This post was originally produced for Forbes.
“Social entrepreneurship has proven to provide impactful innovations for poverty alleviation ,” says Abby Maxman, President of OxFam America. Maxman was among a diverse group of people working on poverty eradication who contributed to a recent roundtable discussion on ending extreme poverty and homelessness.
The idea of ending poverty seemed absurd a generation ago. Today, the idea has been enshrined officially in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs as something the world should achieve by 2030. The roundtable participants addressed a range of topics, including a focus on how social entrepreneurs would help achieve the SDGs. Watch the 80-minute discussion in the video player above.
Judith Walker, the chief operating officer for African Clean Energy, which sells clean cookstoves that generate electricity, explains the need for social entrepreneurs to see problems as opportunities. “Energy costs are very high compared to income in the markets we deal with, meaning its either not realistically accessible or almost certainly not reliable. This should be seen as an opportunity to improve the goods and services available in order to relieve burden and create other options for those struggling with any or consistent income.”
She adds, “Where we see the most potential for impact is actually by catalyzing this potential by having access to the most desperately needed energy.” What customers are able to do to improve their own lives with the tools inspires her to continue working.
Why Entrepreneurs Should Care About Ending Poverty
Entrepreneurs solve problems. Social entrepreneurs solve problems that matter. Eradicating poverty pegs the mattering meter.
Haiti’s former Prime Minister, Laurent Lamothe, is now an active impact investor, supporting social entrepreneurs in Haiti. Everyone benefits from helping the poor. “Poverty is not solely the problem of the poor, the same way as climate change is not solely the problem of one country. It has consequences and implications for all of us because we live in an increasingly open and interdependent world. Improving the prospects of the most disadvantaged will improve prospects for all. ”
Anne Kjaer Riechert, a recipient of a Rotary Peace Fellowship and social entrepreneur in Germany, founded the ReDI School of Digital Integration to teach refugees, mostly from Syria, how to code. She says our focus shouldn’t be on helping people living below an arbitrary income threshold but on the income gap itself. “Poverty is relative. It is not a question of income, but the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots. ’”
OxFam’s Maxman agrees. “Our research has shown that since 2000, the poorest half of the world has received just 1% of the total increase in global wealth, while the top 1% received 50% of the increase. Inequality is bad for us all – socially, morally, ethically, economically and politically.”
Why Social Entrepreneurship is a Key Part of the Solution to Poverty
Entrepreneurship—especially social entrepreneurship—brings value to the fight against poverty that other players—governments, corporations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) don’t.
Alicia Wallace, president of All Across Africa, which sources handicrafts in Rwanda for sale in the United States, points out the speed of entrepreneurship. “Entrepreneurship can be harnessed to fuel positive, sustainable global impact much faster than any other form of social good .”
“I definitely see competition as creating an urgency for solving poverty and homelessness,” she adds, helping to explain why entrepreneurs can have faster impact.
Social entrepreneurs have a unique mindset, according to Arlene Samen, founder of One Heart World-Wide, a nonprofit that uses a grassroots approach to improving maternal and child health in Nepal and Tibet. “Social entrepreneurs never give up, they think outside the box and are willing to empower ‘others’ to help solve their own challenges.”
Carla Javits is the CEO of REDF, a nonprofit that invests in social enterprises that serve people who are often considered unemployable, including those who have completed jail and prison sentences, recovering addicts and people who have experienced homelessness.
Javits says social entrepreneurs are flexible. “By developing new models that cut across and blend the assets of various sectors without being stuck in orthodoxies about what each sector can or should do, social entrepreneurship opens up new possibilities to solve stubborn, seemingly insurmountable challenges.”
She also points out that social entrepreneurs think outside the box of either operating as a nonprofit surviving on donations and grants or being fully supported by revenues. Operating in that middle space creates opportunities for social entrepreneurs to leverage donor dollars with revenue generating services.
Effective social entrepreneurs relieve burdens by selling products that customers need to improve their lives. The profits from the sales create sustainable impact and provide returns to investors.
Mari Kuraishi, CEO and founder of Global Giving, a crowdfunding site for nonprofits serving communities in the developing world, points out that social entrepreneurs can experiment and then scale up. “Social entrepreneurship can play a big role in experimenting within smaller jurisdictions and communities to demonstrate how to overcome issues like poverty and homelessness.”
She also notes that such innovators may be able to attract resources even when government grants are not available. “When political will is missing, it’s possible–but by no means a sure thing–for social enterprises to get access to the kind of resource flow that might begin to make a dent.”
Javits agrees, noting that the use of hybrid solutions can reduce public costs with other benefits to the community and the beneficiaries. “Social entrepreneurs identify hybrid solutions that can reduce but not eliminate public costs, increase individual initiative, and generate much greater value for all of us.”
Haiti’s Lamothe cautions, however, that social entrepreneurship got its start decades ago and we’re still dealing with some of the same challenges. “Poverty is a complex issue and, since the advent of social entrepreneurship in the 70s, no social enterprise has been capable of solving poverty all by itself. After decades of social entrepreneurship, it becomes obvious to me, as to many others, that reducing poverty takes a concerted, cross-sector effort that focuses holistically and long-term on the problem.”
