Flickr/CC/Kirsten | Aid India Field Visit

By Beatrice Loh


According to a recent survey by India’s Ministry of Finance, India is now the world’s fourth largest hub for start-ups. Driven by “hyper growth” in technology and software products in the country, there are now over 3,100 startups. Despite a significant portion of these startups belonging to the tech industry, there has also been increasing social innovation that is benefitting the less privileged in Indian society.

The Indian education sector is one such beneficiary of the startup boom. Some of the major problems in the sector include a high dropout rate due to lack of availability of schools in remote areas, lack of awareness and child labor among the lower income population. According to UNICEF, the net attendance ratio at the secondary school level for males is only 58.5 percent, whilst females fared even worse at 48.7 percent. However, startups in the education sector are slowly tackling some of the sector’s biggest issues and bringing education to more and more students every year.

Here are 3 ways social startups are improving education in India:

  1.    1. Increasing accessibility

One of the biggest problems in the education sector is accessibility. Many students in rural areas are unable to attend classes due to capacity constraints in local schools. It is also common for poorer students to find jobs to help their families pay for basic necessities, with education taking a backseat. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) by the ASER Center released in January earlier this year showed that in rural areas, 15.9 percent of boys and 17.3 percent of girls within the 15 – 16 years old age group are currently out of school.

Bharat Calling is a social startup dedicated to bridging the urban-rural gap in higher education. According to studies carried out prior to starting the company, 86 percent of students drop out after the 10th class due to poverty, distance of educational institution from home, lack of information and motivation, inadequate transport facilities, quality of teachers, social environment and many other factors. Bharat Calling provides information about the best institutes in India and also trains students for competitive exams. They also resolve logistical issues that students face to travel to other cities for such exams. The venture that initially covered only one school has now spread to 142 schools and has even been endorsed by the Indian government.

Social startups target different levels and needs to increase access to education. Sudiksha Knowledge Solutions was created to provide high quality, easily accessible early childhood education for low-income children across India by setting up low-cost pre-school centers in low-income urban and semi-urban regions. Avanti Learning Centre provides low-income high-school students in India with an affordable world-class science and mathematics extracurricular education program. Hippocampus is a unique startup that helps schools run and maintain libraries, train teachers on how to get students involved in library activities and establishes low-cost, community-focused education centers with a unique curriculum.

  1.    2. Increasing interactivity

Social startups in India are also looking to make classes more interesting and amp up motivation in the classroom. Many critics of the Indian education system disparage the rote learning approach that has been used in Indian classrooms over the years, as it fails to instill creativity, curiosity and innovation.

Experifun has created an innovation-based learning platform called inClass for urban and rural schools to radically transform science teaching and learning in classrooms. Experifun inClass is based off curriculum designed by the Ministry of Education in India and has an arsenal of innovative science gadgets and products that bring interactive and exploratory learning to classrooms without needing extra infrastructure or setup. Everest Edusys is another company that aims to wean children away from rote learning to learning by doing. It plans on setting up laboratories where students learn scientific concepts through touch and feel and activity-based tools. Skyfi Labs was created for university level students to transform “textbook geniuses” to employable engineers by providing access to practical, hands-on training.

Other innovative startups are Classle and Butterfly Fields. Classle blends social networking and e-learning, transforming traditional classroom learning into collaborative online education. It is an online platform that connects teachers and students from institutions across the world. An online library, quizzes and workshops are interactive elements that draw students into their material. Butterfly Fields focuses on making learning more enriching, engaging and fun by creating learning kits specific to each grade and subject.

  1.    3. Increasing parental involvement

Startups in India are also making it easier for parents to be involved in a child’s education. Children of less educated or less connected parents tend to be disadvantaged, as these parents tend to make poorer choices for their child’s education.

“Choosing the right kind of education for a child is still an ordeal. Lack of awareness among parents, less visibility of schools/extra-curricular classes and lack of financial prowess or online presence of an institute have led to the situation where parents are crowding only specific schools and classes, oblivious of other good places where a child can be admitted,” said Aarthi Ramasubramanian, co-founder of Eduraft, in an interview with VCCircle.

Eduraft aims to bridge this gap by providing information about schools and institutes that do not regularly feature in the news for oversubscribed applications. Data is collected by the company based on a specific city and distributed to parents through the website, where information, tools and resources are available. Allied services such as tuition classes and extracurricular activities are also available.

Some startups cater specifically to the planning of a child’s future. Eureka Career Kits has developed a testing kit that helps determine school children’s career aptitude. Sold to parents, the kit helps them better plan their children’s careers and avoid potentially wrong paths. Based on experiential learning, it makes inferences and suggestions on the child’s way of thinking and suggests suitable career paths.


Flickr/CC/Mathias Eick for EU's ECHO

By Beatrice Loh


Since January, Europe has received a record 433,000 refugees and migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean in search of a safe haven, more than double the total for all of 2014. The photo of the body of a 3-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a beach in Turkey has raised a media storm around the refugee crisis in Europe. The boy has since been identified as Aylan Kurdi. He drowned after the plastic boat he had been on overturned in calm waters from being overloaded with passengers. 12 other passengers, including Aylan’s brother and mother, also died. Aylan lent the crisis a face, showing the plight of the thousands of refugees who share similar devastating stories. Humans of New York, a popular photoblog documenting street portraits and interviews in New York City, has since begun a new photo series that offers its global audience a glimpse into the tragic experiences survivors have had in their journey to Europe.

On the other side of the world in Southeast Asia, another refugee crisis has been unfolding. As the monsoon season in the region comes to an end, boatloads of Rohingya Muslims will flee their homes in Myanmar to find safety in other Southeast Asian countries that include Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Rohingya Muslims are considered one of the world’s most persecuted minorities and among the world’s least wanted. Why is no one helping them?

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority mostly living in the Rakhine state in majority Buddhist Myanmar. The Myanmar government dispute the Rohingya people’s status as Burmese citizens, rendering them ‘stateless’ after the enactment of the Burmese nationality law in 1982. They claim that the Rohingya are Bengali and that their presence in Myanmar is the result of illegal immigration. The Rohingya, however, along with other scholars, claim to be pre-colonial residents of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, with the earliest known appearance of the term Rohingya in 1799.

