The Tugu Selamat Datang in Central Jakarta, Indonesia. Beneath the luster of Asia's newfound prosperity lies a host of intricate development challenges. Photo by: Alex Hanoko / CC BY-ND

The driver of global economic growth since the 2009 financial crisis, Asia will continue growing at a steady 6.3 percent in 2015 and 2016 — a prospect that has led some analysts to hail the 21st century as the “Asian century.”

But beneath the luster of Asia's newfound prosperity lies a host of intricate development challenges. Unlike other regions, the continent is witnessing a surge in socio-economic disparities, with millions lacking the resources and opportunities they need to rise above the poverty line. Meanwhile, the livelihoods of the poorest are increasingly exposed to the effects of rapid environmental degradation and climate change.

Although robust policy reforms will be key in the achievement of more inclusive and sustainable growth, Asia can also rely on its citizens’ resilience and entrepreneurial spirit to turn the tide. Below, four of The Asia Foundation’s 2015 class of development fellows — young Asian professionals working in government, nonprofits, social enterprises and media — share some of the most compelling development solutions currently being applied in their home country.

Jeong Tae Kim | South Korea fellow

Jeong Tae Kim | South Korea fellow

South Korea has become world famous for its innovations in information and communications technology. But there is much more to look forward to. In fact, a number of unprecedented and complex social challenges — including a rapidly aging population and ever-pressing North Korean refugee issues — can serve as an innovation test bed.

One example is the South Korean government’s Silver-to-Silver Care System, a breakthrough approach to senior care. Healthy “silvers” (over 65 years of age) visit older “silvers” (age 80 and above) to provide basic social services, companionship and conversation. Visiting silvers can earn up to $200 a month for 30 hours of service, and the satisfaction rate of silvers receiving care has been extremely high.

My own organization, Merry Year Social Company, is a social innovation consultancy and impact investor that addresses social issues by galvanizing and spearheading social entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship (working entrepreneurially within an organization).

Korean social enterprises go global

South Korea's social enterprise ecosystem has grown rapidly in recent years — and it's now exploring markets abroad with the help of the country's foreign aid agency and others. A guest commentary by Jeong Tae Kim, CEO and president of MYSC and executive director of the Social Enterprise Network.

MYSC recently partnered with and invested in Yovel, a social enterprise engaging North Korean defectors in the process of business model development to come up with social enterprises that are “of North Korean defectors, by North Korean defectors and for North Korean defectors.” By doing so, we are transforming the top-down approach to North Korean defector issues into one that is inclusive and human-centered.

Mowmita Basak Mow | Bangladesh fellow

One of the pressing challenges currently facing Bangladesh is a common one throughout South Asia: improving gender equality, particularly through women’s empowerment. Though Bangladesh has made significant progress in women’s education by providing free primary school, scholarships and incentives for attending school, women’s participation in higher education is still largely inadequate, and so is their representation in white-collar jobs.

Mowmita Basak Mow | Bangladesh fellow

It is essential to bridge this gap by providing more women with access to higher education that has a gender-awareness focus. A pioneering project to address this need exists in my own hometown of Chittagong, Bangladesh: the Asian University for Women, a one-of-a-kind institution that provides liberal arts education with full scholarships to underprivileged women from 14 different countries in Asia.

AUW’s program encourages students to think critically about social and gender issues, providing them with resources to tackle socio-economic challenges in their own communities. The university’s broad curriculum allows students to be flexible and creative in choosing their areas of study instead of focusing on orthodox subjects. At the same time, compulsory courses in fundamental subjects give them the well-rounded preparation to thrive, be it in the competitive job market or in a novel leadership position.

Many female alumni have become successful social entrepreneurs in their own country, and I see myself as an example of what this program can do. The social welfare organization I founded — the Center for Leadership Assistance & Promotion — encourages leadership in youth volunteers through on-the-field training and workshops on various issues. So far, we have been able to reach out to 1,200 women and minorities in Bangladesh.

Read last year’s roundtable discussion: The next big thing in development: What Asia’s young leaders think

Kornchanok Raksaseri | Thailand fellow

Low prices have long been a problem for Thai rice farmers. Many are deep in debt, and families that have grown rice for generations have been forced to sell their land. Government subsidy schemes — such as the controversial rice-pledging program implemented by former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra — have generally failed to address the issue, further burdening the national budget and lowering product standards.

Kornchanok Raksaseri | Thailand fellow

But one group of Thai rice farmers now enjoys strong demand and good prices without government subsidies. Known as the Farmer’s Friend Rice, the project helps participating farmers in the northeastern province of Yasothon sell directly to Thai consumers, who purchase an annual membership. Each member pays 10,000 baht ($298) per year for 100 kilograms of rice.

Organic farming — which is at the heart of the project’s success — was initiated by farmers themselves, but later supported by provincial and local governments through information, technology and marketing strategies. Public health officers also help with quality control.

The Farmer’s Friend Rice project is illustrative of how governments can both support local farmers and promote sustainable agriculture. Because it eliminates the middleman, farmers earn more, while consumers pay less for a higher-quality product. With the membership model, farmers know in advance the size of the market and the price they will get for their rice. Some of the money from the membership is also used to promote organic farming across the country, resulting in more and more farmers making the transition to environmentally responsible farming.

Ritesh Singhania | India fellow

In a world of continuous and increasing demand for energy — where economies and ecology are pitted against each other — energy production is pushing fragile ecosystems to the edge of collapse.

Ritesh Singhania | India fellow

I live and work in the Indian Himalayas, which have experienced their share of natural calamities in the past few years. The widespread expansion of hydroelectric projects to generate energy in the region, and the incessant construction that come with it, have had adverse effects on the Himalayan ecosystem and increased the incidence of environmental mishaps.

In the midst of this situation, I have helped develop an energy production and delivery system — Avani Bio Energy — which consumes pine needles, an otherwise harmful biomass. Pine needles are shed each year in the Indian Himalayas, forming a carpet on the forest floor and causing widespread forest fires — destroying forest lands and the ecosystem services they provide to rural inhabitants. Our solution employs the local population to collect the fallen pine needles and incinerate them in a gasifier to generate clean electricity for rural use.

This economically sustainable solution can have incredibly positive effects on both the environment and the society it serves. The first power plant we installed has the potential to light 12,500 rural homes, create 120 local jobs, restore 200 hectares of forest land and significantly reduce carbon emissions. With 165 million hectares of such land globally, the potential for clean power generation is huge.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of The Asia Foundation.

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  • Manola De Vos

    Manola De Vos is an Engagement Lead for Devex’s Analytics team in Manila. She leads and designs customized research and analysis for some of the world’s most well-respected organizations, providing the solutions and data they need to grow their partner base, work more efficiently, and drive lasting results. Prior to joining Devex, Manola worked in conflict analysis and political affairs for the United Nations, International Crisis Group and the EU.