Whenever Mathilda D’Silva sets off on the shimmering sea near her Pasir Ris home on a stand-up paddleboard, it’s a game of chance.
Some days, she can paddle for kilometres toward the kelongs (offshore fish farms). Other days, she starts spasming.
“If the fishermen see me, they come out on their boats and stay with me until it stops,” says D’Silva, 40. “Only people who are around me on a daily basis realise my difficulty.”
Known in her early days as a competitive dragon boater and a finalist in the first season of Singapore Idol, D’Silva carries herself with the confidence of an athlete and the charisma of a performer. However, not many know that she developed three autoimmune diseases in 2015, following exposure to waters polluted by sewage after a dragon boat race in Boracay in The Philippines.
“If I’m doing an outdoor event and start to sweat, my makeup comes off and reveals my vitiligo. When I’m on stage, speaking to clients or delivering a training session, I get muscular spasms. Now I do meetings while occasionally bedridden,” she says brightly.
A sea of change
At the time of the Boracay incident, the former TV producer was head of community at MediaCorp. She later went on to work in community management and content roles in StarHub and DBS.
But today, after five years of soul searching, D’Silva is founder and CEO of award-winning social enterprise Ocean Purpose Project (OPP), whose goal is to slash pollution in Singapore and Southeast Asia.
Her startup serves about 50 clients – the likes of Accenture and SAP – by organising events, creating sustainability strategies, and running social media marketing.
This funds its two core projects: making bioplastics and fertilisers out of seaweed and mussel chains grown near kelongs, and creating a mobile unit that converts styrofoam, layered plastics and mixed plastic into hydrogen.
The seaweed and mussel chains absorb carbon while growing to size. These can end up as biodegradable plastic, while beach cleanups clear shorelines of trash and convert it to hydrogen. All these work together for a pollution-banishing ecosystem.
Connecting marine ecosystems and plastic pyrolysis
From afar, D’Silva’s journey looks straightforward: woman falls ill from ocean pollution, creates startup that cleans seas. But it wasn’t, she laughs: “There’s no big awakening.”
Instead, after being discharged from the hospital, she returned to work, ruminating about how to solve the problem for good: “I wasn’t going to leave my job just to do beach cleanups.”
As spasms kept her from beloved watersports like dragon boating and canoeing – she kept losing her paddle out at sea – D’Silva took to the Pasir Ris coast with the safer option of stand-up paddling. There, she saw seaweed growing beneath blue barrels near kelongs. The water shone clearer, and fishermen net heftier catches from richer marine life.
Inspired by the sight, she learned that in the early days, the people living in Pasir Ris would boil seaweed they found on the beach to create agar, a jelly that is the basis of certain types of biodegradable packaging.
This nugget of information led her deep into sustainability as she felt her way along the threads connecting marine ecosystems and plastic pyrolysis. She spoke with social enterprises, visited labs and universities, and read research papers in her spare time. (“There’s no guidebook: Five Steps to Start Your Own Social Enterprise for Ocean Conservation,” she jokes.) At last, a picture of a business model emerged.
Every time I look at myself in the mirror, I’m reminded of what’s happened. There are entire generations of young people swimming, paddling, diving in our oceans, being exposed to pollution.Mathilda D’Silva
A massive sacrifice that reaps results
For a social enterprise launched amid Covid-19, D’Silva has results to be proud of. Staffed by five conservationists, OPP has collected over 4,000 kg of plastic waste, planted over 200 seaweed-mussel lines, and discovered over 20 species of seaweed in Pasir Ris.
Yet, the founder is upfront: “It was a massive sacrifice on my part,” she admits; for the past two-and-a-half years, she’s worked about 20 hours a day, Monday to Sunday. “Yesterday I was out at the fish farms. Later this week I’ll be sitting with engineers, reviewing machines.”
But, D’Silva adds, she loves it. Why? Because she can sleep at night: “Every time I look at myself in the mirror, I’m reminded of what’s happened. There are entire generations of young people swimming, paddling, diving in our oceans, being exposed to pollution.”
“The worst part is, the solutions are actually here,” she adds. “There just isn’t enough collective will to move them forward. But I’m a firm believer that if you build it, they will come.”