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Sustainable business for the disadvantaged
INSPIRED to make a difference after watching the documentary Born Into Brothels, Suraj Upadhiah decided to go to India after completing junior college, to learn more about the lives of children born to brothel workers.
His experiences there stirred a deep interest in advancing social responsibility causes and community projects both locally and globally. He and his close friend Shahril Hassan started local social enterprise Air Amber in 2008.
They started off with a focus on human trafficking and moved on to social enterprise projects aimed at building up the economic capacity of disadvantaged and underserved communities.
Much like how Born In Brothels piqued Mr Upadhiah's interest in social issues, film plays a central role at Air Amber in raising awareness.
The seeds for its pioneering enterprise project were sowed after watching Waiting For Mamu, a documentary that centres on CNN Heroes awardee and social worker Pushpa Basnet and her work in the Early Childhood Development Centre Nepal, a home she founded in 2005 for children born to inmates.
In June 2016, Air Amber embarked on a social enterprise project, Butterfly Books, with Ms Basnet and the children in the home.
Air Amber CEO Upadhiah told The Business Times: "After interacting with the children, we learnt of their interest in storytelling. We worked with them on developing their ideas to produce Butterfly Books, a six-book series sharing their experiences and aspirations."
"What is really important is to look at their interest as it is our job to facilitate the process of making it sustainable to carry out their business interest," explained Air Amber COO Shahril.
Butterfly Books was officially launched in April 2017. In conjunction with the launch, Ms Basnet and the children were invited to a special screening of the documentary in Singapore and they shared their experiences with the audience.
More than 800 books have been sold on Air Amber's online marketplace Hazeepenya!, with 10 per cent of the sales going overseas.
Air Amber has also collaborated with the Social Impact Media Awards (SIMA) to launch SIMA Classroom in Singapore, a video-streaming platform where students can watch social-impact documentaries from all over the world.
Mr Upadhiah said: "It's Netflix for social-impact documentaries, but it goes a step further by providing engagement with the viewer through question and answer sessions with directors, among others.
"We are targeting schools and universities, and hope to roll it out to enterprises in future."
In Singapore, Air Amber also places an emphasis on fostering better inter-generational communication and interaction. One of its enterprise projects here involves the creation of a pack for items that can be used as inter-generational engagement tools.
Mr Upadhiah explained: "It is a socially-engineered, community-curated box of products aimed at sustaining engagement between the elderly and youth. It is the process of getting scaled up to elder-care centres."
Items in the pack include toy sets, plant kits and even an inter-generational blend of Nanyang coffee developed by the elderly and youth, and produced by fellow social enterprise Rickshaw Coffee.
With toy sets, Air Amber has experimented with using children's toys for inter-generational innovation to positive effect. "We found that Nerf guns make a good tool for both kids and elderly. We have also found eco-friendly cardboard toy blocks made by Latvia's Gigi Bloks, a very useful tool in fostering inter-generational innovation," said Mr Upadhiah.
Almost 300 of these packs were used in May 2018, when they were handed out to students from Fairfield Methodist Secondary School to be used as a primary tool for engagement with residents of eldercare facilities. The students, working together with the senior citizens, also contructed a collective installation of Gigi Bloks to be displayed at the school.
On Sept 1 and 2, the social enterprise will be holding a screening of Soufra, a documentary centred on social entrepreneur Mariam Shaar, who spent her life in the Burl El Barajneh refugee camp near Beirut, Lebanon.
It follows her journey, beating the odds to set up a successful catering company and food truck business. Ms Shaar employs fellow refugee women from the camp to operate her business.
A "social impact market" will also be set up outside the theatre to showcase social entrepreneurs and initiatives here in Singapore. Attendees can send well wishes and notes of encouragement to children at the camp, which will be written on Gigi Bloks.
Mr Upadhiah, who plans on using Gigi Bloks as a tool in all social impact initiatives undertaken by Air Amber, said: "Attendees will be given an opportunity to write a note to the children's centre in the camp, made possible because of the film and the amazing women behind Soufra.
"We will be bringing more than 1,000 Gigi Bloks with these notes to the children's centre in Beirut. The Gigi Bloks will double up as developmental toys for the children there."
- The red-carpet premiere of Soufra will be held at Capitol Theatre (6pm on Sept 1, 3pm on Sept 2). Tickets priced between S$18 and S$127 can be bought at http://bit.ly/soufra-asian-premiere-tix