Currently, most of Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions in the state. Almost 140,000 were displaced in deadly clashes with majority Buddhists in Rakhine in 2012, and forced to seek refuge in displacement camps.

Why are they being persecuted?

The persecution of the Rohingya is rooted in two main issues – the origins of the Rohingya people and their religion.

Under British colonial rule, lax immigration laws in the 1800s led to an influx of Bengali Muslims into the region. The British installation of South Indian chettyars (money lenders) as administrators of this new colonial territory displaced Myanmar Buddhist peasants, leading to an enduring hatred for the Bengalis. The failed Rohingya secessionist uprising between 1948 and 1961 worsened tension and the 1982 Burmese nationality law essentially legitimized discrimination against the Rohingya by denying them citizenship, as the Rohingya are not recognized as one of the 135 legally recognized ethnic groups in of Myanmar. The government argues that they are from neighbouring Bangladesh and that migrants, to gain citizenship, have invented the Rohingya identity. The Rohingya are subject to wanton violence and discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and the on-going dispute over their origins.

Islamophobia is another problem in the country. Persistent fears of Islamic encroachment on Buddhists fuel much of the violence, with widespread and strongly held fears circulating among Buddhist Rakhines that they would become a minority in their ancestral state. In June 2012, tension between the Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingya escalated into deadly clashes that decimated whole villages. Whilst the conflict first targeted Muslim Rohingya, by October, there was a wave of violence against Muslims of all ethnic groups. 

Why haven’t the Rohingya found a safe haven yet?

The Rohingya face violence and lack basic rights such as access to healthcare, education and employment. In an attempt to flee their terrible circumstances, the Rohingya people have become among the world’s least wanted, denied resettlement in Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Australia.

The main problem the Rohingya face as they flee persecution from Myanmar is that their perilous journey never ends. In May 2015, Malaysian patrol ships turned back two boats carrying approximately 600 people, many in critical physical condition. Thailand and Indonesia have reacted in the same way, leaving thousands stranded at sea.

International organizations have described the situation as a “three-way game of human ping pong” played by Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, and one that may result in a massive humanitarian disaster. Aid workers estimate that up to 6,000 refugees may be at sea with nowhere to go.

It seems that the plight of the Rohingya will not end any time soon. The Myanmar government is not willing to take measures to stop the discrimination and violence against the Rohingya. Positioning oneself against the Buddhist majority is not a popular choice amongst Myanmar politicians. Even Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Laureate who fought for decades for democracy and reform in Myanmar, has been conspicuously quiet on the issue.

As we follow news of the Syrian refugees as they make their way to Europe in hopes of a better life, let us not forget the plight of the thousands of Rohingya Muslims stranded at sea, clinging onto life by a thin thread. More attention needs to be given to the issue to pressure the Myanmar government to make necessary changes to remove the institutionalization of racism, as well as to pressure other Southeast Asian nations to offer aid to this persecuted minority.


Flickr/CC/Travel Oriented | Chek Jawa Wetlands, Singapore

By Beatrice Loh

Singapore is a city-state in Southeast Asia, one of the most biodiverse regions of the world. With a population of 5.6 million people, it is also one of the most densely populated cities in the world. The combination of limited land, high population and significant industrial activities requires major planning efforts to manage competing land use. While economic development drives decision-making, biodiversity conservation remains a top priority in Singapore.

Singapore is a treasure trove for many researchers in the field. A year ago, a slender woody tree known as Alangium ridleyi was discovered hiding in plain sight in the middle of Singapore’s heavily visited Botanic Gardens. It was previously believed that the tree was lost to development. New discoveries are made often – a species of shrub brand-new to science called Hanguana neglecta, a shin-high spray of blade-like leaves, was found beside a footpath in a nature reserve and a mud-snake species not recorded in Singapore before was found in the country’s last remaining patch of swamp forest.

None of these discoveries happened by mistake. Singapore may take biodiversity more seriously than any other city in the world. While the country’s tropical location gives it a biological advantage in terms of diversity of species, the city makes a conscious effort to establish connections between built-up urban environments and nature.

Here are 5 initiatives by the Singaporean government to preserve biodiversity:

  1. Reserving Land for Nature Reserves and Parks

The National Parks Board (NParks) manages over 300 parks and 4 nature reserves, with the land area of these exceeding 13.6 percent of the total land area of Singapore. Singapore’s decision to set aside land for nature reserves and parks – while intensifying land use elsewhere – is a conscious choice.

“[The choice] is never easy, especially when you consider the competing uses for housing, industry, defence and transport infrastructure. We consciously do so for the benefit of all Singaporeans, because a connection to nature is a must-have, not a good-to-have,” said then-Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee, in a speech at the launch of the Festival of Biodiversity.

Singapore’s first marine park was launched in 2014. A 40-hectare area encompassing the land and waters surrounding a pair of small islands known as Sisters’ Islands and some nearby reefs, the park will be a platform for outreach, educational, conservation and research activities related to the country’s native marine biodiversity.

  1. Creation of the Singapore Index

The City Biodiversity Index, commonly known as the Singapore Index, is a set of indicators to measure and rate how cities are increasing their native plant, animal and other species, protecting habitats from development and fragmentation and involving municipal agencies, local companies, schools and the public in biodiversity-awareness programs, among other things.

The creation of the Singapore Index has helped not only Singapore preserve its biodiversity, but has aided other cities around the world. The idea for the index was that rating cities on their biodiversity efforts might spur some friendly rivalry among them and encourage the island-state and other cities to swap ideas on how to give wildlife a boost.

The Singapore Index is used by 80 cities around the world, from Edmonton, Canada to subtropical Curitiba, Brazil. It allows cities to benchmark their progress in biodiversity conservation and gives them a tool to close management gaps and work out their conservation priorities.

“For the last 20 years, we have been looking at biodiversity, so we had a lot of data on that,” said Machteld Gryseels, a director in the City of Brussels’ environment department in Belgium, in a report by the Convention on Biological Diversity. “[Using the Singapore Index] showed we lacked precise data on how many programs and visits to nature areas that we have.”