Social entrepreneurship is becoming a primary weapon in the war on poverty but it isn’t a magic bullet.
What Social Entrepreneurs Can Do to Help
Having established that social entrepreneurs have the ability and flexibility to contribute meaningfully to the end of poverty and homelessness, let’s look at some specific things that they can do that can help to end poverty.
All Across Africa’s Alicia Wallace says one key is to equitably divide the gains and benefits. In her model, the US corporate customers are not the beneficiaries—the artisans in Africa are. She expects the corporate customers to pay fair prices for the products that will in turn allow her to pay fair wages to the largely female workforce producing mostly baskets.
African Clean Energy’s Walker agrees, though her lens is slightly different. Her customers in Africa are her beneficiaries. She explains, “We need to consider the beneficiaries as customers, and treat them with the respect they deserve, rather than just as victims or poor. ”
The division of value among entrepreneurs, customers and investors “only needs to be a little more balanced,” she says.
James Mayfield, the founder of CHOICE Humanitarian, highlights the power of income opportunities for the extreme poor. “The key to the eradication of poverty is the creation of income and employment enhancement programs. Such programs are best stimulated by the poor themselves supported by organizations that facilitate social-oriented enterprises.”
After more than 30 years in the field, Mayfield highlights the importance of empowering women with income. “The missing ingredient in many unsuccessful poverty eradication programs is the importance of women participating in village decision-making , especially their role in ensuring village leaders are willing to adhere to the villager-determined core values that emphasize behaviors showing among other things integrity, generosity, service, tolerance.”
John Hewko, the general secretary—the professional head—of Rotary International, who has built his career almost entirely in international development, says that the way people think about their entrepreneurial prospects is as important as their structural access. He cites a report that women in Latin America have lower confidence in their own abilities and have a higher fear of failure. Providing training and encouragement is as important as providing access to financing.
Mark Horvath, an advocate for the homeless and producer of the popular YouTube show Invisible People, points out one limitation that impairs the work of nonprofits. Well-funded Silicon Valley companies provide lavish coffee stations with fresh fruit while nonprofits provide access to a coffee station with an honor jar for people to contribute money to keep it supplied.
He sees the problem as limiting the effectiveness of nonprofit social enterprises because foundations are risk adverse not funding new ideas or allowing autonomy for a nonprofit to do what they do best.
Government’s Role in Supporting Social Entrepreneurs
One surprising theme that developed in the discussion among these advocates for ending poverty was the need for governments to structurally support social enterprises.
Riechert, the young entrepreneur who founded the coding school for refugees in Germany, says, “I would love that there would be more collaboration between the government learning from the social entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs getting more capital from the government to continue growing and scaling their solutions.”
Relatively small amounts of capital infused in a revenue-generating business can have the impact of allowing the enterprise to scale. The closer the business is to complete self-funding, the higher the impact of grants or patient investments.
She notes, too, after her recent visit to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan that government policies in the camps inhibit the ability of the people there to care and provide for themselves. The government doesn’t allow refugees there to engage in any entrepreneurship.
“I would love to see a big change because if refugee was actually seen as an asset and it’s an opportunity for the Jordanian people to make money and to have more cash flow into the country by having these entrepreneurs coming from outside. I think everyone would stand to benefit from it,” she says.
Eytan Stibbe, the founder of Vital Capital, an impact investor actively serving in Sub-Saharan Africa, has achieved remarkable scale, building tens of thousands of moderate-income housing units. He says, “What we found is that the most important issue is sharing in order to reach scale in working with the government. And we try to cooperate with the government so that the interests are aligned. That’s the only way we can reach scale.”
Katie Meyler, the founder of More Than Me, a social enterprise that partners with the government in Liberia to operate primary schools. “We can only reach the masses of people who live without [education] through a public-private partnership.
Haiti’s Lamothe, sees a different but still complementary role for government. Noting that governments in the developing world are often as resource constrained as their people, the government can be a sort of GPS guide to where the problems and opportunities for social entrepreneurs are.
The Examples of Social Entrepreneurship Reducing Poverty
To emphasize the point that the members of the roundtable are not approaching this topic from ivory towers but instead they come from the field, bringing on the ground perspectives, let’s look at some of the projects and enterprises they are running.
Riechert founded her coding school for refugees after 800,000 arrived in Germany in 2015, overwhelming government resources. She noted that even after they arrived, Germany had 51,000 open jobs in the I.T. field. The economy was constrained by a lack of available talent. So, she launched her school training refugees to fill those vacant positions. Her students quickly coded an app called Bureaucrazy to help other refugees navigate the German bureaucracy.
Samen, whose grassroots efforts in Nepal and Tibet have made dramatic improvements in maternal and child health, says her One Heart World-Wide is a beneficiary of a social enterprise in Australia called Thankyou that donates 100 percent of its profits to charities. The company sells water, body care, food and baby care products.
Samen says, “They set it up that, so when you buy the product it has a code bar and you can actually see where your money is going to be invested.” She would like to see this model grow and replicate.
