Monday, December 26, 2016

Can we learn resilience and empathy?

I've encountered many people who are psychologically fragile, breaking down after facing the slightest of stress. Some people get depressed after their first basic failure. It has became a problem now, as more and more people seemed to be more fragile than ever.

I've also met people who lack empathy. Not to be confused with pity of course. Empathy is often confused with pity, sympathy, and compassion, which are each reactions to the plight of others. Pity is a feeling of discomfort at the distress of one or more sentient beings, and often has paternalistic or condescending overtones.

Unfortunately, in my experience working in disaster relief and recovery, I've met many people preying on pity when they go about fundraising. Some volunteers and donations are also given out of pity, making the disaster survivors not only losing their physical possessions, but also their dignity.

As an entrepreneur, I've always been challenged the boundaries of what people do not think would be possible. Sometimes they are right, however, I would have to test some of my assumptions, and fail. In the process, I do learn a lot, and I understand the topic better.

I've been running Dreamity - Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for kids for years, and many people want me to do a "Social Entrepreneurship for kids". I've tried a simple workshop and found that many kids aged 8 - 12 today lack the ability to feel for others and mentally put themselves in their place. There are a lot of challenges to get them to innovate around donations and volunteerism as some of them were trained from young to do things and think a certain way.

After running the Bootcamp for a few years, I also realize that many of the kids do not have the ability to cope with failure. Some simply give up and NEVER want to try again, while others get really depressed.

Actually, I would say that even though the kids can't cope with failure, the feeling does not last, and as long as they want to learn, with proper guidance, they can grow to be more resilient.

It is possible to work on resilience. After reading a few papers by Garmezy, I learn the following. Whether you can be said to have it or not largely depends not on any particular psychological test but on the way your life unfolds. If you are lucky enough to never experience any sort of adversity, we won’t know how resilient you are.

Resilience and development: Contributions from the study of children who overcome adversity

Empathy is also trainable. Through roleplaying and engagement with others, you can get to learn how others feel when an event happen. Without empathy, it is hard to find sustainable solutions. Sadly, these are life skills not taught in school, with no written exams, and parents do not put high priority, and as a result, countries like Singapore does see a fair share of suicides from exam stress.

I would like to work on some solutions and workshops for resilience and empathy and people to work on these important life skills from a young age.

If anyone would like to work on these, feel free to contact me.

-- Robin Low

By the way, my book, Good Intentions Are Not Enough: Why We Fail at Helping Others is out on the shelves now.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Ease and Convenience does not drive results.

My book will be launch tomorrow, and I've already been giving several talks on Social Impact.

The most common respond I commonly get is, "Getting real impact is very hard. Can we just donate instead?"

Is this is the state of mind we have now?

Do we require everything to be easy and convenient?

Sadly, this is probably a reason why the current solutions do not really address the problems the world faces. Its because many people don't really think about social impact of their actions.

Many people want to help, they donate to large organizations for disaster relief, they donate to programs to support kids living in poverty. Some people even volunteered and visited the recipients of their aid.

I have met some good Christians who donated their time and effort to support the elderly and helped cook meals and cleaned the homes.

Many people however did it out of duty, or did it out of convenience. When you do not think about the problem, and assume the dollars or even actions you have done is enough to solve the issues the recipients are facing, you are often wrong.

Social intervention does create an impact, but not always positive.

When you help, you life decision for others.

The recipients often do not ask for help, and when you force your "help" on them, you may make them feel helpless and dependent.

Sometimes when you help, you do things for your own convenience, because you don't take joy or pride in whatever you do. Your only excuse is, "Well, I'm still better than most people who are doing nothing."

When you help, you exclude the locals and make decisions for them.

When the initiative fails, you blame the recipients for not taking initiative.

If you want real results, it is not going to be easy.

Just like starting a business or becoming a successful athlete, it takes time and effort to yield results.

There are multitudes of problems we face today, many are created by man, and they all have solutions, but we have yet to found them. Instead, we often look of convenient solutions to patch the problems and continue to patch as we go along.

The problems are getting more serious as time passes and apathy, complains and protests do not solve problems.