  1. Integrating Nature into Singapore’s City Landscape

The first tree planting campaign was held in 1963 by then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Since then, specific initiatives have been implemented to ensure that adequate provisions would be made for urban greenery.

Restoration works are underway. A major highway built in 1986 between two nature reserves resulted in habitat fragmentation. In 2009, planners began re-linking the two nature reserves with a large forested bridge over that highway. New initiatives like “nature ways”, strips of native vegetation along roadsides or canals that enable the movement of birds and butterflies are also being introduced. Recent surveys of these plantings found that forest-edge species like the Horsfield’s Baron Butterfly and the Common Gliding Lizard were present where they were not commonly seen before.

Increasingly, nature is being integrated into the city’s very skyline. NParks helps fund the cost of installing green roofs and walls to temper air quality and insulate high-rise buildings from harsh tropical heat. Singapore is in the unique position to experiment with such solutions. By building upwards, Singapore has managed to conserve more green space. Singapore’s Tree House Condominium is the largest vertical garden in the world and an example of new ways of integrating habitat into dense urban spaces.

“I think we need a city like Singapore to show some scientific leadership by seeing how the new structures created around high-rise buildings provide opportunities for biodiversity that cannot be created by the normal landscape between buildings,” said urban sustainability expert Peter Newman of Australia’s Curtin University, who has done a study on biophilic urbanism in Singapore.

  1. Conducting Frequent, Comprehensive Wildlife Surveys

NParks has an active program of biodiversity surveys and monitoring of its nature area. In the past decade, 35 species of plants and animals new to Singapore have been discovered and seven species thought to be extinct have been rediscovered.

In 2010, Singapore began a comprehensive survey of its marine life. To date, the survey has found dozens of species possibly new to science, such as a distinctive red-lipped anemone and an orange-clawed mangrove crab. Apart from those, more than 250 different hard corals – a third of the world’s species – were documented.

An important aspect of such surveys is the increase in public and corporate involvement. Recently, NParks invited volunteers to participate in an island-wide survey of herons, birds whose presence is an indicator of water quality and environmental health. Other surveys include the Garden Bird Count and Butterfly Count. These surveys are a way to engage the public on the importance of biodiversity conservation.

  1. Implement Species Conservation and Recovery Programs

Many programs designed to conserve and recover native species are being carried out in Singapore. Current initiatives include bird, dragonfly and plant conservation. In particular, Singapore’s conservation work with Oriental Pied Hornbills has received national and international attention and such work is now being extended to other species. The designs of parks such as Jurong Central Park, Admiralty Park and Gardens by the Bay were also improved to enhance dragonfly habitats.

Rare species of plants are conserved in their natural habitats. Plants are also rescued from areas undergoing development and their numbers are increased through seed planting, cuttings and tissue culture. These are also kept in secure areas for protection. The Yishun Arboretum was established in 2008 for the ex-situ conservation of rare dipterocarp trees.

Similar efforts are made for Singapore’s marine biodiversity. Coral reefs in Singapore, though small in size, boast a relatively high biodiversity. However, these are threatened by various human activities. In order to enhance and restore the current coral cover in Singapore, a coral nursery was established off Pulau Semakau in 2007. It is the first coral nursery in the region that uses “coral of opportunity” (coral fragments that lie free on the reef having been fragmented by some impact) as seed corals for growth and transplantation.

“Singapore has done more to conserve our natural heritage than a nation our size might be expected to do,” said Lee in the same speech. There are many lessons that can be learnt from this small island city-state on balancing land management and biodiversity conservation.


Flickr/CC/Eric Vernier

By Beatrice Loh

Economic, social and political developments in Asia over the last decades have brought with them changes in the status of women. It is much easier to be an Asian woman now with societal improvements that favor equality and individual rights. However, some areas are reacting to such change more slowly compared to others. In politics, women’s suffrage exists in most of Asia but the literacy rate of women still lags behind that of men. Cultural traditions also continue to have a strong influence on the status of women in the region, especially in the familial sphere.

Social startups focused on females have been increasing over the years, targeting the education sector, beauty industry and even the business world, amongst others. Here are 5 startups in various parts of Asia benefitting women:

  1.   Educate Girls

Educate Girls was established in 2007 to tackle the root causes of gender inequality in India’s education system. It has helped to ensure over 90 percent enrollment and higher attendance as well as improved school infrastructure, quality of education and learning outcomes for all girls. The organisation believes that if girls in the most backward gender gap districts are educated now, they will have the potential to enter the formal economy, gain employment and lift their families out of poverty. The social enterprise targeted Rajasthan, a region in northwest India, but has since expanded to reach over 11, 000 schools all over the country.

Rajasthan was originally selected because society there is traditionally patriarchal with deeply ingrained social practices, traditions and customs. Often, a girl is deemed less worthy than a boy and is kept home to do household chores. Child marriage is also the norm, with 40% of girls leaving school before grade five and 68 percent of girls being married before the legal age, according to the World Bank.

“If girls are given the chance to study, then they have the power to change the world,” said Manisha Rawal, one of the beneficiaries of Educate Girls, when interviewed by the World Bank.

The model of Educate Girls gets to the root of the problem: the lack of ownership from the community. Their program mobilizes communities to take a stand against gender disparity, working directly with governments, schools, parents, village leaders and community volunteers to ensure access to quality education. Their plan of action includes instituting community-based enrollment plans, creating school management committees and raising awareness of the benefits of educating a girl.


  1.   Woomentum

Founded by Mouna Aouri Langendorf, a Tunisian-born civil engineer and entrepreneur, Woomentum is a Singapore-based community-cum-crowdfunding platform for women who are founders and entrepreneurs. It aims to foster communication, resource sharing, mentoring and early-stage funding amongst startups.

Research shows that less than 5 percent of venture capital funding goes to women-founded businesses. Woomentum aims to raise those figures by boosting female entrepreneurship through a support network and community.

Woomentum started as an online community in which members could post questions and start a discussion but has expanded to include more specialized consultation services and advice on crowdfunding campaigns. The crowdfunding feature is located on a separate site,, and is different from other sites because it provides a “follow” and “influence” option, apart from the conventional “fund” button. Visitors to the web can choose to receive updates about the project through the “follow” feature, and can even give feedback through the “influence” feature, without having to commit funds to the project.

