From The Straits Times    |

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As the sun dipped below the vast, golden fields of Lampung, a remote corn belt in Sumatra, Indonesia, little did I know that my early career as a brand manager for an agribusiness would lead me to a profound intersection of purpose, profit and impact. The journey from corporate meeting rooms to the heart of impoverished villages reshaped not only my perspective, but also ignited a passion for social impact that would forever alter the trajectory of my life.

Credit: Hannah Oh

This was in 2007, and I had been working at Bayer as a regional brand manager, where I would often travel to distant villages to study the livelihood of subsistence farmers who own less than one hectare of farmland, and whose families relied on incomes of less than $200 a month. There, I encountered the resilient faces of farmers, women and children, whose lives were intricately woven into the fabric of agriculture.

One evening, after a gruelling day in the fields, I found myself in a farming community meeting held at the new school that we helped to build. Exhausted yet determined, 10 farmers gathered to discuss the challenges their community faced. It was here that I noticed Yati, a nine-year-old girl who stood out amid the wearied faces of her elders. Curiosity led me to inquire why she was present at this late hour.

She replied, “I don’t go to school because it is empty most of the time. It’s hard for everyone – not enough money for pencils and books, long journeys, and missing classes for a few days makes it hard [for us] to keep up. I still wish there was a way I could learn, and help mummy and daddy.”

Credit: Hannah Oh

Yati’s comments prompted us to consider new, unconventional ways to build an ecosystem that addresses vital issues that are often ignored in the quest to “help others”, and actually build solutions that take into account the on-the-ground challenges faced by those needing extra support.

How can we leverage technology, community resources, and alternative learning environments to provide children like Yati with the education they deserve? This thought-provoking inquiry calls for a paradigm shift in philanthropy, urging us to seek creative solutions that empower children to learn and thrive, irrespective of the traditional barriers they may face.

Fast forward 15 years from the night I met Yati, now, as a mother of two, and an impact investor, my guiding principle has been how to invest and build projects that are focused on evidence, data and results in the fields of education, clean water, cleaning cooking and agriculture.

I am optimistic about the positive evolution of philanthropy. There is a discernible shift towards more intelligent methods of assessing both the return on impact and investments.

This transformation involves leveraging data and digital platforms to achieve impactful outcomes at scale, all the while utilising data and blockchain to enhance transparency in philanthropic endeavours.

The role of data in philanthropy

Credit: Hannah Oh

One of the main challenges has always been around measuring impact. Data can help solve this conundrum.

One of the companies I helped to co-found is Ixo (www.ixo.world), a blockchain- and artificial intelligence-based platform based in Singapore that focuses on impact investing and sustainable development. It enables the creation, verification and management of impact projects, allowing participants to track and measure the social and environmental outcomes of their investments transparently, and based on real time data.

Stakeholders contribute money to specific projects, and can track the impact of their donations in real-time. What makes this approach unique is its connection between funding and actual results, providing contributors with a clear view of the tangible difference their support makes.

This innovative strategy not only enhances transparency and accountability in education financing, but also aligns with a similar successful initiative in Karnataka, India. This was in partnership with UBS Optimus Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Swiss-based investment bank – 200 kids received tablets with a special learning app, funded through a tech-enabled mechanism linking investments to learning progress.

The outcomes exceeded expectations, with tablet recipients learning 28 per cent more than the control group, and increasing school attendance. This success has attracted interest from other regions in India, demonstrating the positive impact of outcome-driven funding for both children and supporters.

Impact measurements should extend beyond tracking the allocation of funds; it should empower us to determine where our contributions have the highest return on impact, and are used most effectively. Given the ambitious targets we have to reach with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and net zero targets, impact capital should be an informed decision where allocation of capital goes to efforts that create lasting, transformative change. After all, only what can be measured can be improved.

Democratising access to impact investments

The traditional belief that philanthropy is exclusively for individuals with significant financial means is evolving. Today, becoming a philanthropist doesn’t require the wealth of a Melinda Gates or Oprah Winfrey.

Blockchain technology and NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) play a pivotal role in democratising philanthropy, as they enable the fractionalisation of impact projects, breaking them down into smaller, tradable units.

Traditional approaches to coordinating, financing, and verifying philanthropic projects or impact investments are slow, opaque, and costly. They often require auditors and verifiers to conduct random sample checks. This system relies on lagging indicators of project success, limiting the ability to intervene and make improvements during the project’s duration.

An example is one of the projects undertaken by Ixo. Astonishingly, many women and children continue to endure the daily burden of walking several kilometres to fetch a mere bucket of water. With a $15,000 investment, Ixo aims to revolutionise this scenario by introducing smarter, greener water purification infrastructures, leveraging the Internet of Things (IoT) and UV disinfection.

Credit: Hannah Oh

The $15,000 water project mentioned above doesn’t necessarily require full funding from a single individual; instead, fractional ownership allows any person to contribute a portion of the total amount. With blockchain technology’s decentralised ledger, the authenticity and security of ownership records are ensured. In practical terms, this means that individuals can invest or own a specific fraction of the project, such as $1,000 or any other divisible amount.

Smart contracts then automate the management and distribution of these fractional shares, ensuring transparency and efficiency throughout the funding process.

Philanthropy with a heart and science

The corn fields of Lampung not only yielded bountiful harvests, but also planted the seeds of change within me many years ago, beginning with the realisation that philanthropy is about combining the heart with science.

It’s about creating value, ensuring transparency, and making informed decisions based on data. As an active participant in the philanthropic process, we can be at the forefront of this transformation, forging a path to a brighter future for all. Everyone has the opportunity to create a legacy of positive change, contributing to a better world and a sustainable future through the power of data-driven philanthropy.

As women leaders, let us embrace the power we hold to shape not just the future of our efforts, but also the destinies of those whose voices, like Yati’s, deserve to be heard and heeded. Together, we can sow the seeds of a brighter and more compassionate world.

Hannah Oh is an impact investor, sustainability expert, and founding team member of Ixo.