What in the world is this thing called social entrepreneurship that so many people are talking about these days? One could turn to the dictionary definitions and business school explanations, but allow me to sketch the landscape of social entrepreneurship in South Africa. Changing the status quo, South Africa has some challenging statistics to grapple with. For example, our current unemployment rate is around 27.1%. The unofficial rate is north of 30%, and includes people who are unemployed and not actively seeking employment. If that figure shocks you, then you’d better hold on to your seat: the youth unemployment rate is above 50%. Considering that these young boys and girls are our future, we need to do something about this dilemma now. Without employment, there is no money, and without money people are left to the devices of local, regional and national spheres of government. While many State institutions try hard to address unemployment, the poor still live on the outskirts without decent work opportunities, good healthcare and meaningful education. It’s in these ashes that social entrepreneurs find fertile ground to plant seeds that potentially grow into dignifyed opportunities for forgotten communities.
I’ve made it my mission in life to change the statistics mentioned above and to encourage everyone – from chief executive officers to academics and ordinary citizens – to stand up and create an environment for positive change.
Let’s get inspired
Towards the end of 2016, I enjoyed a cup of coffee with Lauren Gillis and Neil Robinson. They are the co-founder and chief executive officer of relate.org.za. Lauren and her team developed a simple yet effective handmade product, called the Relate bracelet, to create jobs and alleviate poverty. They have made an immense impact. To date, they have raised R33 million. Relate has created jobs for nearly 350 seniors in townships. They have also impacted 82 charities, which provide services ranging from feeding human and animal orphans and educating children, to offering skills development and bringing clean water to villages. Relate’s business model is simple but effective: donate, invest and fund. It develops charity-specific bracelets, which are sold through its partnerships. A third of its income goes to charitable causes, another third to job creation and skills and enterprise development, while the remainder is used to purchase materials and cover running costs. To my surprise, I discovered that Relate does not rely on grants and handouts, and the enterprise is sustainable. Social enterprises need to move away from the age-old hat-in-the-hand, rely-on-donations and grant-funding mindset. Instead, they should explore how they can generate capital in a self-sufficient manner while operating on commercial business principles.
Learning made easy
The way maths and science are taught in some of our schools should be declared a crime. We produce some of the worst maths and science performances in the world. Yes, there are the exceptional ones, who either attend wealthier schools or have seriously dedicated teachers, but we need to pull up our socks. Enter Paper Video. Paper Video is a social enterprise that develops and distributes educational teaching and revision resources. According to its website, the process is simple. Get your book of exam papers, work through the papers, watch the embedded solutions videos, and dominate your exam. The enterprise has created online resources so that learners who don’t have access to the Internet are able to benefit as well.
While the founders Chris Mills and Paul Maree could easily have stepped into cushy jobs with salaries, they decided to take the risk and launch Paper Video, which effectively extends the reach of exceptional teachers to classrooms through technology.
One of my favourite social entrepreneurs is Marlon Parker, the successful founder of Reconstructed. Living Labs (RLabs). RLabs reconstructs communities that face a myriad of challenges by empowering local residents to have innovative mindsets through skills development. The innovations, in turn, give rise to social entrepreneurs. RLabs is based in Cape Town but has spread its wings internationally to the United Kingdom, South America, Asia, Europe and Africa. Another successful social enterprise is Solar Sister, which is based in Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda. The company empowers women to make a living by running micro-businesses selling solar power solutions. And in east Africa, Kenya-based Sidai Africa provides veterinary services to people who keep livestock and provides them with more livestock. The list of successful social entrepreneurs is endless.
It takes a village
The success of social entrepreneurship rests not only with the individuals who recognise the huge social challenges in society and go about trying to fix them. Through their supply chains, /corporates can create access to markets for social entrepreneurs to sell their products and services. This can uplift the poorest communities.
The Foundation (through its random acts of kindness) and the Cipla Foundation (through its Owethu Project) are good examples of socially minded corporates. The Owethu Project provides equal access to healthcare no matter your social standing, while developing a network of healthcare social entrepreneurs.
A glass half full
Former president of the United States, Barack Obama, once said: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” Social enterprises have immense potential, provided that the right mindsets are applied in these businesses. As a social entrepreneur, one’s business model must include sustainable income streams that will generate money to uplift the most vulnerable in society. I am a capitalist with a social conscience. I firmly believe that you can be a for-profit business that delivers high social impact, while still drawing the right calibre of staff to help keep your business on the path of sustainability. I also believe there is nothing wrong with making money while delivering sustainable value to the destitute, so that they too can dream, build wealth and create opportunities for their families. After all, a 50% unemployment rate presents us with a 50% opportunity to make a change.