Javits, whose entire business model focuses on funding social enterprises serving people who are at risk of homelessness, offers an example.
“Nonprofits that provide services to people experiencing homelessness have started new businesses in property management that employ their clients, paying them wages, and preparing them for long-term employment. By selling their services like a business, while hiring people who most companies would not give a chance, offering a more supportive work environment, and investing 100% of their ‘profits’ in their employees’ success and well-being, the social entrepreneurs who start these enterprises offer a more sustainable approach that gets to the root of the problem.”
Rotary’s Hewko points to a microlending program supported by Rotary in the Esmeraldas Province of Ecuador. “Borrowers are organized into credit groups, and cross-guarantee each other’s loans. With credit officers working locally, the people who benefit – primarily poor women and youth – gain more confidence to start businesses, and are more likely to repay the loans. They also receive vocational, business and personal development training from NGOs including Rotary, FUDECE and the Grameen Cooperative, and SECAP, a government training organization.”
Haiti’s Lamothe highlights the work in a small fishing village in Haiti destroyed by Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Working with a group of nonprofits, including the Carlos Slim Foundation, Happy Hearts and Sean Penn’s foundation, have been replacing tools of the trade—fishing lines and boats—lost in the hurricane. They’ve also been helping the villagers get access to buyers, connecting them to restaurants and supermarkets. “Their revenues have gone from about you know $1000 US per month for the whole village to right now it’s ten times more.”
Impact investor Morgan Simon, author of Real Impact, offers up her favorite example. “One of the projects I’m a big fan of is the Working World, which provides finance for worker-owned cooperatives and they do so through a non-extractive model.”
She credits Brendan Martin, the founder of Working World, with coining the term “non-extractive financing.” He defines this concept as being loans that can be serviced entirely by the projects they fund with surplus left over. None of the existing resources of the borrower need be devoted to debt service.
“They’ve funded over a thousand loans with the 99 percent repayment,” Simon concludes.
Expanding Social Enterprise Concepts to the Broader Economy
As the group discussed the challenges of eradicating poverty, another theme developed: the need to get the broader economy to apply more of the guiding principles of social entrepreneurship.
Rotary’s Hewko put it this way, “I think the big question here is: How do we channel the private sector? That’s really where the money is—in the private sector—and the long term sustainable solution is vibrant economic systems and economies that work.”
Not only is it important to put people to work but there needs to be a greater social awareness employed by more companies.
He continues, “How do you inculcate into core business models the idea of social good, so social good becomes part of the core business model of a corporation, for example, as opposed to just for corporate social responsibility which we’re doing today?”
He then goes a step further and suggests that we need a mechanism to reflect positive social impact in share prices in the stock market. “That’s not easy but that’s the holy–that’s the Holy Grail.”
Hewko highlights the leadership of Paul Polman at Unilever and others who are “beginning to think very seriously about how we work to change core business models where social good becomes not just something good we do on the side but part of our everyday business.”
Speaking of poverty and homelessness, Hewko concludes, “These problems all need to be addressed in a cohesive fashion with private sector, civil society and government working hand in glove.”
Walker, of African Clean Energy, agrees. “I do believe that the business models of nonprofits and of for-profits and everything should actually become more similar more like each other.”
Concerns and Opportunities
Still, there are some concerns about the challenges ahead in eradicating poverty and homelessness.
Horvath, the homeless advocate who was himself homeless for a time, worries that nonprofits are often forced to follow money over mission and aptitude. “What I’m seeing in the homeless services sector is and I like to say it like this maybe I’m a farmer and I grow apples. I’m really good at it but all of the money is over in oranges. I’m not so good at oranges but I’m going to start growing oranges even though I can’t do it really well because I’ve got staff to pay and I’ve got an electric bill and everything else. So you have all these people just going after the money instead of really addressing fighting poverty and homelessness.”
The United Nations Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Kenya, Siddharth Chatterjee, explains the challenge and opportunity ahead for Africa.
“Africa, for example, will see its population double from the current 1.1 billion to around 2.3 billion by 2050. Over 70% of its population is less than 30 and its median age is 19. One hundred million new jobs per year need to be created in Africa to cater to this looming ‘youth bulge.’ It could prove to be a demographic dividend or a disaster.”
Chatterjee is an optimist, however. He says, “Africa is going to be the new market of the future and if we invest now, not only will we overcome poverty and homelessness but contribute to reduced fragility and instability, advance peace and economic growth and reduce the burden of economic migrants to the West and the US.”
We’ve Got This
Generally speaking, the group was optimistic about prospects for eliminating poverty and homelessness.
REDF’s Javits says, “ Something we can do in our lifetime is to end homelessness for the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands who have no stable home each night. ”
Samen, who has spent her career among the poor in Nepal and Tibet, says simply, “ It can be done. ”
This article, which is published originally for Forbes, will become part of a book with the working title Thirty Years to Peace.
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Devin is a journalist, author and corporate social responsibility speaker who calls himself a champion of social good. With a goal to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems by 2045, he focuses on telling the stories of those who are leading the way! Learn more at DevinThorpe.com!