Social entrepreneur Jack Sim argues that digital technology can be used to create opportunities for the world’s poorest populations, but a joined-up approach from stakeholders is needed.
The challenge of ending poverty for the world’s 3.7 billion poor is larger than any one entity can solve. Crucially, this task also presents a market opportunity so large that there is more than enough work for all active stakeholders to engage in. More than ever before, digital technology is making these opportunities easier to harness.
With technology now increasingly accessible – through cheap smartphones, e-payment and e-commerce systems – farmers can be connected directly to buyers, bypassing the need for a middleman, and thus reducing transaction costs and increasing independence.
These changes can have significant knock-on effects in other parts of their lives: with better prices, they can buy improved seeds to grow superior crops, which fetch higher prices. With extra income, farmers can send their kids to school or study online through free massive open online courses (Moocs). They can access “e-health” services, where doctors in cities diagnose patients in remote villages through video calls, and medications are dispensed at local village pharmacies. They can buy solar panels to pump water from boreholes, which can be filtered using affordable water tech, creating business opportunities to sell clean drinking water.
As more such trades are operated by the villagers themselves, velocity of money increases and local GDP rises, thus creating jobs and improving access to more quality of life products such as clothing, hairdressing and beauty products, handicrafts, micro-insurance, toilets and more.
As social entrepreneurs, we can help facilitate this growth. But first, we must remind ourselves that we do not own the poor. They are not the tools for our survival, or our road to glory. If we truly want to support them to rise from poverty, we should muster the combined power of all stakeholders to help them. We also need to persuade foreign aid and donors to fund a whole ecosystem approach instead of working in silos or competing wastefully.
We can borrow the Nine Basic Principles of Biomimicry by Janine Benyus when building our tech-driven ecosystems tailored to the low-income marketplace.
Here is my translation of the principles into practical actions:
1. Nature runs on sunlight
Solar energy tech can be scaled up to all off-grid communities. With energy, we can deliver water pumps, drip irrigation, wifi access, lighting, refrigeration, education, e-health, e-commerce, e-payment and more.
2. Nature uses only the energy it needs
Scale up our impact without scaling up our overheads. Don’t duplicate work.
3. Nature fits form to function
Blockchain has the potential to unblock any bureaucracy that hinders function.
4. Nature recycles everything
Recycle all proven ideas and don’t waste the opportunity to copy each other.
5. Nature rewards cooperation
Collaboration makes mission delivery cheaper, faster, better and easier. Those outside the collaborative ecosystem may become inefficient by comparison and become motivated to join the ecosystem.
6. Nature banks on diversity
We should bank on the diversity of our combined talents.
7. Nature demands local expertise
Decentralise and democratise distribution to local communities without having hierarchical cost structures.
8. Nature curbs excesses from within
Don’t spend excessively large amounts of time fundraising. Focus on leveraging peers to help you deliver impact wider and faster, so as to grow without overheads.
9. Nature taps the power of limits
Do only what you are good at and let the others do the rest in collaboration with you.
We know that there are already more than 4,000 proven social entrepreneurial business solutions that we can replicate. Technologies available span sectors such as agritech, energy, water, sanitation, e-payment, e-commerce, logitech, edutech, housing, e-health, fintech and smart city public policy, to name a few. We know that businesses want to open up this very exciting “base-of the-pyramid” (BoP) marketplace. We know that we do not have the trillions of dollars needed to deliver the 17 sustainable development goals. But if we can convert a significant portion into social business investments, and combine this with proven business models, we can solve the problem at exponential scale and speed, and at a much lower cost than traditional methods.
On my part, I’m building a 65,000 sq ft BoP design centre in Singapore. We want this to become a world trade centre for the poor and invite all interested parties to co-create and co-design the working mechanism so that it can become a replicable, open-source model. The idea is that anyone could start a similar centre around the world, allowing more social businesses to be connected with each other across borders as we strive to achieve a common goal: to improve the lives of those less fortunate than us.
This is our business call to action.