We need to take ownership and work with communities, support these initiatives and work towards sustainable change. There are solutions out there, solutions to many problems we face today, but everyone wants to pretend to be a savior to solve the problems, when they need to consult the locals who face the problems and know the situation best.

Lets find some time to contribute our capabilities, skills and resources towards disruptive activities which create real social impact. Lets explore the boundless possibilities and test solutions to make this happen.

We all live on the same planet. Lets create a brighter future for all.

-- Robin Low

Monday, September 5, 2016

Kathmandu Mini Maker Faire

Kathmandu Mini Maker Faire 2016

Nepal Communitere, in partnership with the U.S. Embassy Nepal and World Vision’s Nepal Innovation Lab, is organizing the first Kathmandu Mini Maker Faire (KMMF) on September 24-25, 2016.

The Kathmandu Mini Maker Faire will convene entrepreneurs, makers, business people, as well as members of international and national nongovernmental organizations and government agencies.

I know of many people innovating in the humanitarian space going to this makerfaire. It will definitely be a space where technology, processes and people converge. 

For more information, please visit. KMMF

-- Robin Low

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Survivors, not refugees

Short List of Change Makers who once were refugees
There are several similar lists available on the Internet. Some are limited, other very extensive, and almost every list misses some key individuals. I've tried to compile a shorter list, of high impact individuals the general public can identify, relate to and recognize their achievement and work, based on common sense, current trends, general and  popular culture.


  • Frederic Chopin
  • Gilberto Gil
  • M.I.A.
  • Miriam Makeba
  • Freddie Mercury.
  • Béla Bartók.
  • Gloria Estefan.
  • Wyclef Jean.
  • Von Trapp family (Sound of Music)


  • Thomas Mann.
  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
  • Isabel Allende.
  • Victor Hugo.
  • Khalil Gibran.


  • Milos Forman.
  • Marlene Dietrich.
  • Andy García.
  • Rachel Weiz.


  • Marc Chagall.
  • Camille Pissarro.


  • Michaelle Jean.
  • Henry Kissinger.
  • Karl Marx.
  • Madeleine Albright.
  • Clara Zetkin.
  • Rigoberta Menchú.


  • Lord Maurice Saatchi and Charles Saatchi.
  • Aristotle Onassis.
  • Henry Portal.


  • Albert Einstein.
  • Karl Popper.
  • Sigmund Freud.
  • Enrico Fermi.

Some sources:

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Moving forward – What else can we do for Social Ventures?

With the amount of financial support from some government on social enterprises and social projects, you would have thought that it will taken off by now, but strangely, you just see more awareness created and not really more impactful social enterprises in existence.
I’ve been involved in many social enterprises in Asia since 2010, and I have seen this sector grow. Social enterprise today is no longer a new concept. I’ve read books written two decades back, regarding social impact and systems change, and things are continuing to evolve.
In Asia, governments have been interested in this industry for at least five years now, and many governments do provide grants to support social enterprises. Just like entrepreneurship, the numbers are growing, but there is still not a significant number of them coming in to solve the pressing issues of society.
I have been looking at this trend and here are some of my observations.

Funding Students. The most common group of people I see that are able to access funding easily, are tertiary students. In fact, many universities and polytechnics push for social entrepreneurship, and they do have in house staff to help the students navigate the government bureaucracy.
In Singapore, many students who go to universities are from the middle to higher income group. And for the groups of students who are interested in entrepreneurship, they generally come from the upper middle class, where they can take some time off to explore their interests, instead of having to work immediately to pay off student loans and support their families.
Many of these students have not experienced poverty, and do not know friends who are in parts of society who experience social problems. However, they seem to want to solve these problems with their good intentions. Armed with some ideas and a vague understanding of the problems, they get funded and start their social ventures.
From the ideas I’ve seen, many of them are simply running a business with a slight social angle. Setting up an expensive sandwich shop and donating part of profits to a charity does not really fix or solve any problems. Hiring ex-inmates and the handicapped to do retail, or work in the kitchen of a restaurant provides possible employment, but still does not do enough to address social mobility.
For those living in the communities may need help and support, if they do not have a good command of the English language, or they cannot articulate their ideas well enough with a good business orientation, it is almost impossible for them to get any funding, yet these are the people who would best understand the problems they face everyday.
Systems change. The social entrepreneur may have found a good solution to support a community, however, if the system creating the problem is still creating more people who fall through the cracks, there is only a limited impact the social entrepreneur can do.
Sometimes, working with a marginalized community, the social entrepreneur can see the full scope of the system he is trying to change and identify the pressure points. For real social impact, the government also needs to consider to engage these social entrepreneurs to understand how they can support with policies which can support the activities of the social entrepreneur.

