The Drive to Make a Difference

The Drive to Make a Difference


As a developing country, South Africa has many social problems like poverty, poor health services, poor educational services and joblessness. These need to be addressed in an innovative manner, and that‘s where social entrepreneurship comes in.

People like Shona MacDonald, Brian Richardson, Lesley-Ann van Selm and Nora Tager are all pioneering social entrepreneurs who address issues such as disability, banking for the poor, crime prevention and community development. They are making a difference and their solutions are sustainable.

“Because money is scarce in developing countries, you need to couple entrepreneurial flair with a passion to make a difference,” says Dr Susan Steinman, director: Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Social Economy (CSESE), Faculty of Management, University of Johannesburg. “These people have managed to do so very successfully.”

Defining social entrepreneurship

The business model used by social entrepreneurs is often referred to as a social enterprise, says Steinman. “A social enterprise’s primary objective is to ameliorate social problems through a financially sustainable business model, where any surpluses are reinvested in purpose. The social purpose permeates the business model and becomes the essence or core of the social entrepreneur’s passion.”

Professor Gregory Dees of Duke University in the US describes social entrepreneurship best: Social entrepreneurs play the role of change agents in the social sector by:

  • Adopting a mission to create and sustain social value (not just private value)
  • Recognising and relentlessly pursuing new opportunities to serve that mission
  • Engaging in a process of continuous innovation, adaptation and learning
  • Acting boldly without being limited by resources currently in hand
  • Exhibiting heightened accountability to the constituencies served for the outcomes created.

The challenges in SA

In developing countries, the gap between rich and poor is often extreme. While investment capital is streaming into the private sector and GDP may be growing, often very little of that money trickles down to the poorest of the poor, or the rural areas. “Social enterprise can start to bridge that gap by interesting investors who want a return but also realise they need to address the social issues in the areas they work. It allows for a financial return (often lower than what would be expected for standard businesses, but still there) and more importantly social return on investment,” says Amy Tekié, course convenor, Social Entrepreneurship Certificate Programme (SECP) at the Gordon Institute of Business Science.

Funding in emerging economies is usually still limited to traditional corporate social investment (CSI) grant funding. Even in South Africa the social investment model (whereby investors get financial as well as social returns, either through debt or equity) is only just beginning to gain traction.

Working together for good

There are some excellent examples of social entrepreneurs and corporates working together. “Brian Richardson started Wizzit Bank and is working with a banking group to make banking possible for the poor through cell phones,” says Steinman. “There are many examples where a social problem is of great concern for corporate organisations. They use the services of social entrepreneurs to address problems such as HIV/Aids and crime reduction. CSI money increasingly goes towards social entrepreneurs because they deliver in a sustainable and innovative manner.”

Tekié says there are several ways that social entrepreneurs and corporates can work together. “Start-up social entrepreneurs have trouble finding the funds they need to get their ideas off the ground. CSI departments can look at setting aside funds to support people who have great ideas with huge potential for impact and scale. Companies can also look at using social entrepreneurs as supply line providers as many of them teach disadvantaged communities to produce goods that can be sold. Also, many social entrepreneurs would really benefit from the business learning that skilled corporate employees can offer. Pairing up employee volunteers with these entrepreneurs to provide input on strategic frameworks, business plans and marketing options could have great impact.”

Tekié adds that while there is a huge emphasis on entrepreneurship in South Africa, not enough attention is paid to social entrepreneurship. “Entrepreneurship incubators and capital providers should consider providing a specific type of support for social enterprises — either as incubators or financiers. There is, however, increasing interest from organisations like the Business Place or Shanduka Black Umbrellas in collaborating with social entrepreneurs.”

Another example highlighted by Tekié is that of Veronica Khosa who found that people living with AIDS in townships were sometimes left alone all day, with no one to take care of them. “She got former prostitutes who were looking for a new career to start providing home-based care. After a few years of running this model on very little income, she finally got recognition from the Department of Health that there was a great need for a home-based model of health care provision in South Africa. This has since been rolled out at scale.”

Can social entrepreneurship be learnt?

“When you have the passion it takes to want to make a difference, skills can be learnt,” says Steinman.

Tekié agrees. “You can provide people with the skills and confidence to start up their own initiative,” she says. “There are many budding social entrepreneurs out there who are either intimidated by the risk involved in going out on their own, or feel they don’t have a sufficient understanding of the context and grasp of the skills required. Many of the students on our programme come into the room and realise that they are not the only crazy ones. The support and networking that develops among the students is critical in getting people to take the leap.”

She notes that higher learning institutions also help to develop the theory and research that can provide useful models and legal frameworks and enable shared learning. They create awareness among students and faculty of the opportunities within social business and social entrepreneurship. “At top universities and business schools around the world there is a huge movement to create centres and programmes to support social entrepreneurship and innovation.”

It’s certainly happening here at home too. If you see yourself as a social innovator, you can arm yourself with the strategic, technical and business skills you need to create sustainable, scalable, high impact social enterprises through one of the programmes in social entrepreneurship being offered at many of the country’s universities.

Changing industries

“The job of a social entrepreneur is to recognise when a part of society is stuck and to provide new ways to get it unstuck.

He or she finds what is not working and solves the problem by changing the system, spreading the solution and persuading entire societies to take new leaps. Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionised the fishing industry.”

Source: Ashoka Fellows

Monique Verduyn
Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.