Is financial growth enough to weed out poverty, hunger, and inequality? Can gross domestic product alone be the barometer of success? The term Economic Development has lost much of its sheen to new concepts, among which Sustainable Development is the one which has accumulated wide attention of all stakeholders – governments, multilateral organizations, capitalists, and civil society. Countries are doing their bit individually and are setting and chasing targets related to climate change, clean energy, gender inequality, and other such challenge. The United Nations, on the other hand, have been at the pole position to avoid mistakes committed in earlier centuries while blindly chasing financial growth. Member nations have unanimously agreed to independently as well as collectively pave the way for not just economic prosperity but also sustainable development.
But does this all connect with the thriving startup scene of Singapore, famously referred to as the financial hub of Southeast Asia? Startups are more often than not for profit enterprises focused on increasing the value of shareholders. These purely commercial entities aren’t expected to stress much on social counts, and this is why social entrepreneurship get regarded as a distinct activity, not seen in the same light as the startup community. That Singapore’s startup ecosystem is one of the most formidable – sometimes seen as a challenger to the United States’ much-hyped Silicon Valley – is a well-documented topic. Singapore Government and Venture Capitalists and Private Equity Firms have been more than encouraging in backing the entrepreneurial spirit of the city-state. In the same breath, the Governments and activists alone cannot be expected to deliver on the promises of Sustainable Development. The startup community has to play its part in helping achieve Sustainable Development Goals, dubbed as SDGs.
First things first. What are SDGs, and why are they so critical? SDGs are a collection of 17 wide-ranging goals adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. Fifteen years has been allowed to all member nations to lend a hand for realizing these goals by the year 2030. Although, there is a consensus among experts that achievement at the end of the deadline may fall short of expectations. And no or negative progress may be made with regards to some goals such as Responsible Consumption and Production, stakeholders cannot shy away from doing their bit. And these stakeholders include the new-age entrepreneurs who are coming up with disruptive ideas, ranging from self-driven cars to smart clothing, that are set to fuel growth in the 21st century. And so, while not all entrepreneurs in the city-state of Singapore can be expected to found startups that predominantly chase SDGs, at least some of the new-age minds must take the lead and assist their governments in attaining the targets.
From the eradication of Poverty and Zero Hunger to Climate Action and Affordable and Clean Energy, SDGs encompass what can be an intended social entrepreneurship startup idea. At the same time, we are to know that some of the SDGs, including Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure and Decent Work and Economic Growth, are targeting industrial growth. And Singapore already has a dedicated machinery in place, ranging from funding and mentorship support under the StartupSG program to various tax incentives for new enterprises. Still, some of the SDGs, for example, Clean Water and Sanitation and Life below Water need backing from social entrepreneurs who are not chasing financial growth alone. Concerted action is required in these respects to bring inclusive and sustainable development by the year 2030.
A few startups have taken the lead in this regard and are serving as examples for those entrepreneurs who are inclined towards social entrepreneurship. Let’s take a brief note of their area of operations and how they are helping achieve a part of the objective under SDGs.
TRIA designs and develops environment-friendly packaging solutions, ranging from cups and cutlery to lunch boxes. Through its zero-waste solution, Bio24 turns single-use food ware and waste into organic fertilizer. The startup noticed how single-use plastic ended up in landfills, and the process of incineration releases gases that are harmful to the environment. In a short span of 24 hours, the company’s Bio24 can break down unwanted waste into fertilizer. Food waste and compostable food ware are converted into farm-ready fertilizer, thereby making a usable product from what get otherwise deemed as waste. TRIA is thus playing a part in helping achieve ‘Sustainable Cities and Communities’, one of the most significant SDGs.
Clean Water and Sanitation’ is one of the SDGs, and WateROAM is one startup that is targeting access to clean drinking water in remote areas and at disaster sites. The company builds portable water filtration systems and has delivered drinking solutions to tens of thousands of people across multiple countries. The startup has also joined hands with Red Cross Singapore and other non-governmental organizations to provide easy access to drinking water to people in need. Making drinking water affordable is another area of focus, and WateROAM is said to be creating an ecosystem where micro-entrepreneurs can set up local outlets with filtration systems provided by WateROAM.
Targeting the SDGs, ‘Zero Hunger’ and ‘Responsible Consumption and Production,’ Flavorgator helps food suppliers recognize the taste of consumers and produce and supply quantities that reduce any food wastage. By forging partnerships with like-minded institutions, Flavorgator was also helping redirect leftover and wasted food to people who are in need. The startup is also stressing on educating consumers and food suppliers on ‘portion size,’ thus tackling overproduction at the production level and wastage at the consumer level. Since food wastage has been a long-standing problem, particularly so in developed countries, this startup promises to create an improved system of minimal waste.
The Singapore-based hygiene products startup, Freedom Cups, is today a prominent name having earned pats on the back from various international and multinational organizations. Founded by three women who also happen to be siblings, the company aims at providing reusable menstrual cups to women in need. What better way to contribute to the SDG, ‘Good Health and Well-being.’ In contrast to sanitation pads that are widely available in the market, however, aren’t affordable for those living on meager means, the freedom cups are reusable, thereby reducing the costs. The founders were duly recognized for their game-changing product and found a place in the Forbes 30 under 30 Asia list in the social entrepreneurship category.
One of the SDGs talks about ‘Life below Water’ and Seastainable Co. is a startup that is doing all the right things to deliver on this promise. Based in Singapore and helping conserve marine life in as far as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, the company produces a range of sustainable products, including straws, while also reserving half the profit from its business for environmental conservation. They do so by cutting on plastic by producing sustainable products and then allocating money to marine conservation programs. Having contributed to more than 30 such projects with upwards of USD 30,000 funds, the company is playing a small but meaningful role in assisting the city-state of Singapore make strides in preserving the life below water.
All five startups listed above are contributing to ease the burden of the city-state in delivering on SDGs by the year 2030. Although this sounds promising, the need is to scale up the efforts and double down the approach. Since Singapore is synonymous with economic prosperity, most of the new-age startups get tilted towards establishing for-profit enterprises that may not contribute directly or even remotely towards the goals set up by the United Nations General Assembly. The domain of social entrepreneurship isn’t attracting much talent, with most of the businesses in this space remaining too small to bring a significant impact. Also, venture capitalists usually back lucrative-appearing startups leaving social entrepreneurship ventures short of the funds required to turn the startup into a force to reckon with honestly.
By contrast, a few organizations are encouraging social enterprises. The Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise (raiSE) is one such name that provides advisory services, mentorship, and funding to social entrepreneurs. Through VentureForGood, raiSE offers grants to those enterprises that get concentrated on addressing social needs. Enterprises focusing on social sector also receive boost by way of the President’s Challenge Social Enterprise Award. All this said, the city-state of Singapore has both the need and potential to align its startup scene with sustainable development goals. The goals, ‘Quality Education’ and ‘Good Health and Well-being’, can be achieved when digital platforms can deliver on connecting teachers and students, and doctors and patients in a manner that serving the society takes a precedence over generating profits through the platform. Having achieved the tag of being the financial heart of Southeast Asia, Singapore can now lead the region on social entrepreneurship and attainment of SDGs.