Policy. Changing policy is often a critical component to change the underlying systems that can create sustainable social impact. However, this is often difficult and politically polarized. With funding from the government, it is also hard to engage the government on a policy discussion if the government is not interested to talk about it. Policy change also have a deep impact on social enterprises trying to fix a problem. Sometimes, policies can also create NGOs and other government linked charities to come in and give freebies, affecting years of good work done by the social entrepreneur.

Lack of data. There may be research and analysis done, but information on poverty and marginalized communities are hard to come by. The government holds a lot of these information and shares only part of the data from time to time, and studies are also considered politically sensitive.

Communications. The communications between organizations and between government departments in Asia are generally bad. Within an organization, there is also sometimes a lack of transparency. It is important for a social venture to communicate              transparently both internally with stakeholders and externally with key audiences.
In the context of Singapore, some of these NGOs and social enterprises see each other as a competitor. With the kiasu mindset of Singaporeans, there is also little support and collaboration between NGOs, and social enterprises, even when they serve the same beneficiaries.

Technology. In Asia, many of the social ventures would use technology to solve many pressing problems. However, many established charities in this region are still very slow in embracing technology and innovation.
As such, collaboration is not easy as the technology level is very far apart, and what’s worse, some of the large NGOs and Charities just started to have more than 1 email address for their whole organization.

Cost and pricing. Many people still think that products and services from social enterprises are more expensive. In some cases, this holds true (especially if it is a charity trying to earn money and sell products involving their beneficiaries) These organizations still have the mindset that the public has the responsibility to support and pay more for these products and services. Sadly, because of this, the quality of the products and services are also not high.
Social enterprises still compete with many traditional businesses, but they may have multiple bottomlines to satisfy. Their cost structure may be higher as they need to be ethical with their staff, but the public may not want to pay more for this.
In conclusion, I believe that there is more the government, and the public could do to support and nurture social ventures. Social enterprises and projects need access to information regarding their communities they serve in, and corporations and government can support by using their services, or helping out with marketing and events.
The social ventures need to be better at communications, and be more transparent to build trust and the public needs to give them a chance, trying out their products and services. It would definitely cost society less if these social ventures are doing things right, and in time, they can also build their brand, and competence and scale their operations up to benefit more beneficiaries.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Disaster Recovery through Art - Come be part of Social Innovation

Art Impact Nepal is coming to Singapore in August. (

This event was launched in Kathmandu in April, and has been to Providence, Boston, San Diego and Rosarito so far.

I've learn a lot engaging with artists and meeting the visitors to the event. this event was the idea of various artists from Nepal and I'm learning something new all the time. There were a lot of unintended consequences.

Art Impact Nepal is not an art show. It is not about art appreciation and not about art education. The artists are Nepal fine Artists who are award winning artists, and they are there to display their art and share their experience during the earthquake. They will also talk about the progress of the recovery and how they are leveraging on art for disaster recovery.

One of the artist -- Ajit Sah is already training survivors in the earthquake to make handicrafts and the handicrafts are already sold in Kathmandu to allow the survivors of the earthquake to earn more money for rebuilding of their homes.

One of the goals of Art Impact Nepal is to raise funds to build a residential art studio in Lumbini, training and allowing more survivors to make handicrafts and sell handicrafts for a living. Foreign artists can visit the residential studios to work with the artisans, learning local art, as well as sharing their crafts with each other.


After running this art exhibition for some time, I've already learn so many new things.

1) Art Therapy.

