• Written by Frodo van Oostveen
    1 August 2014

Today I’m working from my flexible office – Jewel Coffee Bar in the Singapore Business District Area. I’ve just finished a conversation about potentially registering Akvo Singapore which took place around the corner in the Hong Leong building, on the 33rd floor. Singapore is a city of cultural and architectural extremes. Although I’ve been working from home and coffee bars for four months (100 days) now – and still enjoying it – I’m still not used to it.

Lets have a doppio espresso and reflect on my first 100 days in this new role. There are many items on the check-list, including getting a multi-dimensional view of the business, identifying our biggest challenges, building a team and not forgetting work-life balance. 

Akvo is in the process of growing through regional hubs where local staff can build our partners’ capacity for reporting and monitoring through training and support to use our tools. But our partners don’t have any projects on the ground in Singapore, so I’m focusing on building partnerships (from Singapore) with organisations with a regional focus. A new trend is gaining momentum here known as impact investing. Last month I attended Impact Asia Forum, at the end of August I will participate in Bottom of the Pyramid World in Singapore.

Before moving to Singapore, I had only been once before, during a honeymoon pit-stop to visit family while en route to Indonesia. At first people joked about me moving here. I had comments like, “The best thing about Singapore is getting on a flight to somewhere else”, “You’ll be living in an artificial world, without chewing gum”, “It’s Asia for beginners” and “Its humid, crowded and hectic”. But that’s far from the whole story about this place.

Why Singapore?
What does Singapore offer for Akvo, and what brings Akvo to Singapore?

Essentially, Singapore acts as a base for us to serve Asia’s needs and a launchpad to innovate for future challenges. There is a thriving tech start-up community here with a growing interest in social entrepreneurship, which is a perfect fit for us and which is helping to make Singapore a magnet for talent from all over the world.

Being here lets us take advantage of the country’s neutrality, global connectivity, pro-business environment and rising interest in philanthropy and impact investing. There’s also a strong rule of law here which, together with well-developed corporate governance, discourages corruption and makes the environment conducive for managing programmes throughout Asia. These may be some of the reasons why our partners WWF, Save the Children and WorldBank Group have re-located their regional offices to Singapore. 

First impressions
Let me share some of my first feelings about being here. To be perfectly honest, since Day One I’ve been really enjoying all the different aspects of the people and city of Singapore. Perhaps it’s the convenience (no traffic jams, good public transport), ambition and diversity of cultures that appeal. Yes it can feel busy and hectic, a bit like the New York of Asia, but there are plenty of quieter local neighborhoods and green lush areas, such as the Botanical Gardens, for relaxation.

Singapore is a city that never sleeps – at least online – and I’m inspired to learn about all the new technologies that surround you here. There’s no need to buy a parking ticket or search for a parking spot or taxi for example – it’s all automated or available via an app. Before you even enter the country, there are special lanes at passport control in which you scan your passport and thumb, before being greeted by name, “Welcome back, Mr Van Oostveen”.

Working from home and online
Although we are exploring whether to set-up a physical Akvo office in Singapore, for the time being I am working from home or cafes and I’m still getting used to it. It’s nice not to commute between one and two hours to work every day any more, but I miss being part of a community with its own humour and lunch conversations.
The importance of being connected – and participating in weekly Skype calls and company Skype chats – was something I totally underestimated while in the Amsterdam office.

Nowadays, discipline and self-motivation are my friends. I’m largely my own boss, so it’s up to me to make things happen. Its all about freedom, trust and delivery. During my first month in Singapore I explored the city (mostly in the morning) by having daily meetings with different people in different places. This required a lot of cold calling, a creative approach and an open agenda. It has been an incredible learning experience for me as a person and for Akvo as an organisation to be in a new environment where nobody knows us.

Around 3.00 pm a lot of Skype meetings start with other Akvo offices and that can make it a long day. Although it’s starting to balance out a bit now with most of my Skype meetings taking place within the wider region – India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar.

What have I learnt?
Its all about Asia – this is the centre of the world. Understanding the cultural nuances of living and working here is so important. And it’s all about business – that’s the only viable philosophy for providing sustainable services. Being an NGO, depending on grants or fundraising, is not sustainable. Therefore explaining that we are a non-profit foundation, but that we provide paid-for services with a business model, sounds both feasible and weird to people here.

Another thing I’ve learnt is that you need to be clear about your agenda. There’s no room here for pure chitchat – meetings need to result in concrete actions or business. That said, personal relationships are key. People tend to follow their ‘gut’ instinct about you here and doing business with someone means becoming a part of a kind of extended family. But work is work – if you want to discuss your family life, keep it til lunch. (Lunch, by the way is not a sandwich behind your laptop, but proper quality time for nice food at a hawker food court.) 

Last week we signed our first Singapore Memorandum of Understanding with GoodWater. Sean and EuJin Tan (brothers and directors) have a strong vision to connect organisations through offering simple water solutions to the Bottom of the Pyramid market. During Singapore International Water Week, my colleague Peter van der Linde also met the GoodWater team, and we decided to bring GoodWater products online via Akvopedia. We’re also exploring joint projects to showcase via Akvo RSR and involving students to work with Akvo FLOW to follow GoodWater solutions into the field. This new relationship is a good start to the next phase of our work here. I foresee a busy time ahead. 

To conclude, last weekend I participated in the Ventures for Change Bootcamp. That’s an unique partnership with INSEAD and guides you through eleven steps on how to set up an Social Enterprise (48 hours). 32 bootcampers were facilitated and inspired by The Hub Singapore. It was great to share the work we as Akvo are doing, and to meet a lot of new people. During the weekend my team pitched ‘AirBNB’ concept for Jobsharing to a jury, and resulted in winning (2nd price) workplace for coming months for one day a week from The Hub. This will bring a nice balance in working from home, coffee bars and partners – and perhaps first step towards Singapore office?

Check out summary of my iPhones photo roll on Flickr

Further reading:
History: A journey into Singapore’s past
Key facts: Vibrance in the city

Frodo van Oostveen is programme manager at Akvo, based in Singapore.