By Youth Co:Lab

An idea born out of a tragedy triumphed at the Commonwealth Youth Awards, with Faysal Islam of Bangladesh winning the 2021 Commonwealth Young Person of the Year, and the Regional Youth Award for Asia.

The innovative idea to help rural communities in Bangladesh was awarded nearly US $7,000, in prize money.

Faysal Islam and his friends Rafiq Islam, not related, came up with their idea for Safewheel, following a fatal mishap, in rural Bangladesh, in 2016. Rafiq’s uncle was riding a motorbike on his way to help a friend, when he met with an accident.

Rafiq says his uncle was bleeding profusely but with no ambulance on hand – small village roads hinder access – Rafiq’s father had to summon a rickshaw to take his brother to hospital. But before they got there, he would die in Rafiq’s father’s arms.

Rafiq says an ambulance – with equipment, a medic, and first aid – would have saved his uncle’s life. It was and still is a painful memory. While the accident was a catalyst for the idea, their travels across the country led them to realize that there was a serious dearth of ambulances serving the poor.

So, in 2019, when they decided to enter the Hult Prize competition – the largest student entrepreneurship competition in the world, organized by the Hult Prize Foundation and sponsored by the Clinton Foundation – they created Safewheel: an ambulance service for villages, in Bangladesh.

About 1200 ambulances serve about 105 million people who live in 68000 villages, in rural Bangladesh, about one ambulance for 88,000 people. Only seven percent have a paramedic, says Faysal, and many are in serious need of an upgrade. So, during medical emergencies villagers have a hard time getting access to emergency health care, he says.

Safewheel’s plan was to create three-wheeler ambulances that were affordable, always available, and small enough to navigate narrow rural roads. The idea won the regional round of the Hult Prize and led to a pilot project. It was supported by a municipal government that allowed them to create 10 three-wheel ambulances that served over 1000 patients, in more than 150 villages, for four months.

But taking the idea beyond the pilot stage would need much more funding and support. To try to attain that, Faysal, Rafiq, and their third co-founder Anas Makki, entered the Youth Co:Lab National Dialogue, in Bangladesh. Youth Co:Lab co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation focuses on helping young social entrepreneurs achieve their dreams.

Winners of the National Dialogue are accepted into the Springboard Programme, an incubator that provides startups with support, tools, and mentorship, to achieve business success. The team says that support has played a critical role in taking Safewheel to the next level.

“While we worked hard, the support from Springboard has provided us with the essential tools and advice to make Safewheel a success.”

The programme that nominated Safewheel for the Commonwealth Prize, provides a raft of services to startups. It reviews business plans looking at gaps and challenges in the business model and operations, while also exploring solutions. Participants must complete training modules that include lessons on how to pitch their business, how to market their products, and how to manage impact and crises and more.

Springboard has nominated and mentored Safewheel for several competitions including: the first APYE Online & Global Social Innovation Idea Competition where they were the first runner-up; the Startup Impact Summit, Hongkong; and the team has been supported in their application for Forbes 30 under 30.

They also recently signed an agreement for US $100.000 with the Impact Matching Fund Biniyog Briddhi - a financial support scheme by the Embassy of Switzerland in Bangladesh, financial advisory firm Roots of Impact, and business consulting firm LightCastle Partners.

For Citi Foundation that jointly leads Youth Co:Lab with UNDP, highlights such as the Commonwealth Prize represent markers of success. For UNDP, the partnership is in keeping with its goal of supporting a key demographic that will be crucial in helping countries achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.  

“Providing startups with vital support to access much needed funding, impact measurement, and mentorship is the foundation of our programme,” says Ben Gebrezghi, UNDP’s Head of Youth Co:Lab. “Our mission is to help young social entrepreneurs to achieve their goals, while also helping businesses thrive in a new era of sustainable development.”

Faysal and the Safewheel team say the Commonwealth prize is a huge win that will propel their business to the next level.

“This award has given us so much exposure, it has been overwhelming for me,” says Faysal. “National and international journalists have reached out to us they want to learn more about the project and an international organization has shown interest in working with us. This will surely open up many doors for us.”

Meanwhile, Safewheel’s service is slowly beginning to roll out on its own resources. It has its first ambulance on the road, that along with a government ambulance, is providing services to a 100 closely knit villages. It is not enough but it is a start, says Faysal. The plan is to have 525 ambulances one for every sub-district, over the next five years.  

A ride to the hospital costs about five dollars and basic emergency treatment about three dollars. Hospitals can subscribe for service for just $100, per month.

“As entrepreneurs our dream was to create a tech startup with exponential growth, with Safewheel we will have exponential growth, but we also are helping those in need,” says Faysal. “It gives us immense satisfaction to help people We are tapping into a market where no one is working, and where is a huge gap.”

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Co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab establishes a common agenda for countries in Asia-Pacific to empower and invest in youth so that they can accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. Read more about Youth Co:Lab here.

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