One of the artists in Nepal experienced a lot of loss, and almost quit art. But when he saw the artists coming together for this project, he started painting again with mixed media. He realized that his post disaster art is much darker than his original art. Now, he is using all dark colors, showing broken temples and bells.

He realized that he could express what he could not vocalize with art, and it was good for his mental health to release his feelings bottled inside him.

As such, art is also used to understand the mental health of the survivors, and used as a therapy, a channel for some of the troubled survivors to express themselves.

2) Caste System.

I learn a lot more about the caste system, and how different castes will not come and support because of the type of art on display (lower caste)

In Nepal, I ran the exhibition and managed to get the various people to come, however, in the US, evidently, the community was fragmented and it was hard to get support from the Nepal community.


If you are in Singapore, please come by and support and show your solidarity to the artists. If you can please come and buy some handicrafts as well. There are organic soap and other handicrafts made by the villagers using only sustainable locally found materials and vegetable dyes.

I'd like to introduce conscious consumerism and you can support Nepal recovery by shopping in the new Singapore way, instead of donations. We can enable the survivors to support themselves and rebuild their communities by buying the things we need or meaningful gifts.

-- Robin Low

Friday, July 8, 2016

Humanitarian Robotics: The $15 Billion Question?

The International Community spends around $25 Billion per year to provide life saving assistance to people devastated by wars and natural disasters. According to the United Nations, this is $15 Billion short of what is urgently needed; that’s $15 Billion short every year. So how do we double the impact of humanitarian efforts and do so at half the cost?

Perhaps one way to deal with this stunning 40% gap in funding is to scale the positive impact of the aid industry. How? By radically increasing the efficiency (time-savings) and productivity (cost-savings) of humanitarian efforts. This is where Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Autonomous Robotics come in. The World Economic Forum refers to this powerful new combination as the 4th Industrial Revolution. Amazon, Facebook, Google and other Top 100 Fortune companies are powering this revolution with billions of dollars in R&D. So whether we like it or not, the robotics arms race will impact the humanitarian industry just like it is impacting other industries: through radical gains in efficiency & productivity.

Take Amazon, for example. The company uses some 30,000 Kiva robots in its warehouses across the globe (pictured below). These ground-based, terrestrial robotics solutions have already reduced Amazon’s operating expenses by no less than 20%. And each new warehouse that integrates these self-driving robots will save the company around $22 million in fulfillment expenses alone. According to Deutsche Bank, “Bringing the Kivas to the 100 or so distribution centers that still haven’t implemented the tech would save Amazon a further $2.5 billion.” As is well known, the company is also experimenting with aerial robotics (drones). Meanwhile, Walmart and others are finally starting to enter the robotics arms race. The latter is using ground-based robots to ship apparel and is actively exploring the use of aerial robotics to “photograph ware-house shelves as part of an effort to reduce the time it takes to catalogue inventory.”

What makes this new industrial revolution different from those that preceded it is the fundamental shift from manually controlled technologies—a world we’re all very familiar with—to a world powered by increasingly intelligent and autonomous systems—an entirely different kind of world. One might describe this as a shift towards extreme automation. And whether extreme automation powers aerial robotics, terrestrial robotics or maritime robots (pictured below) is besides the point. The disruption here is the one-way shift towards increasingly intelligent and autonomous systems.

Why does this fundamental shift matter to those of us working in humanitarian aid? For at least two reasons: the collection of humanitarian information and the transportation of humanitarian cargo. Whether we like it or not, the rise of increasingly autonomous systems will impact both the way we collect data and transport cargo by making these processes faster, safer and more cost-effective. Naturally, this won’t happen overnight: disruption is a process.

Humanitarian organizations cannot stop the 4th Industrial Revolution. But they can apply their humanitarian principles and ideals to inform how autonomous robotics are used in humanitarian contexts. Take the importance of localizing aid, for example, a priority that gained unanimous support at the recent World Humanitarian Summit. If we apply this priority to humanitarian robotics, the question becomes: how can access to appropriate robotics solutions be localized so that local partners can double the positive impact of their own humanitarian efforts? In other words, how do we democratize the 4th Industrial Revolution? Doing so may be an important step towards closing the $15 billion gap. It could render the humanitarian industry more efficient and productive while localizing aid and creating local jobs in new industries.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Solar Energy Storage Hackathon Singapore.

