Whether we like it or not, we cannot escape technology. It’s an indispensable part of our life, a bit of a necessary evil, like money. But technology can do more than just add that extra layer of convenience. There are technology solutions for real-world, tough problems and people who are committed to using technology for good causes that advance humanity.
With its “tech for good” Social Innovation Challenge, Alipay and Singapore’s NUS Enterprise wants to highlight digital technology use cases that drive social impact in Southeast Asia.
The challenge, which started in 2018 received more than 350 submissions from Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
The nine finalists, namely ERTH, FatHopes Energy, and Grub Cycle from Malaysia; SmartPeep, Whizpace, and Wika Media from Singapore; as well as Amalan, Aruna, and Mitra Sejahtera Membangun Bangsa (MSMB) from Indonesia, met at the grand finale on April 16 at the Shaw Foundation Alumni House on the NUS Campus in Singapore.
Creating a social network for startups to scale their impact
The Indonesian fisheries e-commerce startup Aruna came out as the grand finale winner.
Indonesia has 2.7 million fishermen and most of them live under the poverty line. They contribute to approximately 25% of the national poverty rate, Antara reported earlier this month.
As a social enterprise, Aruna uses technology to improve the livelihoods of the fishermen by connecting them with buyers directly, ensuring fairer trading opportunities. According to Aruna, its technology can help increase the selling price by 20%. The company has served 1,701 fishermen groups in 16 provinces thus far.
Aruna will receive a total of SGD 60,000 (approx. USD 44,000), whereas the other eight finalists will walk away with SGD 10,000 (approx. USD 7,300) each.
In addition to the cash prize, the nine finalists will also benefit from the 10 x 1,000 Tech for Inclusion Program jointly launched by Ant Financial and the International Financial Corporation (IFC).
The 10 x 1,000 Tech for Inclusion Program is an initiative to train 10,000 tech experts in emerging markets from both public and private sectors over the next ten years. The initiative aims to build an interactive and open platform where participants will gain access to workshops, mentoring, and professional networks, Ant Financial senior director Huang Jing told KrASIA.
Since its launch in 2018, the program has hosted several training and exchange activities in Malaysia and is in the preparation stage for Indonesia.
Ultimately, the goal of the collaboration is to invest in people for the future with Southeast Asia as the starting point and eventually expanding to reach the rest of the emerging markets in the world. In doing so, Ant Financial and IFC hope to trigger the multiplier effect by creating an ecosystem of tech experts who would collectively build and promote technology inclusion and sustainability at a global scale.
Professor Wong Poh Kam, Senior Director of NUS Entrepreneurship Center, shares a similar sentiment on the importance of creating a supportive environment. Speaking at the opening remark of the social innovation challenge, he said, “what is important is the social network that we can create amongst these interesting startups that can help them scale their impact”.
As for Aruna, winning the competition is a pleasant surprise that they did not expect. “It is our first competition outside of Indonesia and we are very happy that we won. We came here not expecting the prize, we just wanted to connect and get to know every social business and the ecosystem,” Utari Octavianty, the general director of Aruna told KrASIA.
When asked about what Aruna plans to do with the cash prize, Utari said they were already planning to expand to more areas in Indonesia and the new fund will allow them to bring on board more fishermen.
Balancing profitability and social impact
As a society, we have many misconceptions about social entrepreneurship. We often perceive it as a sort of non-profit organization, which is hardly true. The relationship between profitability and social impact is not a zero-sum one. As Jonathan Chang, the executive director of NUS Enterprise pointed out during the panel discussion, this perception has started to change in the last five years.
Increasingly, people are starting to realize social entrepreneurs can both do well and do good. Profitability is crucial for the longevity of the startup. Using the analogy of how we are told to help ourselves first before helping others on an airplane, Chang highlighted a very important principle that we tend to overlook as we get carried away by emotions.
“Putting yourself first before others” might sound contradictory and selfish, but the reality is we are in no position to help others when we can’t even take care of ourselves. Similarly, without profit in the early stage, there is no space for talks of social impact. Without financial sustainability, the various bricks we’ve carefully laid for doing good will start crumbling, said Chang.
Moving forward: What to expect
As Ant Financial’s Huang Jing said, it is the start of a very long journey. 2019 is the pilot year of the Alipay-NUS Enterprise Social Innovation Challenge, where both organizers test run this competition to gather feedback. It still has to be decided whether or not to open up the challenge to participants from other countries in the future.
Professor Wong from NUS Enterprise is more confident about expanding the challenge to include other countries to create a truly pan-ASEAN challenge.
“Prior to partnering (with) Ant Financial, for the last five years, we’ve worked with DBS Bank to run a social venture challenge covering the whole of Asia. Through the five years, we’ve developed partnerships with many local organizations that are involved in supporting social entrepreneurs. We have (also) made some inroads into Cambodia and even Myanmar. We will draw on existing networks and relationships to promote this social innovation challenge in Southeast Asia,” he said.
Southeast Asia is very diverse with each country having its niche sectors. Nonetheless, agriculture remains important across the region, followed by education and healthcare.
Asked to comment on which sector has the greatest growth potential, Professor Wong said it has to be health and wellness because of the large and young populations in countries like Vietnam and Myanmar. He also expects more inclusive innovation to be developed in this sector due to the growing awareness of helping people with disabilities.
KrASIA is a media partner for the Alipay-NUS Enterprise’s Social Innovation Challenge.
Editor: Nadine Freischlad