Can An Emoji Turn Handwashing Into The New Normal? Cheryl Ng Thinks So

The handwashing emoji by her travel app Lemi has been adopted by Unicef, YouTube, Giphy and Twitter.

Can An Emoji Turn Handwashing Into The New Normal? Cheryl Ng Thinks So
Cheryl Ng

Handwashing is a habit for Cheryl Ng. She washes her hands every hour and calls herself as a “low-key germaphobe”. Handwashing, she adds, is a habit she cultivated during the Sars epidemic in 2003, when she was still in school.  

So when the idea of creating an emoji for handwashing came up during a group chat at Lemi, the travel app she founded in 2016, it was literally hands up for her. On Lemi, users, who hail from over 90 countries and 483 cities, not only get to share and save recommendations but also have them automatically mapped out to show distance and travelling times.

With many holiday and hangout plans derailed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the travel industry has been hard-hit. But the Lemi CEO chooses to stay positive.

Focusing on the bigger picture makes it easier to stay objective and not get drawn into the little things that will invariably pass,” explains Ng, whose parents are from Singapore so she often visits the Lion City. “For me, that bigger picture is how we’re going to leave the world a better place than the one we were given.”  

The handwashing emoji created by Cheryl Ng and her team at Lemi.

Hence when Unicef approached Lemi in March to collaborate on a campaign to take its handwashing emoji worldwide, she said yes. Within two weeks of launching Lemi Wash My Hands, the emoji became endorsed by Twitter, Giphy and YouTube. A petition to the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee to include it as a universal emoji — endorsed by World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), no less — has been sent.    

Why a handwashing emoji?

Emojis are such underrated yet fabulous methods of communication that transcend borders. Instead of translating “handwashing” into different languages, it’s so much easier to communicate with one common graphic. By educating people on proper handwashing, we can help save the lives of some of the 30,000 children lost each day to preventable diseases, especially in underprivileged communities and underdeveloped countries.

You even rolled out a campaign, Lemi Wash My Hands, for this emoji. How did the collaboration with Unicef come about?

We designed our handwashing emoji using a creative commons licence, so anyone could use it for free. Then we started a petition to get it accepted by Unicode to make it universally available on major platforms.

The social media buzz got Unicef’s attention, who got in touch and together we were able to push global awareness for this campaign. It’s a cause much bigger than Covid-19. And we did everything in our power to help.

According to Unicef East Asia & Pacific, “The development of hand hygiene-related emojis will enable health professionals to communicate more specifically regarding their discoveries and concerns in this field.”

What do you want others to take away from this campaign?

By signing our petition, you will make a huge impact in global efforts to reduce fatalities through basic handwashing hygiene. You won’t be alone; besides Lemi and Unicef, WHO and CDC are cosigners. By having the handwashing emoji universally implemented across platforms, you can help educate millions of people about basic hygiene and save lives.

Your take on WFH?

Lemi was built for remote work, in order to attract and retain the best talent. We have teams in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Manila, Taiwan and Gothenburg, so WFH made no real difference to us achieving our goals.

It’s taken years to tweak and create enough structure to hold people accountable yet offer enough flexibility so they can work when and where they are the most productive. But it comes down to people you hire, and the job you hire them to do. Our company KPIs are quite transparent… people who thrive in our company’s remote structure are self-driven, motivated, have clear goals, and really take pride in their work and enjoy what they do.

How you think the Covid-19 pandemic will change the way business gets done?

There’s a saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. For several years, there’s been a lot of debate about whether traditional ways of doing things are “broken”. Covid-19 is breaking a lot of things and could accelerate the conclusions of this debate.

It forces us as a human race to take a step back and reconsider how things are done. People have become more willing to explore new opportunities and new ways of doing business, which is great for startups like us. And because of that, more doors will be flung open. And of course, we generated much less pollution during Covid-19!

A sampling of favourite attractions in Singapore on Lemi.

The first place you want to visit after Covid-19?

I have a toddler; he hasn’t really been allowed to leave the house since he was born, firstly due to protests in Hong Kong, and now, Covid-19. All I want is to let him enjoy the outdoors and play with other kids again. I’d want to explore neighbourhoods I haven’t really hung out at, or enjoy coffee at a boutique cafe.

Lemi will come in handy.

Our community loves sharing cross-topic bits and bobs. I’ve learnt so much just by following people on the platform! Did you know, in Disney’s Aladdin, the city of Agrabah was based on Taj Mahal? Or that Hell does exist, in a little village in Norway. And, the croissant isn’t French! It originated in Austria and was called kipferl; it was brought to France during 1770s because Marie Antoinette missed her Austrian food!

Back to emojis. Share your personal motto using only emojis.


(Keep things light and you’ll go further!)

Download Lemi here.

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