  1.   Azadi

Whilst feminine hygiene has a developed industry in the West, in much of South Asia it is still a taboo subject and has prevented many women in the region from pursuing further education or a proper job.  According to a 2012 WaterAid survey, 10 percent of girls in India thought menstruation was a disease. UNICEF found that 66 percent of girls in South Asia did not know anything about menstruation before their first period. In certain cultures, such as parts of Nepal and Bangladesh, menstruating women are isolated, hindering their access to education and limiting opportunities for work.

“Women were dropping out because of lack of access [to hygiene products],” said Ameet Mehta, who was working for a non-profit organisation giving out performance scholarships, in an interview with   

Together with Dhirendra Singh, Mehta cofounded Azadi, an impact venture with a mission to make menstruation a non-issue in India. Azadi developed the AzadiPad, an eco-ultra thin sanitary napkin retailing at US$0.33 for a pack of 8, thus increasing access to affordable sanitary products. It is made available through community-based organizations. Since developing the AzadiPad, Azadi has also expanded to address the lack of information about feminine hygiene and puberty. Azadi’s Toll-Free Menstrual Helpline and Menstrual Friendly Schools Initiative are two such initiatives. Through the Menstrual Helpline, an adolescent girl can quickly and anonymously speak with a trained counselor about menstruation, menstrual hygiene and menstrual management. The Menstrual Friendly Schools program aims to map awareness and infrastructure in government schools, in order to empower local bodies and government to take action to fill critical gaps.

To fulfill its mission, Azadi has devised a holistic solution that along with increasing awareness about menstrual hygiene and access to menstrual management products, works to embolden all members of society to build a community that is aware, alert and equipped to mitigate the financial, functional and social challenges females in Indian society face because of their periods.


  1.    Rags2Riches

Rags2Riches is a for-profit social enterprise based in Manila, Philippines. Since 2007, R2R has been helping women in poor communities in the Philippines make a living from weaving eco-ethical fashion and home accessories. Accessories are created out of upcycled scrap cloth, organic materials and indigenous fabrics online and in retail stores.

Before R2R, middlemen in the industry controlled both the supply of fabric and the women’s formal access to the market, thus exploiting these female handicraft artisans by paying them very little for their work. R2R provides these women with access to the market and the formal economy, as well as with additional skills-based, financial and health training in order for them to utilize their maximum financial and personal potential.

In the years since its inception, R2R has trained over 900 artisans across communities in Metro Manila and continues to expand its social impact and eco-ethical footprint in the country. In 2015, Forbes recognized founder of R2R, Reese Fernandez-Ruiz, in its prestigious annual list of 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs. She was described as an individual who belonged to “an elite group of people who are directing their talent and conviction to better the world.”

  1.    Wobe

Buying and reselling prepaid credits for mobile phones is common practice in Indonesia. Singaporean Adrianna Tan founded Wobe to crack the inefficiencies of this system by making it easy for agents to access pulsa directly from the source at a good price and by making the entire transaction transparent and trackable through an app. Traditionally, these credits are often sold and resold from one hand to the next, increasing the costs with each step. Wobe cuts out the middlemen to make sure resellers get the best possible price and has a low entry barrier by requiring a minimum investment of only US$5.

Wobe specifically targets women but the app is not exclusive to women, as the business model solves the problem of low-income groups that do not have access to capital to establish small businesses.  Apart from mobile credits, Wobe is planning to expand its services to include prepaid electricity and water vouchers as well as electronic train tickets. Beyond earning money through selling digital goods through the app, Wobe users can also get extra perks by filling in surveys from Wobe partners. The app also offers educational content such as digital courses on entrepreneurship.

Wobe prides itself on being a provider of mobile business and finance tools for Southeast Asian women. It currently focuses on Indonesia but has plans to expand its business to other Southeast Asian countries.


The startup boom has led to an explosion of new social startups on the scene addressing major issues and helping the underprivileged. Although women are constitute more or less half of the world’s population, females are often marginalised and face high barriers of entry into the workforce and academic institutions. These 5 startups are leading the way in raising the living standards of women all over Asia. Hopefully, more will follow suit.

Flickr/CC/Zoe Shuttleworth

By Beatrice Loh


Agriculture is a major part of many Asian economies. It is estimated that 35 to 40 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) of Myanmar comes from its agriculture sector. Many other Southeast Asian nations reported similar figures in 2013, with 33.52 percent of Cambodia’s GDP, 26.51 percent of Laos’ GDP and 18.38 percent of Vietnam’s GDP coming from agriculture. More than 2.2 billion people in Asia rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. The demand for food and feed crop will nearly double in the coming 50 years. With increasing demand due to rising population amongst other factors, farmers in Asia need to consolidate their resources and improve productivity of their land.

It’s a good thing social startups are stepping in to help. Here is a list of 5 companies that are helping farmers in Asia:

  1. 8villages

Singapore-based startup 8villages began operations in Indonesia by creating a mobile social network for smallhold farmers. The platform started as a new way for farmers to buy and sell using a mobile device but has since pivoted and grown into an information and experience-sharing platform for these farmers. 8villages allows a more transparent flow of information within the agriculture value chain. The hope is that farmers can earn more money if they are armed with more information such as changes in food prices, weather forecast and crop demands.

8villages’ latest partnership with local telco XL Axiata and Gajah Mada University’s (UGM) faculty of agriculture will offer Indonesian farmers free access to agriculture-related information via SMS. Once subscribed to Rumah Petani Pintar (meaning “House of Smart Farmers”), farmers will receive daily tips and tricks to enable them to make the most out of their land and achieve higher yields for free.

“The information comes straight from UGM and is curated by 8villages,” said Sann Gaddafi, 8villages co-founder, in an interview with TechInAsia. “As a farmer, you also have an opportunity to ask questions in real-time [to instructors] which can help you fight pests, especially in uncertain and new climate conditions.”

  1. Fargreen

Based in Vietnam, Fargreen is a social enterprise working with the purpose of building prosperous and sustainable farming communities in rural Vietnam. The company has an interesting business – they train farmers to cultivate gourmet mushrooms using rice straw, typically deemed agricultural waste and burned.

