SG Social enterprises: making a mark beyond the red dot

Singaporean entrepreneurs are making waves of positive impact off the shores of the sunny island and into global waters where they continue to champion for the greater good. Dive deeply into the stories of passion-led organisations – Freedom Cups, Wateroam and Project Dignity – who are successfully expanding their scopes to the globe.

By SGN | 24 April 2020

(Freedom Cups at Uganda community that benefitted from the cause.) Note: This photo was taken in September 2019 before the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Social entrepreneurship in Singapore has surged over the years, with the sector size now at S$80 million. More passion-led organisations are driving to tackle down long-standing societal or environmental issues, with some branching out on a global scale to drive for greater impact and change.

Freedom Cups, a Singapore-based social enterprise that sparks for conversation around periods to be more accessible and environmentally friendly, have championed for change beyond the little red dot. The social enterprise has spoken with nine different Heads of States, and worked with thousands of women across South East Asia about the need for more sustainable periods through events, schools, distribution projects, and companies.

Yet, the most meaningful moments for these enterprises are reaping in the fruits of their labour – for Vanessa Paranjothy, co-founder of Freedom Cups, that lies in the enterprise’s first projects in Bacolod, Philippines.

“We went there with many hypotheses about how negating the consequences of having periods might aid women on the ground. But the women on the ground value-added to us so much more than we did them,” Vanessa muses. “They were the catalyst that got us from an experiment to here, and they will remain the people I turn to when the skies get dark, to remind myself of why we do what we do.”

Having started off on a similar path, Wateroam, a start-up that designs water filtration systems to help people in rural areas and post-natural disaster settings to have access to clean water, shares the same sentiments. “The first few deployments in Cambodia and Indonesia helped us to consolidate our thoughts and get us to where we are today; during these trips, we learned what partnerships and collaborations can achieve,” the founders said.

They recalled their time in these countries where they had installed water filters in small towns and instantly saw the communities having access to safe drinking water. “We realised that creating a social enterprise would allow us to focus on developing new solutions that can bless more communities across the region.”

While social enterprising is a broad sector that tackles issues from all walks of life, they share a common goal to buckle down on societal and environmental issues. Project Dignity brings the impact on closer grounds, by enabling the disabled to achieve gainful employment with Dignity Kitchen and Dignity Mama. The project has since expanded into modern cities like Hong Kong, where it pushes for greater transformation in acceptance.

“Project Dignity has impacted thousands of lives since 2010, and many have gone on [to lead] better lives because we have created the opportunity to [upskill them through] employment,” said Koh Seng Choon, executive director and founder of Project Dignity.

Branching out with deep connections

(Project Dignity has helped many persons with disabilities to find gainful employment.) Note: This photo was taken in early-Mar 2020 before safe distancing measures were implemented.

Singapore’s entrepreneurial landscape has played a facilitative role in supporting social enterprises to make headway in realising their goals to make a positive impact. Seng Choon reckons that “Singapore is a testbed for many social enterprises” and that “there are opportunities for start-up and aspiring social enterprising with government support scheme.”

In 2015, the Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise (raiSE) was set up to develop the social enterprise sector in Singapore. The organisation is backed by banks and companies, who Seng Choon notes to be an especially beneficial opportunity for social enterprises to tap on.

Enterprises such as Wateroam had tapped on such programmes, and had been supported strongly by early-stage accelerator programmes organised by PUB and NUS – which they note, had been helpful in the development of their initial business model. In Singapore, the entrepreneurial landscape is ever supported with grants and support for new businesses. The young enterprise shares that with such support, they were able to scale up to a high capacity manufacturing process to build filtration systems more efficiently.

“We were also able to tap into governmental grants, such as those offered by Enterprise Singapore, in order to develop our initial prototypes,” said the founders. The experience with such grants has also enabled Freedom Cups and Wateroam with opportunities to link up with like-minded investors and corporations that shared their vision.

Youth and mentorship programmes organised by the Singapore International Foundation are also in place to groom the next batch of social entrepreneurs in Singapore. For Wateroam, being a part of such programmes in the early stages of their business had helped to accelerate their growth. “We gained greater clarity on how to tackle multiple bottom lines. The meetings with mentors and other social enterprises also gave us an opportunity to learn about how their business model worked and how they built their team.”

“Singapore has given us so incredibly much,” Vanessa shares. “From our first customers to beneficiaries, to grants, to media coverage, to scholarships, to so many other unbelievable opportunities.”

Making headway for the next wave of budding social entrepreneurs

Seng Choon shares that the pour of initiatives and support by Singapore for social entrepreneurship has brought about many opportunities for anyone wanting to chase after their passions to make a positive footprint for the society and the environment. The most important factor then, in Seng Choon’s words, is to “believe in your dream even if no one does.”

(Wateroam designs water filtration systems to help communities have access to clean water.)

The founders of Wateroam share the same sentiments. “Anyone seeking a better world should take action and create it. Change will not come if we only dream. We have to act to be the agent of change we seek,” they said.

They add that budding social entrepreneurs will benefit greatly from local support, which will groom them with the right balance of skill sets and help them to have a deeper consideration of how their business model can work. Access to long-term connections and networks with other social entrepreneurs will also help new start-ups to gain traction in their journey.

And so, Vanessa encourages individuals to take the first decisive step. “Just do it, would be my advice. So little bad could come out of aiming to leave your little corner of the world in a better state than when you entered it. And in our books at Freedom Cups there’s no such thing as failure – you learn or you learn.”

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