Photo credit: VIVK VENKATRAM


Vivek Venkatram, 19, is one of the co-founders of Can Mah! – a social initiative led by a group of five friends. He enjoys community service, is passionate about environmental advocacy, and is currently serving his National Service. Vivek is grateful to the National Youth Council for the opportunity to share the Can Mah! story, in the hope of inspiring youth in the wider community.

Today, he shares more about the cause and what it is about.

Tell us more about what you do!

Can Mah! was built on the idea of creating a voluntary network for grocery runs in order to help those unable to leave their homes to buy essential items. Conceptually, it’s similar to the idea of carpooling, except for grocery shopping (shop-pooling, if you will), whereby a neighbour will buy and deliver items for beneficiaries whenever they go shopping. By doing so, high-risk individuals and the differently abled do not need to leave the safety of their homes, thereby reducing any physical contact and crowding at grocery stores during this pandemic period.

With this initial idea in mind, we began liaising with Volunteer Welfare Organisations (VWOs) across Singapore to explore the feasibility of our plan. Concurrently, we sent a survey to gauge whether people would be willing to volunteer to purchase groceries on behalf of a member of their community (and we were delighted to receive positive responses!).

After completing our research phase, initial screen mockups, and fine-tuning logistics, we had the opportunity to partner and develop this alongside – an existing volunteer app network with months of experience with several tech-for-good projects hosted on their platform. Additionally, we were grateful to receive financial support from Temasek Trust for our grocery sponsorship initiative.

What inspired you to start this?

For us, five recent high school graduates, our pandemic-induced stress was born out of the abrupt end to our schooling years, which left us in limbo and awaiting an uncertain future.

It was March 2020 when the five of us had a reality check. Our disheartenment at the anticlimactic virtual graduation paled in comparison to the dire situation many were facing across the globe due to COVID-19. For vulnerable groups world-over, there were deadly consequences in venturing out to crowded supermarkets. In a pandemic-themed news article, we noticed a poignant image of a dejected old elderly man surrounded by empty shelves, something that unexpectedly struck a chord with us.

For a while, the issue still seemed distant to us in Singapore. However, after the panic buying that followed the Singapore-Malaysia border closure, we saw rows of empty grocery shelves greeting the elderly. With difficulties acquiring groceries due to full delivery slots and extra delivery charges, we wanted to create a non-monetised accessible voluntary network to help vulnerable groups, while minimising their risk of contracting COVID-19 through contact. This prompted us to create a community-oriented grocery service called Can Mah!.

Have you faced any challenges so far? And how did you overcome them?

  1. Technological accessibility

An issue we faced was making our interface accessible to elderly users of the app, who may not have been as digitally savvy. To make Can Mah! as user friendly as possible for our beneficiaries, we simplified the grocery request process. Additionally, we created a Help Centre with FAQs to clarify any doubts in navigating the app. To gather feedback on tech-accessibility, we included a feedback button to ensure that we continued to adapt our interface to accommodate the needs of our beneficiaries.

From speaking to VWOs, we understood that in most cases, neighbours and volunteers help the elderly buy groceries. Hence, with our accessibility features, our grocery request process became fairly intuitive for both elderly users and younger volunteers in the area.

  1. Language accessibility

Another opportunity to widen our reach was through language accessibility, due to Singapore’s multilingual fabric. To make the app universally simple to understand, we based much of the ordering system around large thumbnail pictures of grocery products. Additionally, we began to draft and include the national languages in the Help Centre and other pages of the app.

If you could share one piece of advice with your fellow youth, what would it be?

In Singapore, we are privileged to have access to various philanthropic grant opportunities to promote social good, and so many organisations are willing to share their insights and collaborate with young, fairly-inexperienced innovators. I strongly encourage youth to contribute in their own way by getting involved in solving issues they are passionate about – whether that is tackling social inequality, caring for our seniors, helping the environment, or something else altogether.

From the amazing experience we had collaborating with our partner, the main advice I would give to someone interested in creating tech for social good is don’t wait till tomorrow! Begin your research by identifying the gaps that you and your team will be addressing and – as cheesy as this sounds – don’t be afraid to reach out to others and dream big!

What are your hopes or plans for the future? What do you want to see or perhaps do?

As of August 2020, our partner volunteer app-network – which hosted the Can Mah! app on its platform – had grown to over 7000 users and matched more than 500 requests. The small acts of kindness we witnessed with the Can Mah! initiative – from neighbours volunteering their time and going out of their way to support high-risk groups with groceries – are indicative that despite the hardship of COVID-19, there is always hope for a kinder and more compassionate world.

Alongside National Service and further studies, it became increasingly difficult for our team to get together to handle the operations and maintenance of the app. Hence, we collectively decided to close this Can Mah! chapter. Our team’s journey has been an immensely rewarding learning process which has left an indelible mark on each and every one of us. Personally, the journey has inspired me to pursue Public Policy & Economics as part of my future undergraduate studies.

The name Can Mah! ultimately boils down to a “we can do it” attitude. It is fundamentally about rallying together as a community to reignite – in each of us – the kampung spirit of sharing and caring for one another. Even during the pandemic, as a community, we have continued to overcome challenges together – on the family, grassroots, national, and global level. I’d like to conclude by sharing the last verse of “The Road Ahead” from our National Day 2021 theme song: “We did it before, and we’ll do it again!”

This article was published on Mar 10, 2022

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