Startups focusing on altruistic goals, such as protecting the environment and helping the underprivileged, don’t always make the headlines in Singapore, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t doing exciting things.
The social enterprise startup scene here is dynamic, innovative and definitely exciting. In recent years, we have seen an increasing number of social enterprises tapping into new technologies. For example, Yonah helps connect rural healthcare systems by building medical cargo drone infrastructure in remote areas like Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste. The Singapore- based startup is using cutting-edge technology to drive social impact and make a difference.
Another locally based, social-minded startup is WateRoam, co-founded by Lim Chong Tee. He started the company with two classmates (David Pong and Vincent Loka) when they took part in a Hydropreneur Programme while studying at NUS. Seeing the strong demand for their portable water filtration system, they turned it into a commercial operation.
“We identified that the lack of access to clean water in Asia is a serious issue plaguing many developing countries, with their water woes usually exacerbated during a disaster. Going without food and shelter for a period of time can be truly trying, but going without clean water can prove to be fatal,’’ Lim says.
But while social enterprises have a positive impact in the community, are profits being sacrificed for the feel-good glow of altruism?
Since its inception, WateRoam has provided clean water to more than 70,000 people and its work has been recognised by the United Nations. While potentially saving the lives of thousands of people, WateRoam also makes a profit. ‘’We price our products at an affordable and competitive range to ensure our business is sustainable. Profits are used to cover our overheads and fund our R&D and innovation, so we are able to constantly design water solutions that are better and improve upon the current iteration of our flagship product,’’ adds Lim.
Another successful charitable startup is Bettr Barista, which helps communities on multiple levels. It builds personal and direct relationships with coffee farmers, provides annual scholarship programmes and runs an academy to help train coffee professionals from all backgrounds and ages, including seniors.
Having run a business before and experienced burnout, Bettr Barista founder Pamela Chng was re-evaluating business ideas when the idea of a social enterprise came up. She was looking for something that was sustainable, to provide solutions to problems and positively impact the ecosystem. She decided to start a business focused on coffee as it offered opportunities to improve lives across the entire supply chain, from producers and farmers to the marginalised women and youths who work in the industry.
Like any business or startup, Chng faced numerous challenges at the start. “There are all sorts of bumps in the road, as one might expect when working across a spectrum of unique personalities and life situations. Growth, funding, resources, social challenges with the marginalised groups we work with, these are all part of a day’s work for us. Creating a truly inclusive and diverse workplace, both internally and also with the partners we work with is something that we work towards, but this can be challenging at times,’’ she says.
But with great challenges come great rewards, even if it’s not always the monetary kind.
Chng believes that it’s not difficult to start a social enterprise, but it can be hard to sustain it. ‘’You have to be a better business than any other because there is a social programme to fund, so you need to be more well-run, effective, efficient and productive than everybody else in order to make a profit’’. The academy has trained more than 4,000 people and profits are reinvested into the company.
Social enterprises and community-focused startups generally find it harder to secure funding compared to more commercial ones. After all, most investors want to maximise the returns on their capital. However, impact investing — investors looking to make a positive social or environmental impact besides making a profit — is on the rise, with major players like Enterprise Singapore, Singapore International Foundation and DBS Foundation lending their financial support.
DBS has worked with more than 200 social enterprises in Asia, including WateRoam and Bettr Barista, through grant funding and support. The DBS Foundation enables social enterprises to add critical capabilities to achieve sustainability and scale up their existing business to achieve greater social impact. The Foundation offers grants of between $50,000 and $250,000 to social enterprises based on criteria such as business innovation and the sustainability and scalability of their business models.
Social-minded startups offer its founders other incentives too. A social entrepreneur needs to be knowledgeable in multiple domains and wear many hats at once. These specialised skillsets — from investment fundraising to manufacturing, product development, legal and patent knowledge, setting up distributorship networks and managing sales channels — may not have been taught in college.
Learning opportunities in the social enterprise space are aplenty and offer valuable experience that’s hard to find elsewhere. “The startup culture is fast-paced and some would even call it crazy. However, the dynamic nature of it is really fun and exciting for us,’’ shares WateRoam’s Lim.
There are definitely challenges as social enterprises balance doing good with sustainability. While lucrative fintech or AI startups may sound like a better career move, most fail in their pursuit of making huge profits. But a social enterprise will never fail as it is always giving something back, however small.