If we want social entrepreneurship in West-Africa to speed up — we have to slow down !
Let’s be frank, charity and development aid will not get us to an Africa with zero hunger, zero carbon emissions and zero poverty
Massive unemployment and population explosion is an unstoppable reality overriding the continent.
First intuition: jobs, jobs, jobs ! Creating national wealth and jobs for the youth !
But will creating jobs solve social and environmental problems that are often the biggest handicap for economic development ?
Let’s not forget that even more so than in industrialised countries economic does not go without social development in Africa. You might have the best business idea ever but if there are no roads to get you to your clients you wont get very far. If you have to pay 2/3 of your salary to your family because none of them have a job, you wont get very far in developing your enterprise either….
However, people have no time to solve social issues first and then develop their economies !
(it has been tried by NGOs and Donors for decades….)
The intrinsic interdependence of social and economic development in Africa makes a strong case for social entrepreneurship — creating solutions that make money and do good at the same time.
More and more big actors and donors seem to realise this, but let’s be honest, how many impactful and successful social entrepreneurs are there today that manage to solve a social issue at scale and have a solid business model, such as the mobile banking solution mPesa ? 10, 15, 20…. ?!
Being a wholehearted promoter of doing business for good, I came to ask myself: why on earth is social business not booming all over the continent, whereas it would be a magic solution to solve all the social and economic problems at once ?
Well, unfortunately it’s not quite that simple. Having had and heard a lot of discussions about social business in West-Africa, but especially having spent quite some time trying to promote it, here are some learnings, reflections and warnings from the ground.
Reality Check: 5 things we are not yet getting quite right
1. LET’S NOT OVER-RATE SOCIAL BUSINESS IN AFRICA
When jumping on the bandwagon and creating a buzz on social entrepreneurship, actors risk to forget to go through a careful iteration and adaptation phase of the concept in concerned societies.
One example is that many African entrepreneurs now claim being “social”, because they are creating jobs and serve people by increasing incomes which makes them pay for their basic needs. However, this might actually rather be creating positive externalities, which is a different kind of impact we must understand and define when talking about social business in Africa.
All this shows is that the “social” and “the business” mean different things in West-Africa than they do in Europe or America — so perhaps “social business” must, too !
2. DONT FORGET THE BARRIER TO ENTRY FOR (SOCIAL)ENTREPRENEURSHIP
Trying new things, being innovative and thus taking risks has a very high barrier to entry in poor countries. Even though slowly changing, as of today, few youngsters in francophone Africa want to be entrepreneurs, because it is perceived as too risky. And yes, in societies without social safety nets, the “risk of being an entrepreneur” in the west is not even remotely comparable to what that means for entrepreneurs in societies without social security.
If you fail, there is no security to help you recover. There is your family, but its means are limited and the shame and guilt of driving your family into even deeper poverty is far too great to imagine.
So, let’s not take it lightly: people wanting to build innovative entreprises in Africa are risk-takers — People wanting to build innovativesocial enterprises in Africa are pioneers !
3. PUTTING THINGS INTO PERSPECTIVE
Although supporting these pioneers called social entrepreneurs is clearly one important part of building sustainable solutions to social and environmental problems, it is not a realistic path for the 99% of the population. This kind of entrepreneurship might even exclude them from contributing to development, as it confronts them with an unfamiliar, new kind of entrepreneurship and mindset.
So let’s be careful not to preach social entrepreneurship to every actor of society before even having a clear definition of what it means in the local context. Rather, it should be driven by the few local pioneers that slowly adapt it to local contexts.
4. PROOF TO PEOPLE THAT THEY CAN MAKE MORE MONEY FOR GOOD WITHOUT TELLING THEM THEY NEED TO DO GOOD
SOCIAL is very linked to “free” and “charity” . Speaking about social in relation to business often leads to confusion and a lack of acceptance in the entrepreneurship world.
Most of the aspiring entrepreneurs i meet in Africa focus on industries that add to the top % of the pyramid instead of adding value at the bottom by resolving the most pressing issues.
So we should rather focus on how to show the economic value of environmentally and socially relevant sectors. For example that producing LED lightbulbs locally will bring you more money than running an events agency.
Sometimes, there is no need to speak about “social” to encourage business that solves a social issue.
5. LETS THINK OF WHAT SOCIAL BUSINESS EMBODIES MORE BROADLY
So, no matter how much we love social business, lets keep in mind that the pathway to promote a new way of thinking or doing is hardly ever direct. Promoting social business means more than making everyone become a social business entrepreneur, it means understanding and adapting to local notions and constraints of the concept.
And it means thinking outside of the box by seeing more than just the mere business activity of social entrepreneurship:
Collaboration and Creativity are the very basics of social business and social innovation — promoting and engaging people around these concepts will ease the path and make social business an accessible tool for all of society