Using business to change lives of the 'small people'; the story of three African social entrepreneurs

"If you bring poor things to the poor, you’re extending poverty and misery. But if you bring the best to the poor, social transformation will kick in"

SOCIAL entrepreneurship is a growing model of global development, particularly in Africa, a continent where many are fatigued by the often prescriptive, top-down solutions that the traditional aid industry tends to favour.

What is unique about social entrepreneurs is their ability to draw upon business techniques to find solutions to social problems, and in that way provide goods and services to groups that are otherwise underserved by businesses, such as the urban poor or rural communities.

There has to be a commitment to excellence, and quality, as Colombian social entrepreneur Catalina Escobar, President of the Juan Felipe Foundation, puts it: “If you bring poor things to the poor, you’re extending poverty and misery. But if you bring the best to the poor … social transformation will kick in.”

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship last week awarded eleven social entrepreneurs from around the world – three from Africa, and one operating primarily in Africa – for their efforts in applying the latest business thinking in a practical way to benefit the marginalised and poor.

“Their success rests upon combining the financial disciplines of market capitalism with the passion and compassion required to create a more fair and just world,” said Hilde Schwab, co-founder and chairwoman of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.


“This year’s awardees are experimenting with business models and new distribution and replication methods, and holding themselves accountable for results,” she added.

The three African winners are Tracey Chambers of The Clothing Bank, a South African company that provides unemployed single mothers from South Africa’s townships with two years of training to become self-employed businesswomen. 

Tracey Chambers. (Photo/ WEF)

The Clothing Bank counts 829 women as graduates, with another 800 women currently enrolled in the two-year programme. Since 2010, these women have collectively generated income for their families of more than $2 million.

Luvuyo Rani of Silulo, also of South Africa, operates IT stores and training centres in townships and rural areas, and provides job opportunities for unemployed youth. The training centres also offer services such as CV writing and employment advice. Silulo has 33 operational branches in and around the townships, and works with companies like Tsiba, Microsoft and Vodacom in order to refer job seekers.

The third winner is Yasmina Filali of Fondation Orient Occident from Morocco, whose organisation provides job training to underprivileged Moroccans, sub-Saharan migrants and refugees. It also helps migrants and refugees to integrate into Moroccan society. Ninety-five per cent of graduates from the IT courses and 60% of hospitality graduates find regular employment.

The other Africa-focused winner is Worldreader, which operates predominantly in Africa,  is creating a future where everyone can be a reader. Using low-cost technology, a personal digital library, and a worldwide network of corporate and non-profit partners, the global non-profit offers a collection of over 31,000 titles from over 331 publishers in 44 languages including Kiswahili, Hausa, Afrikaans, English, and more. 

Worldreader makes these titles available to over 17 million people in 69 countries through two means: tablet-based early reader programs designed for students and a mobile reading app designed for adults. Since 2010, 3.7 million people have read more than 15 million hours of content on the two platforms.

The awardees will become part of the broader Schwab Foundation community of Social Entrepreneurs, which includes over 320 outstanding social entrepreneurs from 70 countries. Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneurs are fully integrated into the events and initiatives of the World Economic Forum.

Systematic and integrated

Social entrepreneurship is a particularly exciting model of addressing Africa’s challenges, providing a more systematic and integrated anti-poverty approach, Donnas Ojok, a Development Management student at LSE, writes.

“The charity model, which has dominated the antipoverty agenda for decades, has often failed to bring about radical reforms in the economic system – it does not create enough jobs and traps the poor in a vicious dependency cycle.”  

READ: When social enterprises fail to make friends, can they still influence people? The danger of repeating mistakes of aid

This is where social enterprises positively differ – by empowering people to be productive and creating channels for the poor to take charge of their own destinies. On the other hand, purely capitalistic-oriented approaches can be problematic. 

“Their prioritization of profit maximization over social good tends to isolate those who can’t afford to pay for the services given. Indeed some of the world’s most critical social and environmental challenges, like pollution and low wages, can be attributed to this,” argues Ojok.

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