Social Enterprise: the line between

11th Jan 2013
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The Khemka Forum on Social Entrepreneurship 2012 brought together an international delegation of entrepreneurs that have pioneered ‘human-centred’ designs to address specific social needs. Held at ISB Hyderabad, the two-day forum explored a range of topics, from waste management to low-cost private education, agribusiness to ‘cultural’ enterprise.A large body of work has been devoted to defining social enterprise, as the term’s popularity and relevance grows; but despite the often murky distinction between corporate social responsibility and not-for-profit organisations, most people are happy to accept a simplistic definition of an organisation that, rather than being motivated by profit, applies market-based strategies to achieve social or environmental goals.

At a platform for social entrepreneurship, it was thus interesting to observe several ‘edupreneurs’ unwittingly reveal the primacy of ‘market’ or ‘business’ opportunity in their enterprise. At the panel discussion on Affordable Private Schools, each of the three participants began by addressing the market potential of low-cost private education, disregarding its social impact. And for the 90-minute duration, despite covering a range of topics, the panel collectively failed to address whether low-cost private education – and the organisations that profit from the sector – were improving educational opportunity for children from low-income families.

Here it seems that the line between the ‘social’ and the ‘enterprise’ has become blurred. Whilst it would be churlish to accuse educational service providers of being motivated exclusively by profit, it sometimes appears that practitioners are so preoccupied with innovation, scalability and sustainability that the importance and clarity of their social objectives have diminished.

Scalability and sustainability – two of the most revered words in the social entrepreneur’s lexicon – are of course vital to the long-term success of any enterprise. Yet it seems that entrepreneurs need to revisit their priorities: before thinking about scale, sustainability and profit, the primary goal of a social ‘edupreneur’ must be to enhance educational opportunity. Surely it would be more constructive to debate the effectiveness of tablets and smart boards in low-cost schools, than to discuss the impressive scalability and sustainability of enterprises that throw such technology at schools without knowing its net effect. Although the ‘innovation lab’ of social enterprise can be a positive force, by designing innovative ‘solutions’ primarily to fill gaps in the market rather than to enhance educational opportunity, practitioners are neglecting the pertinent social problem in favour of business sense.

I was particularly affected by some of the comments that followed a video presentation of the Philippines-based movement, ‘A Liter of Light’. Beautiful in its simplicity and accessible to everyone, this innovation has the potential to impact the lives of millions across the globe. By filling a plastic bottle with water and chlorine and installing it in roofs, Alfred Moser created a 55-watt solar bulb capable of lighting a home from dawn to dusk. For families living in slum areas with little or no natural light that have become habituated to paying a premium for daytime electricity, the potential impact on their gross income is enormous. The movement has already demonstrated tremendous scalability and seeks to reach the one million mark by 2015. Yet, despite my enthusiasm for the idea, I was repeatedly told that it has ‘no commercial value’ – as if its social impact was rendered worthless by the absence of profit-making potential.

Social enterprise has been praised for taking the best of business acumen and applying it to specific social problems. Especially in India, the surface area of the ‘social enterprise space’ is ever-growing; ‘change-makers’ receive wide acclaim for innovations that change the lives of underserved communities. Yet my observations at Khemka – a forum intended to celebrate the achievements of social entrepreneurs – led me to question whether market-based strategies are always the best way to achieve social impact.

In education, it has been mentioned that some ‘edupreneurs’ seem to address the marketability of an idea before assessing its impact. (Flooding the low-cost private sector with new technology might not be the most effective way to improve education in schools that are mired by fundamental infrastructural issues and a dearth of trained teachers). Moreover, Amit Jain elucidated the pressure on innovators to deliver speedy returns to investors who, otherwise, are liable to withdraw their support. Social entrepreneurship has achieved great results by applying market-based strategies to developmental issues; but at the same time, it is often constrained by the very principles that have made it so fashionable and successful.

This critique should, however, be situated in due context: in India, social entrepreneurs have affected monumental change in recent years. Discussions at Khemka illustrated how technological innovations have transformed the climate of rural health; examined the different approaches of organisations that are tackling the waste management crisis, by encouraging green practice and empowering those that earn their livelihood from the existing informal waste-picking economy; and elaborated on the most effective ways of preserving traditional handicraft and supporting rural livelihoods. Herein practitioners were clearly motivated by key social and environmental issues; although the programmes they had implemented are all scalable and sustainable, at no point did the words ‘market’ or ‘opportunity’ arrive in juxtaposition.

With the public sector consistently failing to address key health, environmental and educational problems, social entrepreneurs can play a key role in changing the landscape of India through innovative and sustainable solutions. Yet it is vital that ‘change-makers’ retain their perspective and design solutions for the benefit of the masses, rather than innovations that can be scaled to the masses. The ‘social’ must come before the ‘enterprise’.

Written by Ben Thurman, currently an IDEX Fellow in Social Enterprise working with Butterfly Fields.

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