“We decided we wanted it. We made it.”
July 14, 2022
Rafael Masters grew up watching Star Trek on television.
“They would walk around and they'd have these little computers in their hands, and these computers were basically a flat sheet of paper, and that was one of the coolest things I'd ever seen. Twenty years later, I've got three of them in my house. I've got iPads, it's like we saw it in sci-fi. We decided we wanted it. We made it,” he said.
In 2018 Rafael co-founded the Vietnamese biotechnology start-up, Vulcan Augmetics. Its aim is to fill the needs of the 38 million amputees in the developing world, most of whom don’t have any official support. The team develops affordable, high-functioning and customizable prosthetics which will enable amputees to find work and improve their lives.
‘[There is] 70 percent unemployment amongst amputees,” Rafael says. “This means they struggle to support their families. They struggle with social stigma. They lack physical independence and have to rely on family members to help with some daily tasks.”
In 2017 UNDP and the Citi Foundation started the Youth Co:Lab initiative to engage with, and promote the ideas of young people like Rafael in Asia Pacific and to harness their energy for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The region provided fertile ground. Of the 660 million young people, about 160 million don’t have jobs, education, or training, and many are further alienated because they are left out of decision-making processes.
Five years on, and more than 200,000 young people from 28 countries are involved in more than 12,000 programmes which promote leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship, with a particular focus on underserved communities.
A fresh approach to food testing
Like much of the world, India faces challenges with food waste. About 33 million tonnes of vegetables and fruits are wasted every year, costing the country just over US$3 billion. Two friends, Amit Srivastava and Ankit Chauhan came at the issue from a novel angle—creating a pocket-sized device that uses infrared light to make food testing less wasteful and less expensive.
"We are dedicated to the democratization of food testing with a mission to make chemical-free quality fruits accessible to everyone. The aim is to reduce food wastage and improve food safety by using technology," Amit says.
Based in Gudjarat, they formed their company, InfyU LABS in 2019.
“The most challenging part is to educate and make the local aggregators, retailers and farmers understand that we are here to support them, not to replace their jobs with technology,” Amit says. “Youth Co:Lab provided us with networking opportunities with other like-minded social entrepreneurs that we may not have found elsewhere.”
Their latest achievement was closing the seed round of funding with US$242,000 from the Indian Angel Network which will, among other things, boost their research and development capabilities.
Creating work and changing minds
As a girl, Sagufta Salma would swim in the oceans surrounding Fiji. She was raised by a single mother who struggled to find meaningful work.
The ocean gave her perspective, but as she returned to the beaches of her childhood, she noticed the rubbish piling up.
“When you are underwater, you can hear yourself breathe and feel your heartbeat and you see the beauty of life going past you, it’s my inspiration. Now, when I see so much rubbish going into it, because of the rubbish that we are making, it disturbs me,” she says.
Sagufta has two things on her ‘to-do’ list; to change how society treats women and to stop the flood of waste pouring into the ocean. She created Fusion Hub in 2017 and her initial project was simple; turning waste into furniture and home décor.
“I needed to start creating opportunities for women and I needed to break stereotypes of what women can do,” she says.
In Fiji, 60,000 tons of waste is deposited in landfills every year, but the total waste is likely much higher with rural communities, who don’t have landfills, resorting to burning, burying, or dumping in the ocean.
Sagufta started by making eight pet beds out of used vehicle tyres. She sold out at the local market in two hours.
The first agency she approached for seed funding turned her down, ironically displaying the same attitudes that she is working to change. “They questioned whether women could make furniture, or if the quality would be good. I thought, ‘ok if they don’t believe in me, that’s ok. I believe in me. I can start to fund this myself’.”
While all entrepreneurs face challenges, female entrepreneurs in Asia-Pacific are up against higher discriminatory cultural norms and unpaid care burdens, more limited opportunities to both develop skills and receive financial support.
Youth Co:Lab stepped in and Sagufta was able to fill in the gaps in her business knowledge and get exposure to a wider range of investors. She is now working on a programme to teach women furniture making and design. And she’s scouting for a manufacturing site so that she can stop working out of her garage.
“If you are passionate about something, you need to first look at the problem you are trying to address, if you can think of solutions, you can do something about it.”
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