The Solar Energy Storage Hackathon in Singapore is run by Global Sense and Civil Innovation Lab. This is the first of such event held in Singapore, and the goal is to find out sustainable solution for storing sustainable energy in Rural communities.

The registration started on 18 April 2016, and there were 2 pre-Hackathon workshops on 28 May and 4 June. The workshops are to introduce how solar energy works, and to calculate carbon footprint. The hackathon is open to secondary schools, JC and university students.

This year, the hackathon is run at the Singapore Science Center on 14 - 17 June. there were 37 registered participants and the each team was given a 5.4W panel that produces 4.5V output.

The challenge was to use this panel to store energy (without the use of batteries or chemicals) in a sustainable way, and later allow the energy to be used to power LED bulbs or charge a phone. The solution should be scalable in the rural communities, like those in Nepal which are off the grid.

The participants are encouraged to recycle old toys and appliances for the storage and spend as little as possible, and use item which they think can be acquired in Nepal. 

After some brainstorming, mentors are assigned to each team to work with them on a solution that they could hack together in the next few days.

Some of the ideas were pretty ambitious, and others rather novel. Many of the students did learn a lot from school, and want to apply their knowledge, and during the hackathon, they quickly realized that it is actually very challenging to create a prototype, which it is easy to work out solution on the paper.

For example, the most common way to get energy stored to light a bulb or charge a phone is to use a motor as a generator, and picking the right motor to light up a bulb is not easy. Even a 3W motor can come in various sizes and even engineering students don't have any idea when it comes to creating a device. It is really a big test on their creativity and adaptability to work towards the solution with what they have.

Initially, some of the participants though of similar solutions, but implementing and creating the solution is NEVER the same. even when 2 teams want to store water, one team actually created their own pump out of a piece of wood in a circular plastic container and a motor.

The hands on experience on creating the prototype and managing their limited time is also a great learning experience as most knowledge are taught on books, and translating it to a physical product is something all the participants have no experience in.

After a few days of assembling materials and building their prototype, they have to present their solution to the judges.

The participants created a lot of novel solutions, and there were many iterations of the creation as there were lots of trail and error to get to what they want.

Time management was also very important, and some groups had a rather hard time managing time, and resources. And eventually had to scale down their solution to a simpler one.

Many interesting devices were created by the younger student, and even a "valve" derived by examining how the heart works is being tested.

The prototypes need to be functioning and not "pretty" and even so, it was not an easy task. For some projects, it became a crafts project, and one need to be handy and innovative to use limited resources.

In the end, one of the younger teams created a good device which they can demo (and works) to pump water to a height with a pump powered by the solar panel. And later, use the running water to turn a turbine and light up a bulb.

We would like to thank our main sponsor -- Ricoh Singapore that sponsored the Theta S 360 camera as prizes for the winners.

I had great fun organizing the event and was inspired by the young minds in their creative solutions. This was their first hackathon experience and they put in a lot of effort to work on the prototypes. They are also invited to travel to Nepal where there are several on the ground partners like Nepal Communitiere to host them to scale their prototypes up into other solution to empower the rural communities and earthquake survivors.

-- Robin Low

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The unequal distribution of resources

Many societies have come to a point where people feel that the unequal distribution of resources is part of life. Some of my friends in Singapore buy into the prosperity gospel -- a religious belief among some Christians that financial blessing is the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations will increase one's material wealth. Others join mega churches and believe that they should earn more in order to give more.

In the US, my Conservative Republican friends dislike paying taxes and make socialism a dirty word. They also believe that people are poor because they are lazy, and seek ways to reduce social spending.

Resources are materials found in the environment that humans use for food, fuel, clothing, and shelter. These include water, soil, minerals, vegetation, animals, air, and sunlight. People require resources to survive and thrive.

