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From the Blog

In many underserved communities, however, neither the invisible hand of the government nor markets cater to even the most basic needs of their members, resulting in structural and behavioral barriers to the community's growth and development. These barriers are addressed by products and services engineered by social entrepreneurs.

Social Entrepreneurship is an emerging and evolving concept. This article from an Indian Summit called Sankalp 2010 provides a great snapshot. It talks about what Social Enterprise is, an example in Mumbai of the “Dabbawallas,” and the need it fills.

via Reporting from Sankalp 2010 | Blog | NextBillion.net | Development through Enterprise.

Observing partners of The 1010 Project in Kenya, as well as listening to our indigenous leaders, I’ve discerned three elements that must be present for a social innovation to succeed.

  • Aptitude: A social entrepreneur’s skill or competency which they are offering to their community and to the marketplace.
  • Business Acumen: Knowledge of basic business principles and strategies
  • Capital Investment: Resources for startup costs, including financial, intellectual, and human capital

In metaphor format, if the entrepreneur and their skill is a Computer, Capital is the hardware and Business acumen is the software.

Development at times has focused primarily on the third element, Capital Investment. And it is true that  hardworking, creative social entrepreneurs in impoverished countries have remarkable aptitude but often lack access to basic capital.

However, as Michael Nyangi of LOMORO reminded me in February, many of these community leaders have not received the kind of business knowledge we take for granted in the United States. The average American would have a primary understanding of concepts like budgeting, marketing, and finding your business “niche.” In my experience, the same assumptions cannot be made in the developing world.

We had these challenges too

Recently a friend asked about African culture, and specifically our Kenyan Social Entrepreneurs: “does their laid back attitude actually contribute to their poverty?” Now I know this friend well enough to know he was genuinely asking, not trying to pass judgment. In answer to this question, I present to you: a washing machine.

When I see that pile growing in my laundry basket I feel a dread come over me. I will have to budget time to address the burgeoning pile or risk wearing gym shorts as my underpants (not that I’ve ever done that).

I will have to throw the clothes in the washer, be around an hour later to move them to the dryer, and…the part I always screw up…remember to take them out of the dryer before they are a wrinkled mess (sorry honey). Oh ya…and folding. So, all in all about 30-45 minutes of work spread out over a 3 hour period.

Now let’s contrast this process with the work of a prototypical Kenyan social entrepreneur named Joy:

  • Water: the more fortunate might have indoor plumbing which works 3 or 4 days out of the week. The less fortunate go to a community filling center, and can only purchase what they can carry (this is almost certainly a woman doing this work)
  • Bucket or tub: pour the water in the tub
  • Soap: If you’ve ever washed your clothes camping, you know hand washing isn’t glorious. There’s no hand-friendly organic soaps available, and you certainly can’t afford the luxury of gloves
  • Hands: It strips your hands of oils, and getting out those tough spots requires more than a little elbow grease
  • Drying & Folding: Drying is done on outdoor lines, which leaves clothes stiff…not to mention the rain conspires to set back the drying process several days

All in all, I have to guesstimate, a 6-8 hour process spread over 3 days. “Ok,” you say, “they have a harder time washing their clothes.” But this isn’t an isolated incident, this is every basic task of living

  • Without online or telephone banking, going into town to check your bank balance could take 2-4 hours
  • Getting to the market for food could be a 30 minute to 2 hour walk
  • Preparing food over a charcoal fire, with most elements starting from “scratch” could take 1-2 hours
  • If a child gets sick, and you can’t afford health care, everything else could go on hold for days

Now imagine you are trying to run a social venture with the rest of the time you have left? If you are trying to be productive and task-oriented, how long would you last? Is being strictly task-oriented unquestionably a good thing, even in our culture? The fact is, the utter lack of what we would consider “basic infrastructure” conspires to complicate every basic task.

Every time you throw some clothes in a rinse cycle, remember the cycle of poverty and ask yourself how you can responsibly intervene.