Muhammad Efendi, 25, would never imagine that he could enjoy tertiary education at Yogyakarta-based agriculture college Institut Pertanian Stiper, or Instiper, especially as he comes from a poor family in Riau's countryside, where most people earn their small incomes from farming and harvesting forest products.
In 2009, members of his community, many of them farmers, were in conflict with pulp and paper company Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper, (RAPP), a subsidiary of APRIL Group. They were not happy with the government's decision to award a license to the company as the concession boundary crossed part of the land they traditionally owned.
It was the peak of the conflict when in 2011 Muhammad took part in a scholarship program offered by RAPP, after he performed well and obtained good grades in high school. Determination to change his life made him become the only person in his family to pursue higher education. He chose forestry and plantation studies as he believes they are vital for his community.
"In 2011, I received an offer from RAPP's community development unit to take part in the scholarship program. At that time I was studying at SMA Negeri 1 in Merbau. I invited my friends to participate, but nobody wanted to join because of the conflict with RAPP. Some even asked: 'Do you have to pay them back by working with no salary after you graduate?'" he said.
He did not regret his decision. Upon graduation in 2015 he was employed by RAPP as a researcher at the company's research and development department for plantation management improvement. His main responsibility is to conduct research on peatlands management to ensure APRIL's plantation is run responsibly.
The opportunity coincided with unfavorable developments in Muhammad's family, after his father lost a job at an oil and gas company amid mass layoffs.
"With the help of the scholarship and my subsequent employment, I was able to help my family during that financially difficult period. In 2015, my parents could no longer pay for my brothers and sisters education," said the native of Pulau Padang, a quiet island with only 40,000 residents, close to the east coast of Sumatra.
Having worked at RAPP for a few years now, Muhammad said he feels the company's community development programs, which include education, people empowerment and fire-free villages, have been beneficial to all.
"The scholarship program I took part in is now on high demand. Friends at my village now ask me how they can get the RAPP-sponsored scholarship. It is very different compared to back then. And I receive a full salary, not reduced to pay back the scholarship, unlike what people were afraid of," he said with smile.
For many years, RAPP, has been offering scholarship programs to promising high school students to study at two universities: the Academy of Pulp and Paper Technology (ATPK) in Bandung, West Java, and at Instiper. The scholarships cover tuition fees and monthly living expenses.
The company says the scholarships help to empower local communities. It also offers employment to graduates at its 1,750 hectare manufacturing complex in Kerinci, which is one of the biggest single-site pulp mills in the world, selling its paper products to 75 countries.