Due to the difference in the environment that results in different natural conditions, resources are distributed differently across the globe. Countries that do not have the resources they need can trade for them. Sometimes, conflicts happen when countries try to control resource rich territories.
Within the countries and society itself, there is also unequal distribution of resources. Today, the income gap is widening. Many people consume fewer resources they need for survival and well-being. As a result, there is much poverty in these countries. However, not everyone in these countries is poor, there are also a few people controlling all the resources, making them very rich.
This unequal distribution of resources, the legacy of imperialism, is the result of human rather than natural conditions. But this problem is not only found in third world countries, many countries do see a large income gap and the number of "working poor" in these countries is also on the rise. In fact, the world’s 62 richest people hold as much wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion in 2016.
We praise billionaires for their charitable donations and philanthropy. But where do they get their massive wealth from? Many of these billionaires are driven to make as much money as possibly at any cost. After making money, they hoard their wealth and give a small portion to charity while putting the rest in a tax free financial vehicle.

Corporations are also hoarding Trillions of dollars; some say they hold it for a "rainy day", while some corporations focus on "tax efficiency" which most of us call "tax avoidance". If they were to spend it, the economy would instantly grow, and we could see more jobs with better pay. Strangely, the stock market is also rewarding companies for hoarding money, namely software and healthcare companies which hoard the most cash.

Perhaps this is a result of our dysfunctional society, a society where people suffer from curable diseases simply because they cannot afford medical care -- because they are too poor. There is massive income inequality in the world and many that could not earn a sufficient living now require aid in order to get by.

In many societies, people with materialistic wealth are looked up on as idols. No matter where he gets his wealth from, corruption, unfair business practices which kills of other smaller competition, he gets more respect for having more.

Many aspire to accumulate wealth and will find all means to get there, and only when they are rich, they participate in philanthropy. This is the kind of mindset that creates the income inequality, where people around die from poverty and creates a need for the billionaire philanthropists to come to the rescue.

We need to address the distribution of resources at the root. We need to treat people in our society with empathy and consideration. It is definitely possible to do well while doing good. Through social innovation, marginalized communities can be freed from a life bound by servitude and dependency.
Poor people are not stupid. They have ideas and aspirations, but lack resources to even solve their most immediate problems. They do not need the help from the billionaire philanthropists; they do not need aid and donations. They need to be able to be included in deciding their future, and be connected to be resources and be empowered to solve their own problems.

What we need is just for people to rethink their consumption habits. Supporting chain stores who exploit their workers in the different levels of supply chains, just because they sell cheaper products may not the best way to save money. We need business owners who treat their workers with respect and encouragement. We do not need to worship billionaires because it will encourage people to accumulate their wealth at any cost.

Everyone plays a role to empower their communities and enable the ones who are marginalized to do more. Charities are temporary solutions and the main problems we need to address the unequal distribution of resource.

Billionaire philanthropists and large corporations do not hold the solution of the problems we face today, it is up to us to take actions and accountability to make things right.

-- Robin Low

Wednesday, June 1, 2016


It is normal for people to push blame to others, especially when there are voiceless.

Scapegoating is the practice of singling out any party for unmerited negative treatment or blame as a scapegoat. Scapegoating may be conducted by individuals against individuals (e.g. "he did it, not me!"), individuals against groups (e.g., "I couldn't see anything because of all the tall people"), groups against individuals (e.g., "Jane was the reason our team didn't win"), and groups against groups.

For many years, donations have been the default model to help people living in poverty. Nothing much has changed to improve the lives of the recipients of aid, and they are often blamed for it. Many social enterprises give jobs to people from marginalized communities. Some of them pay only minimum wage, and others who hire the elderly or disabled may only hire them part time denying them benefits. There is also often no progression in the jobs, and when these people leave the job, they are often blamed for not sticking to the job. Without engagement many NGOs and governments think of solutions to help these communities. And the communities are told to be grateful and just accept what is given to them. The solution may not work as usually foreign experts are used and no consultation is done, and there is also very little buy in from the community. When the project fails, the communities are blamed for the failure.

