Social Entrepreneurship and Development: Observations from West Africa

Social entrepreneurship exper Thane Kreiner with social entrepreneurs in West Africa.
Thane Kreiner (left) of Miller Center with West African social entrepreneurs (left to right) Davephine Tholley, Jasonta Cokier and Samuel Nonie in January.

By Thane Kreiner

The challenges facing the African subcontinent are many and daunting, including widespread famine and drought, wars and instability, the ravages of tropical diseases, and general lack of the infrastructure needed for people to thrive. At the same time, there are many hopeful and even exciting trends in Africa.

I had a chance to witness both extremes first-hand during a recent trip to West Africa — Sierra Leone and Ghana — for business-model workshops with some bright young entrepreneurs. I co-led the workshops, GSBI Boost programs organized by Miller Center for Entrepreneurship’s Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI), with Pamela Roussos, senior director of GSBI.

While it would be ridiculous to try to draw grand conclusions from a single trip, I would like to share some observations that I hope will spur some useful conversations around how we, in the capacity-developing world, could better approach development efforts in general.

Social entrepreneurship doesn’t mean the same thing everywhere

In both Sierra Leone and Ghana, people asked us: “What’s the difference between a regular enterprise that creates jobs and a social enterprise?”

A number of the African entrepreneurs we talked with had a hard time making the distinction we make: A social enterprise is defined by an explicit intention to create social or environmental benefit. But what about something like an online shopping website, which was one of the enterprises represented in the workshops? While the primary goal of the venture is to generate profits, it will also make it easier for Sierra Leoneans to purchase products from overseas with less red tape, and it will provide employment opportunities.

Or how about a restaurant home delivery enterprise, which also focuses on profit generation, but will help food distribution and create local jobs? Many in the social enterprise sector — including myself -– have not included these kinds of ventures in our definitions of social enterprises because their main intention is not to effect social or environmental change.

Are such distinctions meaningful in places like Sierra Leone and Ghana? Who decides what is and isn’t a social enterprise?

It’s up to the people

Expanding on the “who decides” theme, my experiences in West Africa reinforced a main edict of social entrepreneurship: The people and communities who are in need of help are the best, and really the only, ones qualified to identify optimal solutions to their problems.

Well-intentioned aid projects initiated from the outside often fail because they don’t take into consideration important cultural and social practices, beliefs and preferences, or physical realities.

As an example taken from India, development projects can attempt to address widespread public defecation by providing all the toilets, but if there’s a cultural bias against using toilets in a home, the toilets will sit unused.

Climate change is already happening

It’s impossible to visit places like Sierra Leone and Ghana without being forcefully aware of the challenges that climate change is already inflicting, especially on poor communities. Impacts of climate change include the increase in transmittable diseases such as Ebola and Zika; exacerbation of desertification; and heightening of deforestation, drought, soil erosion, and other factors that make ecosystem services for food, water, energy and shelter unavailable.

Many of the social entrepreneurs we worked with in West Africa are creating local solutions to enable some level of climate resilience. That is in line with our overall experience at Miller Center, where roughly half of the 550+ social enterprises that have attended GSBI programs are engaged in activities that address climate resilience through clean energy, water for drinking and agriculture, sustainable rural development, and health.

Women are embracing leadership

Women are assuming strong leadership roles and are generating some of the most inspiring and promising enterprises we encountered in West Africa.

These young women entrepreneurs displayed impressive intelligence and ambition. But what really moved me was their ability to grasp fundamental business principles and apply them immediately to their own burgeoning enterprises. One young woman — just out of high school — was transforming bio-waste into a fuel to address both energy poverty and deforestation. Another was creating high-quality carpets from the plastic waste that pervades the developing world. Still others were training community health workers and providing brand consulting for African women leaders.

The bottom line

Regardless of how one chooses to define social entrepreneurship, the core principles can transform global human development paradigms. We’ll still need aid after huge natural and human-caused disasters. There will be more outbreaks of diseases like Ebola, and a mobilization of international resources will be essential to control those outbreaks and prevent as many people as possible from dying.

But at the end of the day, how do countries take control of their own destinies? To me, the catalytic ingredient is social entrepreneurship. Even in a place like Sierra Leone that had a long, brutal civil war and an Ebola epidemic, we witnessed how entrepreneurial principles were inspiring young people who otherwise might not have employment. They are the ones who are generating new ideas and applying them to advance their communities and their societies.

Meeting young entrepreneurs like the ones we worked with in West Africa left me feeling optimistic about their futures — and ours — which I didn’t anticipate. Despite the evident poverty, I had the sense that many young, well-educated and passionate people want to apply their educations to make a difference in their countries. And for many of them, social entrepreneurship is the best avenue for success.

Image courtesy of the author

Thane Kreiner, Ph.D., is executive director of Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, and Howard and Alida Charney University Professor, at Santa Clara University in California.

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