Fargreen teaches farmers how to use rice straw to cultivate mushrooms. While mushroom cultivation does not require much, it is important for the rice straw to be treated properly to become the perfect incubator for mushrooms. The mushrooms are then sold back to Fargreen. The company packages and prepares them for export.

Fargreen helps both farmers and the environment. The rice straw is normally burnt, causing widespread air pollution. Across the country, up to 50 million tons of rice straw is burnt every year, leading to health problems and traffic accidents. By diverting some of the waste for mushroom farming, Fargreen hopes to reduce the smog. The company also takes the post-mushroom waste and recycles it as bio-fertilizer.

  1. Project Alba (Cambodia)

Started in Cambodia, Project Alba is a social startup with a vision of improving production of all small-scale farmers in developing countries by 2030. It works to use technology to connect farmers with international markets. To help increase farmers’ income, Project Alba works to lower the risk for farmers to start a second cropping. Most Cambodian farmers farm only rice and harvest it once a year.

Project Alba creates partnerships with farmers, providing them with seeds, fertilizers and pesticides for free. Tools are also lent to them for free. The company commits to purchasing the farmers’ entire harvest and the farmers commit to selling all of it to Project Alba. The produce is then resold to wholesalers in regional markets. Project Alba’s market intelligence team conducts weekly surveys of prices in several local markets. They then use this data to select which crops the farmers should grow and set the price beforehand with farmers. By adapting farmers’ production to markets, the profit margins of such partnerships enable farmers to double their income.

Two-way sharing is also encouraged – methods are constantly improved based on feedback from local farmers. This leads to the adaptation of internationally recognised systems to local environments, resulting in better productivity and higher yields.


Aiming to provide end-to-end solutions for farmers, (FnF) works with small and marginal farmers for their empowerment and improvement of their current socio-economic condition through innovative ways of farming. FnF targets to improve land profitability and hence increase revenue generation for landowners, farmers and farm labourers. It helps farmers through every stage, from production to sale of produce.

FnF also bears the costs of inputs and innovations they suggest, like soil testing. Once the innovations yield profits, they share in the gains. This has helped them build trust and lay foundation for more reforms and improvements.

“Indian farmers are often very stubborn and unwilling to try things out. In our model, we ensure that if farmers are not earning then we also do not earn,” said Shashank Kumar, co-founder of FnF, when interviewed by Forbes.

Since starting up, FnF has grown to cater to 5,000 farmers in Bihar, India.

  1. Bahay Kubo Organics (Philippines)

Philippines-based startup Bahay Kubo Organics (BKOrganics) is different from the others on the list – the company does not help farmers, it helps non-farmers become farmers. BKOrganics is bringing farming to urban cityscapes through aquaponics.

Aquaponics is a system of organic and cost-effective urban farming that involves the cultivation of fish and plants, where one produces nutrients to nourish and sustain the other. In addition to farming organic produce, BKOrganics offers paid workshops and trainings about do-it-yourself (DIY) urban farming techniques and aquaponics in order to encourage small and micro urban farms.

Food security and lack of livelihoods are two problems plaguing Manila. Aquaponics is BKOrganics’ solution to the city’s abundance of hungry people and lack of arable green space.


Flickr/CC/Jason Howie

By Beatrice Loh


With Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat changing the way we communicate, social media has been reshaping our world in recent years. The advent of technology and the Internet has made connecting with people across international borders a breeze. Social media has impacted not just the communication between individuals but also the relationship between corporations, the government, and the general public. Social media has not only changed the way we communicate, but also the way we give. Non-profit organisations have adjusted the way they operate with the influx of social media avenues to raise awareness and funds for their causes.

Here are 5 ways that social media has changed the non-profit world:

  1. Reduced Cost of Advertising

Although setting up a Facebook page or Twitter account might be free, social media accounts for non-profit organisations still require staff to run them. However, compared to more traditional methods such as television and print campaigns, social media is a new low cost avenue that non-profit organisations can take advantage of. Apart from reducing cost, social media campaigns allow non-profit organisations to monitor and mine these campaigns for data to better plan budgets, cut costs, and ultimately make more money available to the actual cause itself.

  1. Increasing Awareness for Social Causes

Social media has given non-profit organisations an avenue to raise awareness for social causes through posts that generate ‘likes’ on Facebook and videos and posters that can be shared on numerous platforms.

The ALS Challenge was a viral campaign by The ALS Association, which fights Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. People would either donate $100 to the charity or take a video of having a bucket of ice water dumped on themselves. They would then nominate others to do the same in the video before posting it online. This led to an explosion of videos and donations for the organisation, with celebrities such as Justin Bieber, Chris Evans and Benedict Cumberbatch participating. Matt Damon also joined in and used the opportunity to promote awareness about the water sanitation crisis and, the organisation he co-founded to combat the problem. Although a significant portion of the Internet audience was more interested in watching funny videos of their friends and favourite celebrities than they were about ALS research, the campaign succeeded in generating a large amount of awareness and funding. Since July 2014, The ALS Association has received more than $115 million in donations.  In comparison, in the fiscal year ending January 2014, revenue from all sources totalled only slightly over $29 million.

A Mashable survey on the link between charity donations and social media has shown that 68.8% of respondents felt that social media was “extremely effective” or “very effective” for spreading information about social initiatives, with the vast majority of the survey audience claiming to learn about new social initiatives through social media.

  1. Increasing Speed of Response

Whilst social media has a wide reach, it also allows the quick transfer of information. The speed of social media has changed the way we learn about and respond to events, especially natural disasters. Ease of accessibility has resulted in unprecedented numbers of people being reached in real time. In the wake of devastation, charities can create a status, page, Tweet, or post elsewhere to inform their followers of a situation requiring urgent help and donations, which can be shared and spread in seconds. In the past, charities had to rely on hastily thrown together television commercials and getting hundreds of people to call others and hope for donations.

