These five startups show social entrepreneurship in Singapore is thriving
hile Singapore is home to notable unicorn startups such as Grab, Lazada and Razer, it’s also a place where social enterprises are alive and well. Here’s a closer look at a handful of them.
The city-state of Singapore can be considered a dream for founders. As a major international financial and tech center, it was ranked by Forbes last year as the eighth best place in the world to do business.
Not only are foreign founders welcome and it's speedy to set up a company in Singapore, the island country is also a launchpad for entrepreneurs across the Asia-Pacific region.
But it’s also a place where a number of businesses have been making a lasting impact on society. In the city-state that’s home to 5.6 million people, there are more than 40,000 local startups – and several of them aim to do social good.
Impact entrepreneurs are reinventing new ways of doing business with a social purpose.
“As Singapore continues to grow, the country’s social needs, such as aging and rapidly changing demographics, have also become more complex,” Desmond Lim of the Lien Centre for Social Innovation told Startup Guide.
Impact entrepreneurs are responding to this by reinventing new ways of doing business with a social purpose, Desmond said, adding that the self-sustaining business models of impact startups in Singapore are delivering sustainable societal change.
We take a look at five businesses, two of which are featured in our Startup Guide Singapore book (WateROAM and SDI Academy), that are shaking things up in the social startup scene at home and abroad.
WateROAM makes portable water filtration systems which are designed to work in remote areas or disaster zones. One of the enterprise’s notable achievements is receiving recognition from the UN for tackling Goal 6 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
“Over the past four years, we’ve provided clean water for more than 70,000 people across 21 countries,” cofounder Chong Tee Lim told Startup Guide.
Through working with disaster-relief organizations across Southeast Asia such as World Vision and the Red Cross Singapore, the startup aims to help 30 million people in the region in the next five years.
WateROAM began by bootstrapping, with the cofounders gathering their resources. Now it remains sustainable through the sales of its product and scaling up via external capital raised from angel investment.
“I really believe it’s our role as people who are privileged to help those without,” cofounder David Pong told CNBC.
The founders are moreover developing a program where micro-entrepreneurs can start a local business by selling affordable drinking water to the community using WateROAM’s filtration systems.
Founded by three Singaporean sisters, Freedom Cups aims to get reusable menstrual cups in the hands of women in need worldwide.
“The device helps women in the First World to reduce waste,” cofounder Vanessa Paranjothy told The Straits Times. “It also helps women living in the Third World who can’t afford sanitary products.”
Tackling Goal 12 of the UN’s SDGs, responsible consumption and production, the cups can be washed and cleaned for reuse – unlike other forms of sanitary products like tampons and pads.
Operating on a ‘buy one, give one’ scheme, for every cup that is purchased, the founders are able to give a cup away. At a cost of about S$35 ($25) each, the cups can be found at select Singapore retailers or bought online via the Freedom Cups website.
Some 3,000 cups have since been distributed to underprivileged women not only in the Southeast Asian region, but also in countries like India, Nepal and Nigeria.
In 2017, the sibling cofounders made the Forbes 30 under 30 Asia list of the top social entrepreneurs across the continent.
[ Read also: Now is the time to build an impact startup in the Nordics. Here’s why ]
In a country that’s home to over 1.3 million migrant workers, English is the foreign language most commonly used for business and academics.
So when Sazzad Hossain moved to Singapore from Bangladesh with his family thirteen years ago without a word of English, he struggled to assimilate. He soon realized he wasn’t the only one facing a language barrier.
In 2013, Sazzad launched SDI Academy and began teaching migrants English and other entrepreneurial skills at informal gatherings. Now, the ed-tech social enterprise boasts having trained over 6,500 blue-collar migrant workers across four countries.
SDI Academy does more than just teach English; it empowers people and promotes social inclusion. Not only was it named Singapore’s most socially impactful startup by the Nanyang Tech-Entrepreneurship Center, it also beat out 683 companies to win the DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia.
While the enterprise hopes to bring impact investors on board in the future, for Sazzad, what’s most important is that the migrants take the skills they learn wherever they go.
”When they go back home, they can start their own businesses, and that transforms their entire life,” Sazzad told Startup Guide.
What began as an idea in 2017 among three Singaporean friends driven by the goal to minimize food waste is now a startup called TreeDots, which claims it’s Asia’s first wholesaler of unsold food.
TreeDots prevents underappreciated food (food reaching their expiration dates, overstock, etc.) from being thrown into the rubbish bin through redistribution. By connecting grocery wholesalers with retailers, it sells unsold food at discounted prices to restaurants, caterers and charities.
“We measure our social impact by the amount of food saved,” cofounder Jiacai Lau told finance company Value Champion in September last year.
“We are proud to say that to date we’ve saved about 40 tonnes of food which is not an easy feat,” Jiacai added. Some 800,000 tonnes of food is wasted each year in Singapore.
For now, the social enterprise is only based in the city-state where it was born, though the founders have considered expanding to other Asian countries such as Japan, Indonesia and Korea.
Having bootstrapped the business since day one, TreeDots plans on looking to raise funds through investments or loans in order to expand.
More than just a roastery and coffee academy, Bettr Barista provides quality education and skill development to marginalized women and at-risk youth via a six-month training program.
The program prepares its trainees – who are referred by partner social workers – for long-term careers in the coffee industry. In addition to being taught how to make the perfect brew, the trainees also get emotional training sessions and participate in physical activities like yoga and hiking.
Four years after it was founded, in 2015 Bettr Barista was the first local social enterprise to be certified as a B-Corporation, according to the Lien Centre for Social Innovation.
Then it was recognized for its contribution to the community when it was awarded $50,000 and named Social Enterprise of the Year in 2017, the highest honor of the President's Challenge Social Enterprise Award.
In response to receiving the award, founder of Bettr Barista Pamela Chng told Yahoo News at the time that it’s important there are “models out there for younger social enterprises to look at.”
In the cards for the impact startup is possible expansion in the next few years across the Southeast Asian region.
[ See also: Why we need startups, corporates and tech to shape a better future ]
Main photo of team members at SDI Academy by Ian Soo