SINGAPORE - Cambodian entrepreneur Sereysothea Sao, 31, grew up on a farm in Kandal Province, about a two-hour drive from the capital of Phnom Penh. Unlike her peers, her parents did not expect her to help out with the farm work and instead encouraged her to study.
She proceeded to attain a master's in global food and agricultural business from the University of Adelaide in 2020, but was disappointed when she returned to her village and saw the peers she grew up with still in the same economic conditions.
"Their children did not have opportunities to go to school as well," she said.
Hoping to uplift their conditions, Ms Sao and her sister started Khmer Super Plantfood, a social enterprise that produces nutritious food snacks from unsold fruits purchased from farmers. Production is done using solar technology.
This not only help to mitigate farmers' post-harvest losses, but would also increase their income by at least one-third every year, Ms Sao estimated.
She and her sister were among six teams that were each awarded $20,000 in grant funding by the Singapore International Foundation in an online event on Friday (March 11), as part of its annual Young Social Entrepreneurs Global (YSE) programme.
Launched in 2010, the programme aims to equip and enable youth social entrepreneurs aged between 18 and 35 around the world to launch or scale up their social enterprises, be it in Singapore or overseas.
The six winners were chosen from among 12 teams - shortlisted from 41 applicants - from Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore that made an eight-minute pitch to a panel of five judges.
Speaking to The Straits Times after the event, Ms Sao said: "I am excited and grateful for this opportunity and this award. It will help us to scale up our business and help more farmers."
She added that the pandemic had affected the ability for her to sell her products on the ground, so the grant money will go towards helping her with marketing and branding to increase their presence in the online space.
Another winner is Mr Joshua Lum, 31, who founded Sojourner Brother, a web app that directly connects job-seeking migrant workers with hiring employers.
The Singaporean aims to save 4,000 migrants who transact work permits with Singapore employers a total of $40 million in potential agent fees a month on his website, as well as eradicate illegal recruitment fees by middlemen.
Mr Lum, a public servant, said he was first inspired to help migrant workers after coming across many of them while studying at Nanyang Technological University.
His website will have other functions such as helping employers find value-for-money lodging and food caterers that can improve their workers' well-being.
On his award, he said: "This is a huge encouragement because I now have the resources to make this a reality for migrant workers in improving their working conditions in Singapore. I am grateful to SIF for the amount of resources they provided us."
In the six months leading up to the pitch, participants took part in a series of webinars and virtual business clinics designed to raise their capability and confidence in developing their businesses.
They also worked with mentors that comprised business consultants from renowned companies including McKinsey & Company, Temasek, and Bain & Company.
"I think the mentors have sacrificed a lot of their time and that is something that has been very invaluable. As someone who is doing this alone, I think their advice is very precious," said Mr Lum.
Ms Sao added: "The support we got for the mentors, just telling us that we have to trust ourselves, that we just have to listen to our inner voice, was how we got our confidence."
Speaking as the guest of honour at the event on Friday, Ms Carrie Tan, MP for Nee Soon GRC and founder of social enterprise Daughters of Tomorrow, lauded the tenacity of the participants.
"My experience has been that doing good at scale and in depth is really tough. Doing good while doing business at the same time is even tougher. Yet, it is possible, and people have succeeded," she said.
"I look forward to witnessing the growth of all budding social entrepreneurs here. I believe that the valuable insights you have gained, and networks built during this time will put you in good stead for your journey ahead," she added.