Learning and challenges at Youth Co:Lab, a youth entrepreneurship support program, as discussed by two globally active social entrepreneurs
There has been an increasing shift to going online since last year, and this has enabled a variety of activities that were previously difficult due to physical issues and time constraints. Living in a world where you can connect anywhere has become a part of our lives, it is becoming easier to take on global challengeswherever you are.
Now is the time to turn to Youth Co:Lab, a program supporting youth-led social innovation and ideas, held in 25 countries and regions in the Asia-Pacific region.
Over 75,000 people have participated in events including the Asia-Pacific regional symposiums, summits and social innovation challenges held jointly by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Citi Foundation. In addition, more than 8,000 young social entrepreneurs have received support, which has led to the start-up and acceleration of more than 1,000 social enterprises.
Tawhida Shiropa, the 2019 Youth Co:Lab Bangladesh prize winner, and Seiya Ashikari of ECOLOGGIE Inc., a winner in the 2020 Youth Co:Lab Japan challenge, are young global entrepreneurs. We interviewed Tawhida and Seiya on the behind the scenes of how they continued to run their businesses with a global perspective.
Shiropa Tawhida / Moner Bondhu Founder and CEO
Moner Bondhu (“friends of your mind” in English) Founder and CEO Based in Bangladesh, the company strives to reduce the stigma* associated with mental health care while aiming to provide mental health care services accessible to all at a low price. In addition to conducting therapy, counseling, and workshops, they also provide information using social media and videos. Prior to founding Moner Bondhu, she worked in the United States for 11 years as a journalist specializing in gender, mental health and social awareness.
(stigma*: a negative attitude where there is social discrimination or prejudice)
Seiya Ashikari / ECOLOGGIE Inc. CEO
Born in 1993. Graduated from Waseda University, B.A in Commercial Science. He continued on to the Graduate School of Advanced Science and Engineering, and he researched recycling and utilization of crickets at Waseda University Asahi Laboratory. As a result of his research, he founded ECOLOGGIE Inc. in 2017. Currently, he is involved in business development based in Cambodia, where he works on cricket production and conversion into food in collaboration with cricket farmers. In 2016, he received the Minister of Education Award. He was selected to Forbes 30 Under 30 Japan in 2019.
―― Why did you start this business?
Seiya Ashikari (“Seiya”):
I wanted to do something about social issues, so I started a business four years ago. Among food issues, I had particular interest in the protein crisis. As the world's population grows, the need for meat (protein) increases, and there is a protein deficiency as a result of catching up with the demand for meat. Originally, I personally thought that the current food production system was not sustainable, so I started my business focusing on protein-rich crickets because I wanted to create a new sustainable food production system.
Shiropa Tawhida (“Shiropa”):
I come from a background where my strong and tough mother became depressed, and for both my younger brother and I to experience the difficulty of having a depressed mother along with dealing with depression herself. She was a single mother and raised my younger brother and me on her own. As we grew older, as I became busy with myself, my mother began to develop a sense of emptiness and eventually got depressed. My mother, who was strong and independent, gradually became tired and lost her self-confidence. Of course, she was suffering from this, but it was hard for my younger brother and myself as well. However, she was ultimately completely cured of her depression through help from mental health professionals and our own care.
Also, the newspaper company where I worked had people send in their concerns anonymously, and thousands of people sought help everyday. There was no other place where they can seek help safely. Even when people around me asked “How’s your mother?”, all I could say was “She’s still in a tough situation.” And people thought “Your mother’s depressed, so you will also be depressed too.” Based on that experience, I wanted to bring mental health care to everyone, so I founded Moner Bondhu.
―― Starting a business must have been a big challenge. What was your motivation to continue with it?
When my younger brother and I overcame my mother's suffering together, I really wanted to make this process available to everyone. Of course, getting over depression is hard and takes a long time. But I was convinced that everyone could overcome it. This strong conviction is my motivation.
Also, receiving hundreds of daily comments of appreciation in Facebook from suffering individuals who we supported, has been a motivation to proceed with this business. I am delighted when these people feel calm, and they give me these comments. This helps my own mental health.
Workshop held before COVID-19: Provided by Moner Bondhu
I have a strong drive to create a new, different business. I want to use crickets to create a new food production system even in areas that don’t have a custom of eating insects.
The crickets produced by ECOLOGGIE are not only nutritious, but also has a story. For example, our crickets are made by small Cambodian farmers. Crickets are a great way for local farmers to start a side business. They can grow in 45 days in a small space with little initial cost. Cambodia is an agricultural country that mainly produces rice, but rice can only be harvested once or twice a year. However, crickets can be harvested in 45 days and farmers can earn a stable income. Producing protein-rich crickets and also improving the lives of farmers are factors of motivation for me.
In addition to improving the lives of farmers, I’m also aware of the sustainability of cricket production itself. In Cambodia, there is no infrastructure for food disposal, and garbage is thrown away as such. We collect food waste from craft beer factories, rice confectionery factories, and other locations, and use it as food for crickets. It is also my motivation to utilize the philosophy and values that I value in the production of crickets and make them special.
Photo of cricket farmer: Provided by ECOLOGGIE Inc.