-- Robin Low

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Solar Forward - Allow survivors access to sustainable energy #Nepal #Earthquake

Following the Nepal Earthquake in 2015, many communities were left without power. However, even after a year, the power has not returned to these communities. Many NGOs has called for donations of solar kits to give some of these communities light. I met up with various of these groups and they were interested in giving a few hundred solar kits to villages, however, as there were millions living in the dark, the question I often asked is, “How do you pick who receives these solar kits?”
Looking at the projects and speaking to people from the villages. The feedback I received was that, there is a real need for light and cell phone charging. Having a few more hours of productivity, having energy to power lights and charge cell phones is very important indeed. The fact is, many of these communities do have a need to charge their phones for communication. Their kids do go to school, and light is important for them to do homework. Some of the residents in the villages do have other work besides farming, and a few more hours of light could make them more productive.
I felt that access to sustainable energy is a basic human need. For a post disaster community, there will be NGOs to give food, water and shelter, but these communities also need sustainable energy. But when funding is limited, the question is who will receive these solar kits, and how do we make more people benefit eventually?

From the engagement with the various communities, I got to know that some of the farmers in the villages do have extra work on the side. These farmers are also tailors, cobblers and artisans. They work after the day ends, and a few more hours of light would mean extra income for them. This extra income would mean a big difference in terms of earnings, and they could now make more money and save up to rebuild their homes.

Solar Forward is a crowdsourced project that plans to raise funds to bring in 500 low cost solar kits, consisting of Solar Panels, LED bulbs and a charger which can store the energy and charge cell phones. The local team in Nepal will curate 500 people from the various villages damaged by the earthquake, and give them these solar kits. The criteria for the curation are how much more these communities would make if they were given a solar kit.
If the family would earn at least US$1 more per day, just by having 4 more hours of light, and they would save the extra $1 a day, in 60 days, they would have US$60, which could buy another kit for someone else in their village.

If this family would agree to save up and buy another kit to benefit someone else in the village that would have financial gains when they receive the kit, they would be a potential candidate to receive the solar kit. This is testing a pay it forward model, which transforms the victim of an earthquake from a passive receiver of aid, to an active participant in the recovery process, empowering them to support others in their villages.

Working with Nepal Innovation Lab, studies on success or failure of the project, and how the community reacts to the pay it forward model will be studied and the results shared.

There is also a concern for those who do need the solar kit, but cannot commit to saving an extra US$1 a day. Many families could however, save up US$0.30 – US$0.50 a day. These families would be part of the phase 2 of the Solar Forward project. Once the initial 500 solar panels arrive, the cost of shipping, customs clearance would be confirmed. And we can have the exact price of each of these panels delivered to Nepal.

The local Nepal team is also now looking at finding foundations and various institutions to be bank guarantors. As the communities are out of the banking system, it is very hard for them to get a US$50 loan for the solar kit. Having a bank guarantor would allow them to access the bank loan. And after building credit by paying off the loans, these communities could be integrated back into the banking system and have access to more loans.

The initial calculations show that they can pay a US$50 loan in as little as 7 months if they save US$0.30 a day. And the other benefit would be that after paying off the loan, the communities could also build up a credit history for them to have access to the banking system.
Lastly, for those who may not even save US$0.30 a day, they can also access microfinance, which will train them in running a business or other skills which will help them generate income, and the microfinance companies could them put them on a microfinance loan, allowing them access to solar energy.

This project is still ongoing, and the results will be made available once the project is completed. 

If you would like to contribute to Solar Forward, the fund raising page is here. 

-- Robin Low

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Relook at Social Entrepreneurship

I would call a social enterprise a company with a triple bottom line: social, environmental (or ecological) and financial. It needs to serve a social need, and it needs to be both environmentally and financially sustainable.

You see this diagram in many books talking about social entrepreneurship. The definition of a social enterprise today is very vague, and many even argue if there is a need to have such a definition.

It is already not easy to run a "social enterprise" but I do find many people interested in this field. Across the world, social enterprise is the buzzword to get the support from various governments. But when you do look into the various business models, there is so much grey areas where the organization operates.


