Making A Social Impact With Technology

Using digital tools to help social enterprises achieve their mission of making money while doing good was a key theme at the Digital Disruption for Impact event.

The Positive Effects of Technology on Society

A group of young DBS bankers head to a small village in Asia to help a social enterprise called Zaya rollout a digital solution that brings personalised learning to low-income children that lack access to quality education.

The team taps the bank's resources and their own ingenuity to overcome the obstacles in their way, helping the enterprise implement its solution while also reviving the village's failing textile business.

The story is told in the sixth and latest episode of Sparks  - a web-based mini-series produced by DBS - which made its debut on March 6 at the Digital Disruption for Impact event held at DBS Asia X, the bank's state-of-the-art facility dedicated to innovation and entrepreneurship.

While the tale may have been fictional, the social enterprise featured, Zaya Learning Labs, and its tech-based educational system is very real; and so is the desire of DBS to help firms like them succeed.

The founders of Zaya and two other social enterprises –Homage and WateROAM – along with Dr Alex Lin, Head of government agency SGInnovate, took part in a panel session following the screening to discuss the challenges facing social enterprises, and how technology can be used to overcome them.

An Eye on the Bottomline

A common theme among the entrepreneurs was a desire not to be seen as a charity, but rather a moneymaking enterprise like any traditional business.

"There is a perception because of the market we serve that we just want to do good. But from the time that we started we made sure that the unit economics made sense," said Neil D’Souza, founder of Zaya, whose Labkits - each containing Wi-Fi-enabled tablets and a projector with digital content for students - are being used in schools across India.

Dr Lin noted that unlike conventional businesses that can price their offerings as high as the market can bear, social enterprises have to keep their costs low enough for low-income earners to afford. For instance, schools can implement Zaya Labkits for under US$2 per child a month.

Technology to the rescue

More social entrepreneurs are turning to technology to cope with the challenge of keeping a lid on costs while turning a profit. Homage, for instance, uses a proprietary matching engine to match seniors with healthcare professionals that can provide them with affordable in-home care.

"Technology helps to promote (the elderly's) independence," said Homage co-founder Gillian Tee, who spent years running start-ups in Silicon Valley and New York before coming back to Singapore to be closer to her aging mother.

WateROAM, meanwhile, develops affordable water filtration solutions that can provide clean drinking water to those in rural communities without requiring heavy infrastructure. They also try to make a bigger impact by encouraging people in those communities to become micro-entrepreneurs by using the filtration system.

 “We also want the entire village to be equipped with a portable water filtration system that they can use to pump clean water out of their water bodies that they already have at the back of their houses, such as rivers, lakes, or ponds. With our solution, they can easily produce clean drinking water which they can sell to their community at a very low cost,” said David Pong, one of the co-founders of WaterROAM.

Zaya Learning Labs, Homage, and WateROAM are all recipients of the grant awarded by the DBS Foundation as part of its Social Enterprise Grant Programme last year. Zaya was also the grand prizewinner of the inaugural DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia in 2014.

Participants at the event agreed that the technology was a powerful enabler for social enterprises.

"I think it is a good idea to use technology in your social enterprise platform to help it become more effective," said Sunny Tham, a social entrepreneur who is developing peer-to-peer platform called Kuiddle that matches volunteers to those who need help in a range of tasks - from helping them buy groceries to accompanying them to the doctor.

Meanwhile, lifestyle blogger Jasmine Chew was inspired by the stories told by the panellists. "Social enterprises are a positive force for good and very impactful to society at large. Hopefully more youth will come out to become social entrepreneurs."

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