After losing her mother in 2014 due to complications from severe diarrhea, Shomy Chowdhury took action to raise awareness about clean water, sanitation and hygiene. She and Rijve Arefin, who Chowdhury met later that year, cofounded Awareness 360 to bring together young people wanting to improve the lives of others.
The Kuala Lumpur-based NGO now has 1,500 volunteers in 23 countries who hold talks and workshops on handwashing, water-filtration methods and personal hygiene, among other environmental initiatives. The duo’s work for vulnerable communities landed them on this year’s Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list, alongside other social entrepreneurs and activists in the Social Impact category.
“We are helping communities come out of poverty and become sustainable and prosperous.”
“We are helping communities come out of poverty and become sustainable and prosperous,” says Chowdhury. When the pandemic hit, Awareness 360 focused on raising Covid-19 safety awareness and providing food and hygiene products to vulnerable communities such as sex workers and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
Caring for marginalized communities
Arefin and Chowdhury are not the only ones addressing issues facing marginalized communities in the region
In Australia, Ryan Gersava founded Virtualahan to break down employment barriers for stigmatized people, including those with disabilities and recovering drug addicts, by providing digital-focused job-skills training for roles that can be done remotely. Gersava was inspired to start Virtualahan after he was denied a job because he has hepatitis B and faced discrimination. Since its launch in 2015, the nonprofit has trained more than 600 people, 78% of whom found employment in digital-related jobs, such as digital design, social media marketing and video editing.
Meanwhile in India, Shubham Choudhary, who identifies as queer, started Safe Access in 2019 to provide equitable healthcare for the LGBTQ+ community in the country, where homosexuality was decriminalized three years ago yet discrimination persists. Safe Access provides training and education on the needs of the LGBTQ+ community to healthcare providers and then includes them on its website. More than 5,000 LGBTQ+ people have used Safe Access, which lists more than 100 healthcare providers across 21 cities and towns in India.
27-year-old Sazzad Hossain founded Singapore-based social enterprise SDI Academy in 2013 to help the country’s migrant workers overcome daily challenges by improving their English. He has since expanded its services to include computer skills, financial literacy and entrepreneurship. When the pandemic hit last year, Hossain distributed food and essential items to 43,000 migrant workers and launched an app to help them connect with each other and the wider community. He also partnered with remittance groups to help migrants send $1.2 million home during lockdown.
Social entrepreneurs on this year’s list are also using technology and innovation to make a positive impact in their societies.
In Pakistan, Nabeel Siddiqui, M Saquib Malik and Yaseen Khalid cofounded ModulusTech, which offers an innovative flat-packed house that can be set up within a day by three people using simple hand tools. Their alternative housing produces 50 times less greenhouse gas emissions compared to concrete buildings. The company hopes its solution can be used to provide homes to the poor, displaced or homeless people. ModulusTech has been recognized by the UN, Global Cleantech Award and others and has received funding worth $20 million from the Islamic Development Bank and other international NGOs, as well as some angel investors.
Next door, in India, Rishabh Choudhary and Amandeep Panwar started BharatRohan, which uses drones and hyperspectral imaging to identify crops that may be suffering from pests, diseases or nutrient deficiency. It offers that information to farmers who can then adjust their use of chemicals and pesticides. The startup is currently working with farmers to cover 10,000 acres of area across the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat. BharatRohan incentivizes farmers who implement their crop advisories by procuring their farm produce at competitive prices and selling it to industrial buyers.
Another Indian listee is using technology, this time to help the visually impaired. Ankita Gulati founded Delhi-based TouchVision which develops a multisensory tool that helps visually impaired children learn from tactile diagrams. The tool combines a smartphone camera, an app and a ring with a sensor to narrate the part of a diagram touched with the sensor ring. The combination of touch and audio better helps visually impaired children learn about objects than Braille on its own, according to Gulati. About 10,000 children have benefited from TouchVision’s tool since its launch in 2018.
Last but not least, Nashin Mahtani serves as the director of Indonesian nonprofit Yayasan Peta Bencana, where she leads the development of software to support disaster relief. Launched in 2017, Peta Bencana, which means “disaster map” in Indonesian, uses AI-assisted bots to monitor social media posts by residents in disaster-hit areas in Indonesia and to map earthquakes, fires and floods in real time. The bots also send emergency alerts to residents. Mahtani is adapting the software so it can be used for relief efforts in the Philippines. For her work, Mahtani was one of the five finalists of the 2019 Global Citizen Prize’s Youth Leadership Award.
To see the full Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list in Social Impact, click here.