With AI learning and recycled soap, social businesses step in as coronavirus spreads

By Marianne Bray and Beh Lih Yi, Thomson Reuters Foundation

By Marianne Bray and Beh Lih Yi

HONG KONG/KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - H anding out soap to street cleaners in Hong Kong might sound like piecemeal work in the battle against coronavirus.

But with schools and offices shut in the Chinese-ruled city and across Asia, social enterprises - businesses that seek to do good while making a profit - are rushing to tackle problems from a shortage of face masks to distance learning.

Among them is Soap Cycling, which distributes soap salvaged from Hong Kong hotels to street cleaners to try and maintain public hygiene and stop the virus spreading.

"During a crisis like the coronavirus situation, people who are already struggling are hit hardest first," Justen Li, chairman of the enterprise set up in 2012, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

The virus has killed more than 2,700 people and is spreading faster outside China than within, hitting major industries from manufacturing to travel.

With flights being cancelled and factories, restaurants and schools closed in many Asian cities, social enterprises have swung into action.

Hong Kong's street cleaners, vulnerable to contagion and often seen pushing metal carts through the skyscraper city, approached Li's staff when they were handing out soap to city-goers in February.


FACE MASK SHORTAGE

"They began asking us for masks," he said. "The government provides them with masks but they are sweated through in an hour or two. Once they are sweaty, they are not helpful anymore."

After teaming up with a local partner and activating a network of volunteers, Soap Cycling now provide hygiene kits and masks to around 3,000 of the city's 21,000 street cleaners.

Other businesses for good are tackling education.

Hong Kong this week prolonged its suspension of schools until April but with an artificial intelligence learning platform that can be accessed from tablets or phones at home, more than 12,000 students in China, Hong Kong and Vietnam are continuing to learn.

"When serious disruption occurs, from natural disasters to outbreaks of disease, education has traditionally suffered drastically," said Priya Lakhani, founder of London-based Century which offered its product for free to affected students.

Students learn subjects such as mathematics and science through lessons that are tailored to their levels using AI technology on the platform developed by the social enterprise.

Other social entrepreneurs have sought to address the widespread shortage of face masks.


'UNSUNG HEROES'

Hong Kong's 'Sew On Studio' sells face mask kits with fabric made by elderly tailors that residents can assemble themselves at home.

Another Hong Kong firm, Rooftop Republic, which in normal times promotes urban farming, has teamed up with a uniform supplier to design washable, eco-friendly masks that workers can slip over surgical masks to wear in humid conditions.

Many respiratory infections, including the new coronavirus COVID-19, are spread in droplets that are released when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

In Singapore, which has seen one of the highest numbers of coronavirus cases outside China, one social enterprise simply encourages people to thank via e-cards taxi drivers and domestic helpers who they depend on in their daily lives. A token gesture perhaps but the founder of Emmaus Strategies - which runs programmes on mental well-being - said it is important to pay tribute to these "unsung heroes".

"There is a lot of social distancing in place and cities are under lockdown to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus," said James Lim. "But we still can reach people through electronic means to say thank you." (Writing by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi; Additional reporting by Sarah Shearman in London. Editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)