In Singapore, the NTUC is considered a social enterprise. They run an insurance company, supermarkets and various other commercial enterprises. National Trade Union Congress in Singapore is a politically backed company after the Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU) collapsed in 1963 following the government's detention of its leaders during Operation Coldstore and its subsequent official deregistration on 13 November 1963, leaving the NTUC as the sole trade union centre.

As most of the leaders in NTUC are members from the PAP party, NTUC's operations is closely seen as PAP's operations and hence it is much supported by the government to run social enterprises which has lower cost services.

However, I do not really see NTUC Fairprice having lower cost of food. NTUC Foodfare seemed to charge a much higher price for food with some of the similar chain stores found in other foodcourts, And the one in AMK hub especially has similar foods that costs even more than Orchard Road.

With NTUC considered as a social enterprise in Singapore, Singapore can declare themselves to have one of the largest social enterprises in the world.

With such a broad definition of social enterprises, it is hard not to identify yourself or not identify yourself as a social enterprise in Singapore.

Ways you can call your business a social enterprise.

If you hire elderlies or disabled (due to wage subsidy from government), you can consider yourself a social enterprise as you employ the marginalized.

If you hire the marginalized such as ex-offenders, (due to wage subsidy from government), you can consider yourself a social enterprise.

If you use recycled or sustainable products, you can consider yourself a social enterprise.

If you carry out activities which benefit a certain group of NGOs, like doing some pro-bono work for a VWO, you can consider yourself a social enterprise.

If you donate part of your profits to charity, you can consider yourself a social enterprise.

If you sell sustainable fashion, you can consider yourself a social enterprise.

If you run (paid) courses for the marginalized, you can consider yourself a social enterprise.

If you build products that some marginalized people can use, you can consider yourself a social enterprise.

The list goes on...

So eventually, if you register with the Social Enterprise Association (Which seems rather dormant), you can consider yourself a social enterprise.


So why is this good (or bad)?

I feel that generally, when everything is a Social Enterprise, it can hardly demand differentiation. 

I would argue locksmiths, plumbers or electricians are social entrepreneurs as well as they do serve social need. What about Hybrid Taxi Drivers? Ooooh, they are sooo Green, and they sometimes transport the needy.

The Social Enterprises which creates a big social impact may now find it more difficult to differentiate themselves from the "greenwash" or "whiteswash" social enterprises, and people may not really care otherwise.


Are social enterprises even needed then?

I personally feel that commercial enterprises that primarily focus on profits or interested in the needs of the shareholders is simply wrong. The whole capitalism has warped our sense of reality that we praise businesses that are doing something good.

I really want to discourage students who are interested starting businesses today to start social enterprises if all they want to do is to sell things to the poor.

"Bottom of the Pyramid" 

I really hate this concept of looking at "the poor" as a market to sell things to. The poor does not need low cost pop corn, potato chips or soda... They do not need LCD TVs or other non essentials. 

I really cringe when some of the young entrepreneurs decide to raise funds to make products to target "the poor" after reading the book...

There are needs and wants. If you can find a solution to allow the poor access a need, like lower cost healthy food, sustainable energy, clean water, etc. And if you find a financial model and a distribution model which allows them to buy these needs, great! You are doing good while running a business.

This however may seem to be a fairytale. I'm trying to bring low cost solar kits to rural communities and for them to afford, you need a fantastic logistic model which is efficient and low cost, you need to cut out the middle man and connect to the end users directly, you need to have a low profit margin. All of which most people who you may seek finance from will definitely not fund you.

Most "Impact Investors" -- unfortunately -- are still looking for a profit margin. If they provide the risk capital, they want returns (20% ROI)? And this means your retail price has to be 20% more, an amount which the beneficiaries and target audience may not afford.

In my opinion, there is not really a good place for social enterprises as the corporations are already doing CSR, and the charities are trying to make income. With the confusing definition, people may not even tell the difference between companies and social enterprises.

If you want to create real social impact, stop trying to sell things to "the poor" and think of them as a "Market". With more needs available to them, they may not save enough money to acquire assets which they need to get out of poverty. 

If you are running a social enterprise, make sure you can create positive social change, real social impact, instead of just running a business, pretending to do good.

-- Robin Low