Tackling Asia’s big challenges at a small cost

At the 2015 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Manila, United States President Barack Obama gave high praise to Filipina engineer Aisa Mijeno, the inventor of a saltwater-powered lamp. Mijeno runs SALT Philippines, a project which provides lighting to areas without electricity. Said Mijeno during the forum: “The danger in (kerosene) lamps is it could cause fire accidents. We want to provide a lighting option that is more cost-effective, safe, sustainable and environmentally friendly.” The ultimate goal, she says, is to power an entire island with just saline water. Environmental benefits aside, solutions like Mijeno’s are a boon for those who live in developing Asia’s poorest rural areas, where communities face myriad challenges such as limited access to education, quality healthcare, and electricity. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA)’s 2015 World Energy Outlook (WEO), some 120 million people in developing Asia do not have access to electricity. The healthcare situation is just as dire in parts of developing Asia: a child born in 2012 in Myanmar or Papua New Guinea, for example, is only expected to live up to 65 years, compared to over 80 in Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan. In this region, the average number of years of schooling is a mere eight years, compared to more developed nations like Japan (11.5), South Korea (11.8) and Singapore (10.2). Growing needs The region’s needs are pressing, and for this reason, the opportunities for businesses looking to expand in the region are immense. Developing Asia is crying out for cheap, easily distributable solutions for basic human needs, and the companies that are able to provide these will have much to gain. China, for example, is grappling with a population explosion coupled with a corresponding shortage of doctors and medical facilities. In response, Neusoft, China’s largest IT services provider, launched a low-cost integrated healthcare monitoring system – the Xikang platform – which enables doctors based in urban areas to provide medical assistance (such as consultations or referrals to local medical facilities) for elderly patients in rural areas who suffer from chronic ailments. The move seems to have paid off for the company, which has since launched a suite of innovative IT-based healthcare systems and cloud-based medical and health management services. Healthcare shortages are not unique to China – in countries like Indonesia, where smartphone penetration rates are high, telehealth services in the form of health apps are gaining popularity. These include Indonesia-based Dokter Gratis, an app which gives people access to live consultations with doctors, no matter where they live. Low-cost solutions are also making a huge impact in India, where poor communities have limited access to quality educational resources. For India’s rural poor, the US$35 Aakash tablet has become a valuable tool in mathematics instruction. In addition to its low price point, the tablet gives students access to pre-loaded lessons developed by the Khan Academy, a non-profit educational organisation with significant backing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Testament to its relevance, the tablet’s 2011 launch was a resounding success – the Aakash’s manufacturer, Datawind, racked up 1.4 million units in sales in just four days. Other tools, such as a US$100 interactive whiteboard developed by Indonesian physics teacher Berry Devanda, effectively replace costly SmartBoards which cost up to US$3,000. The result of these innovations: an enhanced classroom experience at a very modest price, and a business opportunity for companies in this space. Businesses can also look into opportunities to provide solutions for Asia’s poor who live off-grid. Mijeno’s SALT Philippines, for example, produces a US$35 lamp powered only by saline water. Selling to the poor Mijeno noted in an interview with Tech in Asia that many do not see the poor as a viable market, which is why social enterprises such as hers are rare. Indeed, many large corporations share this sentiment: few major multinationals bother to market to the “bottom of the pyramid”, where there are numerous business opportunities. Some pioneering MNCs in this area have found success in this market: Hindustan Lever, a subsidiary of UK-based Unilever PLC, began selling an inexpensive detergent in 1995 to poor communities In India. To take advantage of cheap and abundant labour in rural India, Hindustan Lever decentralised the production, marketing and distribution of the detergent, selling it at thousands of small shops frequented by the poor. Also in India, jeans manufacturer Arvind Mills found that domestic sales of jeans were poor due to their relatively high price point. A radical shift in its distribution model – by packaging jeans in kits (denim, rivets, zips etc.) and marketing them through a network of local tailors – enabled the company to sell the kits for just US$6 to the masses. The result: the jeans are the best-selling jeans in India, with sales easily outstripping many of its better-known international counterparts. While challenges might exist in selling to developing Asia’s poorest communities, numerous opportunities exist simply because of the region’s dire needs across various areas. With targeted offerings and innovative distribution strategies, multinationals can harness their resources to do good, while making a profit.