS Alumni Affairs team. “I realised how much I had taken for granted of my life back home. In some parts of Kenya, you would have to walk for miles to get water; back home, all I had to do was turn on the tap! In the rural villages, many children couldn’t go to school; in Singapore, every child went to school. So, I began to ask myself, is there anything I can do to help people in Kenya?” 

Gabriel is the founder and manager of the Delta Mustard Seed Academy,
a pre-primary and primary school in Idsowe Village with 420 students

After returning home, the accountancy graduate worked as a tax manager with the now-defunct audit firm Arthur Andersen before moving on to oil drilling service company Sedco Forex. While Teo enjoyed his life as a “yuppie” – he was promoted to assistant regional manager and had a strong network of friends – he constantly felt a sense of disquiet. So, in 1993, he quit and packed his bags for Kenya.

But as Teo admits, he took a while to find his feet. “The first 18 months were tough,” he says. “I neither spoke Swahili nor understood the challenges the locals faced. I didn’t know what to do or where to start. I couldn’t make myself useful or contribute to anyone’s life.”     

Fortunately, Teo persevered. In 2005, he established the Tana River Life Foundation. The non-profit organisation sponsors education for children and youth, enabling them to escape poverty and fulfil their potential. Besides expanding learning opportunities through bursaries, TRLF also improves educational infrastructure and enhances the teaching environment.

Gabriel with post-secondary students who undergo a two-year formation
programme sponsored at the tertiary level

You graduated from NBS with a degree in accountancy in 1988. What key lesson from NBS has served you well? 
Oh, that was a long time ago. I was the first batch of students [laughs]. Back then, the attention was on academic achievement; however, NTU and NBS continued to provide a holistic approach by encouraging students to give back. It explains my setting up the Tana River Life Foundation and trying to provide quality education. 

Define “quality education”?

What qualifies as quality education to me is this – the child you’re trying to educate grows into an adult who strives for personal success, tries to contribute to society and helps pull up others behind him. For that purpose, we need to develop not just academics and competencies but also character and values. So, our education should emphasise both, not one or the other. 

How is this reflected in the education programmes at Tana River Life Foundation? 

At the Delta Mustard Seed Academy, we run the pre-primary and primary school for children with a strong emphasis on character development. In addition, we sponsor more than 60 secondary school students; we teach them how to live together, look out for one another, handle cash honestly, and other practical life skills. Finally, before sponsoring a student at the tertiary level, we ensure that they volunteer with TRLF for two years doing community work while acquiring soft skills and co-potencies before going to college or university.

The TRLF education projects equip students with skills and knowledge and build their character 

You quit your high-flying career in Singapore to help build people’s lives in Kenya. What led you to start the Tana River Life Foundation?     
For 18 months, I languished, not knowing what I could do. At that time, I stayed with a local family in the village who were kind to me. They took pains to ensure I could eat the local food and spend money on fuel to boil drinking water for me. Gradually I noticed that one of their children, who were of school-going age, was always home. They couldn’t afford his school fees, so I supported his education. And that's how everything fell into place. Over the last 20 years, we have sponsored nearly 5,000 children. I started TRLF to have a sustainable and proper channel for building bridges between the donor community and beneficiaries.

How has the foundation kept up with COVID-19 and digitalisation?  
I used to visit Singapore and Malaysia every year to update sponsors on our projects until COVID-19 hit and put a stop to travel. Then, last year, a friend suggested using WhatsApp to send photos with brief captions to our donor friends regularly so people can view them on the go – they don’t have to log in to email and download entire reports. That method proved to be very effective. So when I visited Singapore recently, I was pleasantly surprised to see how updated our benefactors are.

Education often involves role modelling. What are your views on being a role model? 
I take role modelling seriously, and try to be a good one. I like looking after young people, helping them find their way, build their lives, and build others’ lives too. 

What lessons can undergraduates pick up from your experience in Tana River Life Foundation?  
  • Be resilient and do not give up, even if it means starting over from an empty cup to a full one.
  • See things from different perspectives, combining ancient local knowledge with modern technology.
  • Be an enabler. When I am at the centre of things, everything becomes “my” achievement or, conversely, “my” disappointment. But when you are on the outside, it's easier to understand what’s going on and apply alternative solutions. So, it's more about not being the centre but understanding one’s role as an enabler so others can journey further and surpass expectations.
  • Keep the doors of learning open. Everyone can teach you something.

Students in Tana Delta schools enjoy a conducive learning environment with
second-hand furniture being transported to schools with the generous support
of PIL Singapore and Logwin Air + Ocean Singapore


What’s next for you?
We are trying to improve the teaching of math, science, and language among our children. These are compulsory subjects in secondary school. For students to excel, we must inculcate interest. Besides providing more books and videos, we are also working with public schools to build more labs and equip them with consumables to enhance their learning through science experiments.