After a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti, non-profit organisations used social media to mobilise rescue efforts and to support the community. The earthquake also saw the deployment of one of the most successful text-to-donate campaigns seen at the time. Similarly, when Japan was rocked by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011, millions around the globe used social media to receive updates on the situation and contribute to rescue efforts and donate money for medical and basic supplies for survivors. During the recent 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal in April 2015, Crisis Relief Singapore used Facebook to rally its volunteers and managed to create 5 medical teams that were deployed to Nepal within the next month.   

  1. Rallying of Individuals and Small Groups Around Non-Profit Causes

Social media is enabling individuals to create, join and grow groups around issues they care about outside of the direct control of non-profit organizations. Crowd funding websites such as as GoFundMe and CrowdRise have made it easy for individuals to raise funds for social causes special to them.

Social software design is also accelerating this trend. Facebook Causes is an in-app feature that allows users to discover, support and organize campaigns, fundraisers, and petitions around the issues that impact users and their communities. DonorsChoose launched a feature called “Birthday Give Back” that allows individuals to use their birthdays to champion a social cause – instead of a birthday gift, they can share their page and ask friends to donate to their special cause instead.

The rise of social media has led to a more socially conscious population with the right tools to promote awareness and raise funds for social causes that affect their community.

  1. Ease of Donating

Social media has emboldened people to donate time and money not only by making them aware of issues and needs, but also by providing them with solutions to help. Websites like Just Giving, a charity platform that has so far enabled over 21 million people to raise £1.5 billion for over 13, 000 different charities, has made it easier for social media users to share causes and encourage their friends to donate, even to organisations headquartered abroad. Providing a number of ways to donate online and via text, Just Giving makes donating quick and easy, encouraging more users to do so.

Another way that social media has increased donations is through increased transparency. Donors are becoming increasingly selective of the charities they want to help, and prefer to see where the money they are donating is going. Social media offers non-profit organisations a platform through which they can share project updates and successes with status updates, reports and photographs. Donors expect updates on funds raised through special events for a specific cause, and the increased transparency on the use of funds have encouraged previously sceptical people to donate.


Flick/CC/Dennis Jarvis

By Beatrice Loh

Responsible tourism is about making better places for people to live, and better places for people to visit – in that order. It aims to minimize negative economic, environmental and social impacts whilst generating greater economic benefits for local people, enhancing the wellbeing of host communities and improving working conditions and access to the industry. Most importantly, it aims to involve local people in decisions that affect their lives. Responsible tourism is culturally sensitive and engenders respect between tourists and hosts.

Tourism in a country that has a recent history of trauma plays an important role in rebuilding society – where and how one spends his or her tourist dollars becomes pertinent. The millions of innocent Cambodian lives lost in the late 1970s in the Killing Fields under the Khmer Rouge regime are one part of the troubled past that Cambodia is still struggling to let go of. Despite the luxury skyscrapers and gleaming skyscrapers, the country is still very much tainted by its history. Disabled beggars wander the streets and children can be seen working at construction sites. In the countryside, millions more scratch out a meager living at the mercy of the temperamental weather and fluctuating crop prices.

The tourism sector does not ignore this dark side of Cambodian society – in fact, disadvantaged locals are often exploited for industry. Orphanages are used to rack up tourist dollars. In some places, children at these orphanages are mere actors to appeal to the sympathy of tourists so they can receive large donations. As such, responsible tourism has become increasingly important to Cambodia. Although the tourism sector is growing, measures must be taken to ensure that profits are directed back to the local community so that standards of living will improve.

Here is a list of 5 companies that are leading the charge on responsible tourism in Cambodia:

  1.    Sister Srey Cafe

Sister Srey Café is one of ConCERT’s (Connecting Communities, Environment & Responsible Tourism) information centers. ConCERT is a not-for-profit social enterprise based in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Its mission is to turn people’s good intentions into the best possible help for the most vulnerable people in Cambodia. The vision at Sister Srey Café is to support young Khmer students who struggle to keep a balance between studying and supporting their family. The café helps by offering these students a flexible roster, fair pay and continuous training. The café also supports other initiatives in different fields – it serves “Three Corners” coffee roast, another social enterprise in Cambodia, and also houses a boutique shops that sells a mixture of vintage clothes, retro jewelry and spa products as well as handmade items from local NGOs. It supports local businessmen and farmers by buying local produce as much as possible. The café attracts tourists by marketing itself as a one-stop information to find out all about Cambodia as well as social initiatives that they can contribute to factoring in their limited time in the country.

Sister Srey Café

Opening hours: Tuesday – Sunday, 7am – 7pm
Telephone: +855 97 723 8001
Address: Pokambor Ave, Krong Siem Reap

  1.   Artisans d’Angkor

Artisans d’Angkor is a Cambodian company originally created to help young rural people find work near their home village. As an offshoot of the educational project Chantiers-Ecoles de Formation Professionnelle, aiming to provide professional skills to communities with limited educational opportunities, Artisans Angkor has maintained its commitment to education by developing its own training program. Since its inception in the late 1990s, Artisans Angkor has strived to offer good working conditions and social advantages to its employees. It has now opened 42 workshops in Siem Reap province and provides employment to over 1300 people. Over the years, Artisans Angkor has become a real showcase of Khmer workmanship for its silk fabrics and garments, stone and wood carving, lacquer ware, polychrome products, silver plating and silk painting. The company has revived the traditional Khmer arts and crafts tradition and its workshop has become a stop for tour groups visiting the area.

Artisans d’Angkor

Open daily from 7.30am – 5.30pm
Telephone: +855 63 963 330
Address: Stung Thmey Street, Siem Reap downtown

  1.   Seeing Hands Massage Center

Seeing Hands Massage Center provides massage done by blind masseurs. Shiatsu massage, anma massage and traditional foot massage are available. The center provides one of the best value-for money massages in Cambodia and gives blind people the opportunity to make an independent living. Many of the masseurs have earned diplomas and certificates in massage from overseas institutes in Japan and Singapore. Seeing Hands Massage Center creates employment for members of Cambodia’s blind community. It offers them an independent sustainable income that helps them to lead a relatively normal life. The company has been a great success and there are currently several branches in Phnom Penh, as well as branches in popular tourist cities around the country.

