Three years earlier when I was 19, I had realised that due to a limited market reach, these women barely earned a decent living from their products.
I first stepped into a plane in 1991 when I was 22-years-old. With my afro hairstyle sitting like a crown on my head, I reclined in my seat and flashed a wide smile to everyone my eyes came in contact with. I was on my way to a trade exhibition in Japan to sell kiondos
and other traditional handicrafts made by women groups in Kitui and Machakos districts.
Three years earlier when I was 19, I had realised that due to a limited market reach, these women barely earned a decent living from their products. They wallowed in poverty despite their talent and diligence. I vowed to tackle this poverty head-on by finding for them more customers not just in Kenya, but globally. I didn’t know it then, but I had actually taken my first steps into social entrepreneurship.
Prof Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh is widely considered one of the gurus of social entrepreneurship. When he won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, he boldly declared in his Nobel lecture that, “Almost all social and economic problems of the world will be addressed through social businesses.” I agree.
Although it is not a new phenomenon, social entrepreneurship largely exists on the fringes of the business world. Yet as far back as 1950s, social entrepreneurship existed in the form of stakeholder capitalism, a widely embraced management theory that emphasized needs of all business constituents, not just stakeholders.
As Oscar Auliq-Ice, the young social investor put it, “Social entrepreneurship is the road less traveled, but is one of the paths that can lead to the building of hybrid businesses with triple-bottom lines.” That triple-bottom line demands that businesses be built on the three pillars of profit, people and the planet.
During a time of crisis like now, formal safety nets like tax breaks may not bail out the millions of Kenyans who work in the informal sector. For them to find lasting help, the trickles of social entrepreneurship need to build into downpours. It is critical for socially minded entrepreneurs to step up and use business to solve the dire social problems we are currently facing.
Google loon, which President Uhuru Kenyatta mentioned in a recent speech, is a commendable step on the social entrepreneurship path. Google loon’s business and social mission is to provide wireless internet to rural and remote areas through high altitude balloons. Such internet will ensure that among many other benefits, children in these remote places can learn online like their counterparts in urban areas.
But what good will the internet be if people in those remote places don’t even have smartphones and computers? Social entrepreneurs don’t frame this question in such fashion. Rather, they ask – how can I use business principles to avail computers and smartphones in those remote places? Unlike NGOs, which would have to write project proposals for such a venture to materialise, social entrepreneurs will write business plans. These business plans will be firmly anchored on the profound principles of sustainability.
Against the backdrop of coronavirus, there is a huge opportunity for social entrepreneurs to establish compelling businesses. They could manufacture handwashing machines that can be operated either by leg or sensor. If they are affordable, high turnover will be guaranteed.
For every problem in society, whether it is public health, unemployment or crime, there exist multiple business opportunities for social entrepreneurs to seize upon. But these socially oriented opportunities only respond to entrepreneur whose main driving force is to solve social problems. Fascinatingly, profits tend to follow hot on the heels of such a mentality.
While growing millions of trees and preaching the green gospel to masses, I valued that I needed to employ business strategies in solving pressing environmental challenges like deforestation. Through Honda Kenya where I serve as chairperson, I have been able to rally dealers in selling affordable motorbikes to people whose only previous source of livelihood had been charcoal burning. This approach has opportunely resulted in a triple win for the environment, business and jobless youth.
Well-executed social entrepreneurship is like a rising tide that lifts everyone in a transparent and sustainable manner. Philanthropy should follow in these footsteps. If that happens, then the millions being raised from recent salary cuts will be invested into socially innovative, measurable and accountable ventures. Such is the spirit of social entrepreneurship which may only be treasured once we choose to think green and act green.
- The writer is founder and chairperson, Green Africa Foundation. www.isaackalua.co.ke