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November 16, 2011

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Home » Feature » Health and Environment

Competition seeks health-care ideas

RATHER than relying on government or business sectors to address social needs, social entrepreneurs are coming up with innovative and sustainable solutions, delivering results and improving the lives of millions of people around the world.

Social entrepreneurship, like philanthropy, is new to China. The global organization Ashoka, named after a benevolent Indian ruler in the 3rd century BC, aims to identify and invest in individuals and organizations that are doing important, practical work on social issues, especially health care.

Ashoka has no office on the Chinese mainland, though there is a Hong Kong office. Representatives recently visited Shanghai and expressed hope that the organization would attract interest from social entrepreneurs on the mainland.

Asia is the birthplace of Ashoka. Since its establishment in 1981, Ashoka has identified nearly 600 leading social entrepreneurs in nine Asian countries, from Pakistan in the west to Indonesia in the east.

Ashoka fellows in Asia are contributing to cutting edge of individual development as well as the regional and global economic development, education, women's rights, health care and other fields, says Joan Shang from Hong Kong, a senior associate of Ashoka China.

When the China office was established in Hong Kong in 2009, the big challenge was the low level of awareness about social entrepreneurs.

"Hardly anyone knew the term 'social innovation,' much less start-up individual social enterprises or initiatives," Shang says.

The situation changed dramatically over two years, and various investors are launching plans to support social enterprises and social entrepreneurs, she says. The organization is seeking leadership in China.

"There are many talented social entrepreneurs in China, and we hope many of Ashoka's future fellows will come from this country," Shang says.

Ashoka aims to blend values of the social and business sectors, creating a way of thinking about philanthropy in China, Shang says.

Ashoka's Changemakers initiative and German pharmaceutical giant Boehringer Ingelheim have launched a global "Making More Health" competition for sustainable projects along the continuum of health - from prevention and lifestyle to detection and treatment.

Entries include projects that increase access to quality health services and treatment; promote prevention, early detection, and diagnosis; empower individuals, families and communities to address their health issues; or target vulnerable and under-served populations.

The competition will recognize three winners whose solutions increase individual, family and community well-being. Each winner will receive US$10,000.

"The competition reflects Boehringer Ingelheim's commitment to supporting leadership and innovation in health care and to improving health for individuals, families and communities," says Jean Scheftsik de Szolnok, vice president for Southern Europe of Boehringer Ingelheim.

"By sourcing new approaches to health-care delivery, the competition will contribute to ensuring a sustainable future in which good health for everyone is possible," he adds.

Public voting is underway through November at

Belgian inventor Bart Weetjens is one of the Ashoka "change makers," who recently visited Shanghai. He developed the use of "Hero Rats" as land mine detectors in Africa.

The animals are smart, have a keen sense of smell, are easily trained and far lighter than dogs that can set off land mines with their weight, he says. And the cost of training, handling and maintaining rats is low compared with dogs.

In 1998, he founded APOPO, a social enterprise that researches, develops and disseminates detection rats technology for humanitarian purposes.

Weetjens is also researching the use of rats to diagnose tuberculosis; to detect pollutants and toxins to be used as "sniffer rats" in aviation security; and to assist in rescue operations by locating victims trapped in rubble.

He says the success of his rat project owes a lot to Ashoka. The organization's vision is "to create a world where every individual has the freedom, confidence and social support to address social problems and drive change," Weetjens says.


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