Seeing Hands Massage Center

Telephone: +855 12 680 934
Address: 12 St 13 (Wat Phnom)

  1.   The Cambodia Landmine Museum and School

Founded by Aki Ra, a former member of the Khmer Rouge’s child army, the landmine museum showcases a tragic part of Cambodia’s history, telling the story of landmines in Cambodia and how they have impacted the country’s past, present and future. The story is told through the story of Aki Ra, who spent his youth fighting in the wars that ravaged his country for nearly 35 years. From laying landmines for the Khmer Rouge, he has since turned into someone who has defused thousands of them. The museum charges a small entry fee that goes to the Cambodian Landmine Museum Relief Facility that provides education and support for dozens of at-risk youth and landmine affected children.

The Cambodia Landmine Museum and School

Open daily from 7.30am to 5.30pm
Telephone: +855 15 674 163
Address: Angkor National Park, 7km South of Bantcay Srey Temple, Siem Reap

  1.   Friends the Restaurant

Cambodia has a string of restaurants under the TREE Alliance (Training Restaurants for Employment and Entrepreneurship) that are award winning. Each venue is a social business, training former street children and youths from marginalized or at-risk groups in the skills required to work at a restaurant. All profits from these restaurants go back into the training for youths. One of such restaurants is Friends the Restaurant, run by Mith Samlanh, an organisation that has worked to build the future of former street children and marginalized youth in Phnom Penh since 1994. Located near the National Museum, the restaurant is famous for its legendary frozen shakes, daiquiris and its delicious fusion of Asian and Western style tapas.

Friends the Restaurant

Open daily from 11am – 10.30pm
Telephone: +855 12 802 072
Address: #215 St 13, Phnom Penh, Cambodia


Flickr/CC/Pictures of money

By Beatrice Loh

Competitions are a great way for new social startups to gain experience and funding. Often, many of these competitions also give mentorship opportunities with experts from relevant fields to help social enterprises develop their ideas and strategies. Prizes are attractive, with most competitions offering large grants that can help kick-start a social initiative. Even if unsuccessful, competitions offer social startups the chance to develop their business strategy in more detail and are great for networking and learning from more successful social enterprises.

Here is a list of 5 competitions in Asia that social enterprises should watch out for:


  • DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge

The DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge is an Asia-wide competition for social enterprises, open to any member of the public. It is organized by NUS Enterprise, the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) business incubator, and the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS) Foundation, a corporate foundation solely dedicated to championing social entrepreneurship in Asia. The Challenge aims to identify and support new social ventures that have the potential to generate positive, scalable and sustainable social impact.

Participants are supported and mentored by some of the most experienced practitioners in this field through workshops held across Asia for two months. Aspiring social entrepreneurs will be equipped with tools to model, test and get valuable feedback on their idea, with the help of mentors. Shortlisted semifinalists are given the opportunity to travel to Singapore for mentoring and coaching with experts before facing the semifinal and final rounds of judging.

The grand prize of the competition is SGD $100, 000 in seed funding. The first and the second runners-up will receive seed funding of SGD $30, 000 and SGD $20, 000 respectively. Finalists and winners will receive priority consideration from partners of the competition for post-competition support, which may include mentorship, incubation or even further funding.

With prizes and meaningful networks, the DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia will increase the impact of winning entries and is a fantastic learning experience for all participants.

For more information, visit the website.


  • Asia Social Innovation Award

Asia Social Innovation Award (ASIA) was launched in 2008 and aims to promote social entrepreneurship and business 2.0 concepts in Asia through a social innovation idea competition. This competition is unique because it provides a platform for idea-stage entrepreneurs to kick-start projects through cross-country networking and expertise exchanges – that means the competition is mainly for ideas and concepts, rather than established companies.

The competition is organized by Social Ventures Hong Kong (SVhk), Hong Kong’s first non-profit venture philanthropy organization. SVhk provides financial and non-financial support to social enterprises as part of its dedication to nurture social innovation. It is co-organized by ChangeFusion, a Bangkok-based organization that grows social entrepreneurs for creative and sustainable change, and Social Enterprise Insights (SEI), the first Mandarin-based online information platform about social enterprises and social innovation from Taiwan.

After participants are shortlisted by region through a “Best Social Start-Up Idea” competition, they are invited for a coaching session in Hong Kong where they will have the opportunity to sharpen their idea and business model. Winners are chosen according the creativity, social need solubility, feasibility, sustainability and scalability of their idea.

Each regional award winner will get HK$ 2,000, and the Grand Award of Social Innovator will get an additional HK$ 2,000. Although the prizes are not as great in value as some of the others on this list, this competition is a great opportunity for social entrepreneurs who are merely in the idea stage to get their ideas validated and to network.

For more information, visit the website.


  • D-Prize

D-Prize is a unique competition for social entrepreneurs because it focuses on the distribution of poverty solutions, rather than the creation of such solutions. According to the organizers of this competition, the world has already invented many effective poverty solutions, but most fail to reach actual people in need.

D-Prize set a list of distribution challenges and asks interested parties to design a new social enterprise to solve them. If selected, winners can get up to US$20, 000 to launch a pilot in a developing region. D-Prize will award 5 – 15 social entrepreneurs funding. If the pilot is successful, D-Prize will help them to find future funding to grow the project to impact millions. Although existing organizations that want to pilot new distribution-focused initiatives may apply, if the enterprise is over 12 months old, has already raised more than US$ 100, 000 and is not piloting a new distribution-focused initiative, D-Prize is unlikely to offer funding.

Although the competition is not restricted to the Asian region, the distinctive focus on distribution solutions means a higher impact on the targeted groups, and is a competition worth considering for social enterprises all around the world.

For more information, visit the website.


  • Genesis

Genesis is a social entrepreneurship competition that aims to bring together students, entrepreneurs, NGOs, innovators, incubators, corporates and financers and to create a holistic platform for the initiation and development of exemplary social enterprise models. Genesis has been recognized in a study by Georgetown University as being one of the premier competitions of its type for its reach, as well as for the ideas generated through the exercise.  As India’s biggest social entrepreneurship competition, most entries are local, although its reach has expanded over the years.

