Startups leverage technology to do their part in helping the underserved

Singapore

SDI Academy and Allied World Healthcare were among the participants at the 7th Asian Venture Philanthropy Network Conference, held at Suntec Convention Centre from June 25-28.

Set up in 2014 and 2016 respectively, both startups are supported by Singtel under the social innovation programme, Singtel Future Makers, and are social enterprises.

Allied World Healthcare (AWH) delivers health care services to rural areas in the Philippines and Cambodia with their technology platforms, filling the gaps where traditional healthcare services do not reach.

Founder Edward Booty first worked in the UK, consulting and then later working for the National Health Service. He struggled with bureaucracy and ungratefulness for universal health coverage in the UK, he said, where many people had no perspective of the problems that many others in different parts of the world faced in accessing health care.

He then decided to leave for Asia to work in a different health system and do something that mattered, and founded AWH. "We have created employment in our communities as our access managers are hired from the communities to conduct health data collection and provide a local support channel, which is then consolidated and sent to the healthcare professionals to design programmes and events. As we are targeting communities in rural areas, our technology has to work offline and on very low-spec devices, which was a challenge."

He added that the team managed to overcome the problems by using a software architecture that functions similarly as WhatsApp. Mr Booty is certain that the startup and technology is in for the long haul to help people of these communities.

"I'm pretty fixated on not taking grants and focusing on shared value for patients, public sector and private sector. We have to be sustainable from the outset as there is a huge ethical requirement when you enter such communities. Shutting the company down when funding runs out ends up creating a problem as these people don't have the tools to plug that gap you left."

Sazzad Hossain, founder of SDI Academy, agreed and said that social enterprises can be innovative and scalable too. SDI Academy provides a structured and comprehensive curriculum through the form of an English guidebook, mentorship and holding training classes for migrant workers in Singapore.

Mr Sazzad said that when he first arrived in Singapore from Bangladesh, he could not speak English initially, and therefore can empathise with the migrant workers' situation.

"They are a vulnerable group of people. A country such as Singapore boasts workplace safety among other things but there are 12,000 accidents a year, and migrant workers are three times likely to get into accidents due to language barrier. Hence, we decided to do something about it and partnered employers of migrant workers from construction, marine and process industries to teach English to this group of people."

It first started by teaching six people, and has since then scaled to be able to teach 7,000 people, and has partnered with Nanyang Technological University, National University of Singapore, Singapore University of Technology and Design, and National Institute of Education professional teachers. Corporates come on board as well to volunteer time and resources.

Mr Sazzad added that the company will be launching a new app named Dr English in mid July. "Through the app, teachers will be able to monitor progress, and students can practice. And with this app, homework can be uploaded and teachers will be able to personalise the classes a bit more according their strengths and weaknesses."

Andrew Buay, Singtel's vice-president of group sustainability, said that the Singtel Future Makers programme aims to build support for the social enterprise ecosystem, and value-add to these startups in a way that they can be further scaled.

Mr Buay said: " Four to five years ago, social enterprises and social innovation were seen as high risk to back, but it is now less so as the ecosystem matures. I'd encourage other companies looking at embarking on the same journey as we have, to be prepared to be in this for the long haul in order to gain traction and take a long-term view on supporting social innovation."