Young Social Entrepreneurs Tackling Southeast Asia’s Challenges

Young Social Entrepreneurs Tackling Southeast Asia’s Challenges

What do young social entrepreneurs look like across the region? And how does entrepreneurship differ across the seas? Four international enterprise founders explain what drives them and how they can benefit from building networks and connections.

“Contributing to something greater has always been a major motivation for me” says Daniel Layug, the founder of PeoplePods, a social enterprise providing dignified co-living communities for female migrant industrial workers in the Philippines.

Like many social entrepreneurs, Daniel identified a problem: hundreds of thousands of female bottom-of-the pyramid workers moving from small islands to work in special economic zones who end up living in slum-like dwellings. And he came up with a solution: working with employers to improve the quality of life of workers by providing safer, cleaner, energy-efficient rental housing with more amenities.

Daniel says the challenge was to turn a good idea into a viable social enterprise.

Launching an impact startup is exciting because of its multifaceted nature, but being a first-time founder is mentally challenging. I believe the key to weathering storms is resilience and developing confidence in your own decision-making. Setting myself up for success would be significantly easier if I was a part of a strong network of like-minded individuals who are going through the same experience of launching startups.

This is where a program called the Australia-ASEAN Emerging Leaders Program (A2ELP) comes in. This innovative program run by Asialink at the University of Melbourne brings together social entrepreneurs across the region with funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Australia-ASEAN Council and Australia Now initiative. This year, 15 social entrepreneurs undertook a three-month leadership program, including an eight-day intensive in Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore and Jakarta, where participants gave a snapshot of the critical challenges facing the region and what is needed to be a successful social entrepreneur.

Each social entrepreneur starts with a mission. Christine Parfitt, founder and managing director of Bottle for Botol Indonesia says, “My passion for the ocean developed later in life. I graduated with a Bachelor in Marine Science literally petrified of the ocean. I took up surfing, kitesurfing, surf club and ocean swims and in the process developed a huge love, respect and passion for the ocean. I travelled the world working in turtle conservation and became acutely aware of the issue of plastic pollution in countries that lack proper waste management infrastructure.”  

That passion inspired her to launch a plastic pollution education program that has prevented more than 15 million plastic cups from entering Indonesian waste streams. To achieve this, she focuses on being able to show the impact of her work.

2019 A2ELP Delegates in Jakarta | Source: Two Gongs Media 

“As an environmentalist, I’m driven by outcomes, and as a scientist, I want to measure them. I have been actively leading the continual improvement of our monitoring and evaluation processes for some time. We were first able to measure the success of our pilot school in 2014 where we found some exciting results. Students were paying less for water, they were drinking more of it, the canteen was making more money off water and we were reducing 814 plastic cups per week at the school canteen alone. The measurement of these outcomes inspired hope and drove us to expand our operations to other schools in Bali.”

For Manoly Sisavanh, founder of MeuangXua Embroidery, a social enterprise in Laos, her inspiration was a village.

“It all started at Pakvead village in Luang Prabang province, my mother’s hometown. People in the village live along Nam Khan River, which is a tributary of the mighty Mekong. A decade ago the Government of Laos laid out a plan to become the ‘Battery of Asia’ and Nam Khan River hosts at least three dams; as a result, aquatic ecosystems have changed, thus livelihoods changed.”

The villagers cannot harvest river weeds, and can only grow their vegetables in the dry season along the river bank or become daily wage construction workers. To cope with these changes, they need to be more creative to rise above their circumstances. So I decided to set up an initiative called Meuang Xua Embroidery to invest in skills for the local talented artisans. Now those women make steady cash incomes from making embroidery. They feel empowered as they can spend the money they earn on their children’s education, buying food, raising domestic animals, or even buying new clothes and cosmetics.

Her social enterprise is now working with seven ethnic groups in five provinces making homeware and ready-to-wear outfits in traditional and modern designs using handwoven fabrics, natural colour dye and traditional patterns. It directly employs about 20 households in ethnic communities and develops skills of local artisans. She is now moving into business incubation through the newly-launched Ananta Company. She was particularly keen to be part of the A2ELP to acquire new knowledge and build networks across Southeast Asia and Australia.

Some social entrepreneurs have been inspired by the potential of new technology, such as Gita Nofieka Dwijayati, co-founder of Tune Map, a crowdsourcing platform improving accessibility for the visually-impaired. According to Gita, “Indonesia has the second-highest rate of people with blindness in the world, with around 3.5 million Indonesians listed as legally blind. Unfortunately, their mobility right has been neglected. Most cities’ infrastructure in Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia’s, are inaccessible, which makes it hard for visually-impaired people to go to school or the workplace and hinders them in pursuing a productive life. This is also worsened by the lack of awareness about disability and accessibility.” 

“Based on those problems, me and my friends created Tune Map, a mobile platform to crowd-source information about a city’s accessibility to help people with visual impairments navigate, and governments figure out which routes should be fixed urgently. We have two main users: able-bodied citizens as data-inputters and visually impaired people as the main beneficiary group. We promote digital advocacy which allows citizens to create an accessible environment by participating in data collection.” 

To take her startup from Bandung in West Java to other locations across the archipelago, Gita says connections with other social enterprises are crucial.

Networking is a high-impact activity. All successful startups have created meaningful relationships, which allows for a fast and sustainable path to success.

Given the scale of the problems in the region, including urban resilience, climate change preparedness, disaster management, governance and resource management, there is value in building the skills and networks of Australian and Southeast Asian young social entrepreneurs. For a full list of delegates and enterprises in the 2019 A2ELP, visit here.