Spread over 6 – 7 months, Genesis provides a stage for those interested in the social entrepreneurship field to develop their innovations and business ideas in detail, receive mentorship, network and have a chance of winning seed money to launch their projects. Cash prize money for the competition is Rs. 400, 000, and participants are also given a formal introduction to a team of angel investors for further funding opportunities. As part of the competition, finalists have extensive mentoring for a duration of two months.

Genesis hopes to encourage business ideas that can bring about radical improvements, catering to specific problems faced by society. The competition also gives participants a chance to build a community with an extensive network to like-minded people through which they can find partners, mentors and financers.

For more information, visit the website.


  • TATA Social Enterprise Challenge


The TATA Social Enterprise Challenge is a great opportunity for India-based startups. TATA Social Enterprise Challenge is a joint initiative by the TATA group and the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta (IIM Calcutta). Based in India, the Challenge aims to find the country’s most promising social enterprises. The competition also aims to raise awareness for social entrepreneurship and encourage youth to join the sector as the next generation of social entrepreneurs.

The TATA Social Enterprise Challenge targets social entrepreneurs at the earlier stages of creating a social startup. It invites those who either have an early stage venture or an idea with a proof of concept to participate. The proposed venture needs to have sustainable business model that will create social impact. Shortlisted participants will be invited to attend a 3-week mentorship program, which includes instruction at the IIM Calcutta campus.

Social entrepreneurs identified through the competition will be offered mentorship support, awarded cash grants and have an opportunity to pitch for funding and incubation at IIM Calcutta. The top 3 winners of the competition will receive up to Rs. 200, 000 each to be invested into their ventures.

For more information, visit the website


Twitter @dbsnus

By Beatrice Loh

The DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge (SVC) Asia is a competition organised by NUS Enterprise, the National University of Singapore’s practical complement to its business school, in partnership with the Development Bank of Singapore’s Foundation for social enterprises. The Challenge aims to identify and support new social ventures that have the potential to generate positive, scalable and sustainable social impact. SVC Asia 2015 received 683 entries from 30 countries and a total of S$150,000 in grant money was awarded to the winning teams. The Challenge was concluded in early June 2015 with three winners chosen according to potential for growth and self-sustainability.

Here are the 3 winners of the DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia:

  1.    Learn Education

Thailand-based social enterprise, Learn Education, came in first in the Challenge and received S$100,000 in grant money from the competition. Learn Education aims to improve quality of education in Thailand by leveraging technology blended learning tools to help teachers and to develop critical thinking skills in subjects of math and science through digital and active in-class learning modules. The vision of Learn Education is for all students in Thailand to have access to quality education, become critical thinkers and are able to apply Math and Science to their daily lives.

Learn Education first implemented its teaching solutions in a school in a mountainous area with no math or science teachers in 2013. After a year, the  school principal informed the company that their middle school and even some elementary school students were able to get full scores on their math and sciences tests, which the teachers themselves found difficult. Learn Education realised the magnitude of the positive impact they had made on the children’s lives.

Currently, Learn Education is serving 30 schools nationwide. It provides textbooks, digital files and computer systems to help aid teachers and students in their teaching and learning experience. It has also integrated real-life experiences and morality into the content, which helps improve students’ interests to learn. With the grant money received from the DBS-NUS SVC, Learn Education hopes to expand its reach to impact 100, 000 children and eventually, 1 million students.

DBS - NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia's photos on Facebook
DBS – NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia’s photos on Facebook



  1.   MicroX Labs

MicroX Labs is a social enterprise from India. Coming in second place at the DBS-NUS SVC, it received S$30, 000. The Bangalore-based startup developed a technology to count the blood cells based on upcoming technology of Lab on Chip and MEMS (Micro Electro Mechanical Systems) which miniaturizes the instrument with all the reagents preloaded in the cartridge, providing ease of use, portability and low cost, making it useful for rural healthcare. This is part of MicroX Lab’s vision to make diagnostics affordable and accessible to all.

MicroX Labs’ point-of-care diagnostics Complete Blood Count (CBC) test is one of the world’s most cost efficient devices for CBC diagnostics that can be used by non-laboratory trained personnel. The technology developed by MicroX Labs can be extended for other single cell analysis including CD4+ Tlymphocytes count, rare cells and malaria. This is just the start – MicroX Labs hopes to work with top-notch scientists and doctors from around the world to make high quality, cutting edge products to address diagnostic issues in India.

“We want to provide low-cost portable instruments as our focus will be on rural areas, tier-I and tier-II cities,” said Prakhar Jain, co-founder of MicroX Labs, when interviewed by The Hindu last year. The Reserve Bank of India classifies cities into 6 tiers based on population – tier-I cities refer to those with a population over 100, 000 and tier-II cities refer to those with populations from 50, 000 to 99, 999. Coming from a family of doctors, Jain had experienced the advantages of having medical diagnosis at one’s doorstep and wanted to increase the number of people with access to that privilege.

  1.   iHealth Express

Taiwan’s iHealth Express came in third place in the DBS-NUS SVC Asia, receiving S$20,000. iHealth Express was started by a group of young pharmacists who were involved in Taiwan’s Department of Health and were part of an initiative to promote international health diplomacy. This gave them the opportunity to observe European and American countries that were more advanced in the health industry and think of ways to help the Taiwanese healthcare industry improve and expand. One of the major problems they found was the lack of access to medical services in rural areas and for people with mobility issues such as the elderly.

iHealth Express’s mobile medical system was their solution. The system was created to provide more accessible services for all, eliminating inequality in healthcare delivery in Taiwan. Professional pharmacists handle medication delivery, refill prescriptions, face-to-face counselling, medication reminding and health education. The vision of the company is to reduce rural-urban medical gaps to achieve health equity.

The mobile medical system to provide more accessible services is implemented through the following steps. First, the patient’s chronic prescription is received through phone, fax, Internet, email and phone applications. After dispensing and checking, pharmacists deliver the medicine to the designated location. A 24-hour phone medication consulting service with experts for any problem about health, disease or side effects of drugs is also provided.

Competitions such as the DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge give social enterprises in the Asian region the opportunity to be mentored and expand their businesses through grant money whilst raising awareness for the industry and its impact on society. With the new injection of grant money, we can expect big things from the rising stars of the Asian social enterprise world.




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