This article takes a closer look at examples of Sustainability and Social Impact entrepreneurs and startups in Asia which have accelerated their business or had a market launch or even expansion because of Covid-19. The appearing entrepreneurs were part of a series of interviews focussing on “Digital Life under Covid-19 and beyond” produced by Heinrich-Boell-Stiftung’s Hong Kong office for the ‘Tech & Covid-19’ project that analyses global digital trends during the pandemic.
A year into living with Covid-19 our lives have changed forever. Not only did we have to learn to stay put at home, work and learn from home, we also have to do our shopping online, and even seek medical help via an online application. As much as governments are trying to put different measures in place to keep us safe, those measures have an impact on the environment, our food supply chain, the economy and even our mental health. In these unprecedented times, some were better prepared or harder affected than others. The Sustainability and Social Impact Tech Industry is a slightly different one, then at its core all Social Impact entrepreneurs always put the community first.
What is social impact?
According to Dorothy Lam, Co-Founder and Chief Catalyst at Dream Impact Hong Kong an impact resource bridging platform which helps social startups grow and scale, both their impact and business, social impact should be divided into two parts. The first part is the impact everyone of us creates, whether positive or negative e.g. buying clothing, consuming food, getting to work etc. All these activities create an impact on the environment and people as well as the world around us. The second is the social part and it is about relating to things beyond your personal life e.g. how are one’s actions affecting relationships with family, friends, community, city, country or even globally. Based on four main pillars (co-working & event space, impact community building, corporate partnerships and impact investing) Lam and her team are focusing on a blended value approach i.e. accelerate growth not only financially but also social values to improve people’s life for the better. When the pandemic hit the Dream Impact community, Lam together with partners were able to create a community resilience fund which helped startups as bridging loans to cover cash flow issues or lost revenue income stay afloat. On the future of Social Impact Startups Lam identified tech as the key role to improve communication and operations to enhance impact across communities and sectors.
How to run an errand during a lockdown?
That is the business of the social impact startup Outside from Singapore. Described as the Pokémon GO! for errands, the hyper local community app helps connect neighbours and business with their daily operations and errands. Tasks are being put on the app as a pin and anyone who is willing to help and earn either some credit or cash, can pick the task up and help with what is needed. During the ‘short-circuit’ (Singaporean way of calling a lockdown) the majority tasks were deliveries for example home cooked meals to spouses who were not working from home. Other examples were grocery shopping for elderly or people quarantining, picking up or sending mail and even assistance with tax filing. Nicholas Lim, Co-Founder and CEO has been working in the social impact space since he was 13 years old. With the endorsement of the Singapore Government during the first wave, Outside grew exponentially. Lim is positive on the outlooks of the social impact tech industry. “Due to the disruption in traditional business through Covid-19 allowing for remote working, larger companies are now more open to collaborate with social impact startups and invest some money improving existing platforms”.
Is the pandemic interlinked with our climate crisis?
Asking Sonalie Figueiras, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Green Queen Media Hong Kong, she responds with a definite yes. As an impact media, Green Queen covers topics from our climate crisis to sustainability to eco fashion, alternative proteins and the future of food. “People have finally made the connection between what’s on our plate and the future of our planet and humanity. In Asia those were separate issues which were connected through the pandemic”, so Figueiras. Our collective issues are among others the dependency on animal meat, the price of food is artificially too cheap and food industry lobbying. 80% of carbon emissions are produced from eating animal meat and dairy products. With the populations growing in Asia, huge amounts of economic mobility are becoming available. In countries like India, Indonesia and China millions of people are going from poverty to middle and upper middle class levels. When this development happens people tend to eat more meat. FoodTech startups not only help with traceability but also with plant based alternatives for meat and dairy even fish products. Figueiras recommendation for individual steps to live a more sustainable life: consume less and adopt a more circular economy mindset.
Back to the roots
When Covid-19 hit Sri Lanka, the government introduced not only a lockdown combined with a curfew but also an import ban on fresh produce. The people of Sri Lanka turned to online shopping but some vendors were left behind since they either didn’t have an essential business pass or no internet presence to sell their goods. This is when Shehani Rasaputra, Founder and CEO of e-commerce platform JustGoodness accelerated her and other people's businesses. A company vision JustGoodness is focusing on is empowering and supporting SMEs in Sri Lanka who have a lack of funding and often operate offline. As a social impact and sustainability driven company, which Rasaputra had founded when she realised her own dependence on Amazon, JustGoodness prioritises eco friendly SMEs to help fight pollution through thorough vetting and their business practices, buying in bulk to avoid further packaging, encouraging using public transportation for deliveries and supplying plastic free whole foods to local supermarkets. During the lockdown Rasaputra felt the massive responsibility of keeping her staff and customers safe and at the same time focused on revenue streams for the SMEs on her platform. One good thing that came out of the import ban is that consumers in Sri Lanka started becoming more cautious about their purchases and now prefer buying locally grown and organic food.
Mental Health at the heart of the community
Vincent Li, Co-Founder HeartChat runs a matchmaking platform focusing on mental health. Clinical psychologists, social workers, counsellors, therapists and coaches - all of them accredited, licensed and specialised in certain fields provide help to anyone in need of such services. HeartChat is a non-profit organisation focused on sustainability with the goal to group like minded individuals together to form a community that serves two purposes: for professionals to collaborate more together and for individuals that care for mental health and professional development. “Creating the shared value that is the biggest impact the HeartChat community can create”, so Li. In Hong Kong around 70% of those interviewed suffer from PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms due to Covid-19 and political uncertainty. One in six people feel unwell from such an episode. “What Covid-19 has done to us in the past months is it separated us from other people. Communication and interaction with other human beings is one of the biggest sources of happiness.” Happiness is detrimental to our productivity and wellbeing, and it is something we need to talk about on- and offline. According to Li, stigmatisation, isolation and judgement are the most common challenges in our society when talking about mental health. Technology brings us together, but how can we make sure at the same time to not get carried away by technology?