Shifting opportunities

Greg Maqoma, who runs the Vuyani Dance Theatre

Why social entrepreneurship is an opportunity to fast track socio-economic change. Kerryn Krige, Programme Manager for the Network of Social Entrepreneurs at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, enlightens us on this relatively new and interesting concept.

South Africa’s demon statistics of inequality and unemployment are well known, with 50% of young people between the ages of 15 and 35 unemployed, and the gap between rich and poor widening.

Our public rhetoric is of a sluggish economy that needs to be shocked out of its lethargy and into financial growth that tackles our economy and fast-tracks our social development. But what we’re missing is the how, the economic map and compass that has a route clearly marked, with directions and hopefully a few pit stops for rest and recovery along the way.

This is why the topic of social entrepreneurship offers promise in South Africa in that it focuses on both social and economic development, recognising that the one cannot happen without the other.

Social entrepreneurship is a concept that is hard to define and which we are still trying to understand in the South African context. It combines the best of business, with that of civil society, encouraging people to see opportunity in their communities, and to develop income streams through it.

It is at first hard to grasp, as it requires shifting our Victorian notions of charity from the stereotype of a fleet of well-intentioned volunteers bearing down on the poor with alms, to one where services such as child protection and early childhood development are provided by highly-regarded and compensated professionals. And then it takes a further step, by encouraging citizens to take charge of their own community progress and to develop an income stream that supports its work.

The essence of social entrepreneurship is innovation – a new way of seeing things, that challenges the norm, but provides scalable, high impact solutions to social problems, in a manner that can be funded. South Africa has excellent social entrepreneurs, who are heralded in other countries, but keep a lower profile on home shores.

One such innovator is Claire Reid, the social entrepreneur behind Reel Gardens, the company she set up after noticing that people weren’t growing their own food - in a country where 2.5million children are hungry. She realised that seeds were hard to grow and that seed packs were impractical, dissuading people from growing a variety of vegetables in their yards. Reid’s innovation was a strip of paper that contains seeds and fertiliser, which once placed in the ground, grows. Her Reel Gardens have pictorial instructions, so that literacy is no longer a barrier and the fertiliser in the pack means her success rate is high, irrespective of whether people are planting in the hardy soil of the Northern Cape, or the rolling hills of the Natal Midlands. Reid runs both a for and not for profit company: the food-security mission of her organisation is funded by the sales of gardening reels in specialist grocery stores, and nurseries.

Another success story is that of Greg Maqoma, who runs the Vuyani Dance Theatre, which exists to identify, nurture and develop excellent dancing talent. Vuyani works in schools across the country, teaching and training young talent. On stage, the company is highly successful, touring internationally and winning a multitude of awards. It is this on-stage excellence that funds the organisation’s social mission, allowing the organisation to balance its traditional grant funding base with income.

The for and not-for-profit approach of both Reel Gardens and the Vuyani Dance Theatre highlight the elements of social entrepreneurship which offer value in South Africa.

Firstly, social entrepreneurship encourages people to practise problem solving within their communities, which makes it highly accessible. It is a type of entrepreneurship which is driven by experience, and, because it pushes our frontiers of knowledge, is not prescriptive in its approach.

Secondly, by encouraging people to see opportunity in their communities, a chain reaction of social development starts to occur, where citizens take ownership of development. This helps counter the frustration that we see in communities, angry with the slow pace of government’s service delivery agenda.

The third benefit is that it creates a funding base for social services, which are typically delivered by non-profit organisations (which are financed by grants), and are currently struggling in the constrained financial environment. This is not to say that social entrepreneurship replaces grants, it instead offers alternatives to how these organisations can be funded. By generating an income stream for services by charging for expertise or blending their financial models, organisations can build their financial stability as they have more varied sources of income. This is income that they can spend in pursuit of the mission of the organisation, and not just in achieving a donors agenda, giving them an independence that adds value.

Innovation is at the heart of change. And if we are to fast track our social and economic development, then it is vital that we look at things differently, borrowing the best that business has to offer and blending it with the values and services that drives civil society.  The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report in 2009 included a study on social entrepreneurship in South Africa which found that the concept has enormous potential because of our high unemployment rate and social inequality – these demons act as a call to action for change.  Social entrepreneurs are typically young people, galvanised by the world they see and communities they are connected to - young individuals who make our expanding middle class relate to their villages, townships, cities and towns, and want to ensure that they progress too.

Social entrepreneurship is a method and approach which provides us with both a map and compass for practical and sustainable change. It offers opportunity where our existing systems are struggling to deliver, and harnesses societal and economic progress in one framework.

Kerryn Krige

(Sources: Children Count - http://www.childrencount.ci.org.za; ld Economic Forum Global Risk 2014 report - http://www.fin24.com; World Bank Data Table: http://data.worldbank.org)


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