Monday, 6 July 2015

Innovation helps the poor

Commission on Poverty Chairperson, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam

The “Tong Lau” flats on Wing Lee Street easily remind people of the movie Echoes of the Rainbow. In 2010, the Development Bureau and the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) retained all 12 blocks of “Tong Laus” on the street, preserving them in entirety. As the former Secretary for Development, I feel especially connected to the area as I paid a visit there today. Part of the historical structures now serves as incubators for local artists, enriching the diversity of the existing cluster of cultural establishments and heritage conservation projects in the eastern end of Hollywood Road. In these “old-meets-new” architectural buildings, there are several Light Home flats in a corner that are resided by 10 single-parent families. The families moved out from poor living conditions not long ago. Now in a stable living place they are reconstructing their lives and preparing themselves for a better future.


Light Home flats are managed and operated by Light Be, a self-sustainable enterprise operating at its own costs. Light Be allows private proprietors to utilise their residential property for helping single-parent families in need, empowering them to move towards self-reliance. Since the launch of the first Light Home in September 2012, property owners and organisations have approached Light Be direct, providing over 30 flats for Light Home. These include six units at Wing Lee Street provided by the URA. Rented out to needy single-parent families, Light Home sets affordable rent below the market level. So far, the scheme has helped 160 people from 60 families. Most of the Light Home flats have two or three bedrooms with shared living room, kitchen, bathroom and other basic facilities leased to single-parent families under a co-tenancy arrangement. Together with the Chairman of Light Be, Mr Laurence Li, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Social Ventures Hong Kong, Mr Francis Ngai, and the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Light Be, Mr Ricky Yu, I visited today four families residing in two Light Home flats at Wing Lee Street and Shing Wong Street. These families are all supported by single mothers, who are trying very hard to build a bright future for their children.


A fresh start


Among the families I find the story of Ah Mei and Ah Fun (pseudonyms) very encouraging. They are both single mothers, and coincidentally their sons were born on the same date. Their family backgrounds may appear to be similar, but as the saying goes, ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’. Ah Mei co-rented a sub-divided unit with a friend upon divorce some time ago, but later her friend decided not to rent the flat anymore. Ah Mei could not afford the rent on her own. Not only did she face the risk of being homeless, she also suffered from mal-nutrition as she could only afford to have two meals a day. On the other hand, Ah Fun was a victim of domestic violence. She left her husband and rented a sub-divided unit to live with her son. She worked hard to earn a living but after paying the rent, she could barely have any resources left. With social workers’ assistance, they moved into a Light Home flat together.


The Light Home Scheme does not only address their pressing housing needs, but also provides an opportunity for them to become self-reliance. Apart from learning from each other how to be better parents, the two single mothers also plan to enroll in an English class to prepare themselves for employment in future.


The success stories of Light Be show that different stakeholders can complement one another in furthering our poverty alleviation efforts. Light Be makes flexible use of private properties and unlock their value to optimise the utilisation of scarce housing resources. Not only can investors earn returns from their properties, the project can also benefit the underprivileged families living in poverty. The operating mode of Light Home is very inspiring.


Nurturing social innovation

To encourage the growth of more social enterprises like Light Be which is a successful cross-over of social innovation and poverty alleviation, we in Government should create an enabling environment that inspires and nurtures social innovation. The Commission on Poverty (CoP) announced in late 2012 the establishment of the Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Development Fund (SIE Fund). A task force under the CoP has been set up to oversee how the $500 million fund is used. The SIE Fund aims to stimulate cross-sector collaboration, encourage more people to step beyond traditional boundaries, and find new ways to mobilise community resources, with the expectation that these social innovation efforts can help resolve the poverty problem and support the underprivileged.


Any good idea needs to be tested out before its impact can be felt. The SIE Fund helps organisations, corporations and individuals, especially those who lack prior experience in running businesses, put their innovative ideas into practice. The SIE Fund seeks to build a new ecosystem for social innovation, providing support to social entrepreneurs in incubating concepts, preparing for implementation, and launching the new business model. In this process, the role of intermediaries is critically important. The SIE Fund can leverage on the extensive cross-sector and resource networks of the intermediaries in complementing the work of conventional government-appointed committees.


The SIE Fund has lately engaged four organisations as intermediaries to capitalise on their experience and networks to stimulate the ecosystem for social innovation in business, and help nurture budding social entrepreneurs to alleviate and prevent poverty. They are The Hong Kong Council of Social Service, PolyU Technology and Consultancy Company Limited, SOW (Asia) Foundation Ltd, and The Yeh Family Philanthropy Limited. During the three-year engagement period, the SIE Fund targets to train and nurture 2,700 or more potential social entrepreneurs through the Capacity Building Programme, and generate 700 or more ideas (out of which funding 100 or more projects) through the Innovative Programme. I look forward to greeting the first batch of new innovative programmes with welcoming cheers later this year, hoping they will inject new strength into our poverty alleviation work.


Chief Secretary Carrie Lam wrote this article and posted it on her blog on July 6.

Otmane El Rhazi
Department of Commerce
Economic Development
Text/Mobile, +44 7414 782 320

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