Youth Co:Lab supporting from a global perspective and scale
―― Why did you apply for the Youth Co:Lab Social Innovation Challenge?
There is still a strong stigma about getting mental health care, so my first motivation was to give people confidence in their own activities, eliminate the stigma, and emphasize the importance of mental health care. Youth Co:Lab has raised awareness and made it easier for beneficiaries to find our services.
Also, UNDP and the Citi Foundation have huge networks. Last year, we were able to use UNDP Youth Co:Lab's network to provide one-on-one counseling to more than 18,000 people in various countries, not only Bangladesh. Mental health issues exist not only in Bangladesh, but in the entire world. That's why I thought it important to collaborate with various organizations and people across national borders, and I therefore found Youth Co:Lab, which is a global initiative, to be attractive.
Originally, I wanted to contribute to social issues and SDGs through business. As I applied for business related to SDGs, I wanted to know more. Also, I thought that UN and Citi Foundation collaboration was attractive. I participated in the Model United Nations as a university student, so I was even more attracted to the collaboration with UNDP.
―― After winning the Youth Co:Lab prize, has there been anything you’ve learned or has there been any changes to your organization?
I started thinking about how much I could contribute to the SDGs. Before the Social Innovation Challenge, I wanted to contribute to SDG Goal 3 (Good Health and Well-being), but I didn’t know how much I could contribute. For example, I started to think in detail about how much protein I could contribute in a year and what will happen when it accumulates over multiple years.
Seiya’s pitch for last year’s Social Innovation Challenge: provided by the UNDP
Due to the spread of COVID-19 in 2020, face-to-face activities became impossible, so we switched to online activities. Youth Co:Lab helped us a great deal in transitioning to online. With financial support, we also had free online counseling sessions. Not only did they help us, but the support of Youth Co:Lab has helped thousands of people.
Also, thanks to the support of Youth Co:Lab, we were able to work on creating videos and animation that convey the importance of mental health care to many people. Millions of people watch this through social media. We also created content for TV in order to deliver information to people who have no access to the internet. We have received many benefits from Youth Co:Lab support, including financial cooperation from the government.
Photo when Shiropa was awarded the Youth Co:Lab BANGLADESH Social Innovation Challenge award:
provided by Moner Bondhu
Transcending borders is an encounter with new possibilities.
―― What does it mean to transcend national borders for two people who are active globally?
Gaining diverse perspectives. When I was working in the United States, besides work, I was engaged in various activities such as university classes, going to museums and sightseeing, while talking with a variety of people about various issues including world issues and political issues.
At one point, I realized that some social issues are the same regardless of where you are. People are from various countries, and of course everyone has a different mind, but I think many things are the same. That’s why I want to approach mental health challenges not only in Bangladesh but worldwide.
It's like a treasure hunting journey. Starting a business in Cambodia was really a big challenge. This was my first time living in a country outside of Japan. I think it is difficult to actually realize food crises and nutritional problems in Japan. But these are real issues in Cambodia. Many people suffer from malnutrition, including iron deficiency. They eat a lot of rice, but they don't eat protein or nutritious foods. It is difficult for Cambodians to realize that this is an issue, but from an outsider, I saw that this is clearly an issue. I think I can contribute because I come from a different background.
Because I directly experience these social issues, then I can consider how to contribute to this daily reality which is the challenge in Cambodia.
Anyone can take on challenges in the world and make a difference.
―― I’d like to ask both of you about your dreams.
I would like to build a retreat center in Bangladesh. I want to create a richly diverse community and spread positivity around the world. Everyday we are taking small steps toward that great vision. Just as Seiya has started a business in Cambodia and is taking on challenges, I would like to increase the number of people who can positively face their own issues and challenges through Moner Bondhu.
I would like to contribute to the well-being of the earth and all its life. Toward that end, we will establish a resource-recycling food production system using crickets and continue to promote mass production and develop uses of insects, which are unused resources, in Cambodia.
―― Finally, I would like to ask Hiromi Amano, who works with Youth Co:Lab Japan at UNDP, to tell us her thoughts on implementing this year's Social Innovation Challenge.
Since I was a student, I had a desire to contribute to society, but I never thought that I could take on social issues by starting a business. However, now it’s a career option. I believe that innovative ideas, teamwork, and passion are more important for social entrepreneurship, therefore anyone, young or old, can make a change. With the evolution of technology, I think that young people now have many advantages in social entrepreneurship. But since this is still a new area, I would be happy if I could contribute to the expansion of social entrepreneurial ecosystems. In that respect, I believe that the Social Innovation Challenge can help develop more realistic ideas for social issues. I look forward to young people applying.
PZoom Interview / Clockwise from top left, Amano of UNDP, the author, Shiropa, Ashikari:
< Editorial note >
I was deeply impressed by the breadth of the perspectives of the two interviewees in starting businesses with not just a domestic view, but an overall global outlook and in taking on daily challenges to realize their vision. If you want to take on the world with your own ideas, please apply to Youth Co:Lab!
◇ Click here for an overview of the Youth Co:Lab Social Innovation Challenge 2021 in Japan
◇ Application deadline: October 4, 2021 (Mon) Noon