Social Enterprises Are Now Finding Business Solutions To Tackle Almost All Of The World’s Biggest Problems

From food waste and pollution in our oceans to sexual exploitation in Kenya, there’s a growing tribe of business people who feel it’s their responsibility to build commercial models to tackle … well, probably everything.

When Paul Lindley, founder of Ella’s Kitchen, announced a competition called Just Imagine If for the most compelling business proposition to tackle the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals with a £75,000 investment for the winner, he was deluged with super-smart proposals from all over the world. He shortlisted ten of them and got ten business folk to coach them for their pitch day which took place at Reading University, each of whom would introduce their mentees.

When I was called to present the person I had been allotted, I began by asking: “Is there a business solution to everything?” We’ve seen business solutions to food waste and pollution in our oceans, but who would have thought that there was a business solution to sexual exploitation in the Kenyan fishing industry?

Dave Okech, my mentee for the day, runs a fishing business in the east African state and had for long been troubled that for local fisherwomen to get their catch to market they had to go through middle men who demanded sexual favours to do so, having a further consequence of ever rising numbers of HIV cases.

He proposed to create an app where women could liaise directly with retailers through Kenya’s biggest mobile payment platform, lifting away the sexual exploitation practices and bringing a reverse in the numbers of HIV sufferers. He didn’t win on the day but I’m going to help him get that business funded.

There’s a growing tribe of business people who feel it’s their responsibility to build commercial models to tackle … well, probably everything. The idea returned to my mind recently when a friend told me how businesses can best deal with natural disasters.  London based Dakshesh Patel is of Zimbabwean heritage and has a business called Zympay which makes money transactions from the Zimbabwean diaspora back home affordable and reliable.

Typically, such bodies would buy food at retail prices to distribute so not only would you be paying charity administration and marketing costs, but you wouldn’t be getting as much bang for your buck than if you put the money in the hands of businesses on the ground. 

Put crudely, businesses need their customers back on their feet again and it is in their interests to enable that to happen. Seeing that corporates like Old Mutual and Econet had made significant donations in cash and time to support the relief effort, Dakshesh set up a “purposeful remittance” programme in association with a national grocery chain called Gain Cash and Carry whereby people could send money credits straight either to their relatives’ phones to allow them to buy goods from their stores or to help purchase grain at cost price which Gain employees would then voluntarily distribute. 

“Gain agreed to supply all products at a very low wholesale price and the exchange rate they agreed to is giving huge value overall. By example a 10kg bag of maize meal would cost only £1.40 delivered to the relief zone. That is enough to feed a family of four for at least two weeks,” Dakshesh tells me.

People still overwhelmingly find their instinct is to support people affected by natural disasters by donating through organisations like the Disasters and Emergency Committee than through businesses which on many levels is a shame as not only does 100% of the money going through Zympay go direct to recipients but because Dakshesh negotiated the price of products right down to the bare bones, it goes even further. £20,000 has so far gone through Zympay for the relief programme whereas the DEC appeal has raised £18m. 

All over the world, businesses are in the process not just of cleaning up their act but also doing more with their skills than create shareholder value.

One example is coffee seller, Change Please. With early funding from Big Issue Invest, the energetic social entrepreneur Cemal Ezel set up a coffee business which would hire homeless people to run coffee carts, giving employees a Living Wage, housing, a bank account and therapy where needed. They now have 35 carts on the go and have over 200 homeless people on their training programme. 

Trust in the private sector is low, often understandably, but the more people see beyond the emotional desire to help victims of disasters like Idal and instead adopt more rational responses and seek to know what actually happened with their money, the better equipped we would be to provide the best solutions.

In the UK, social enterprises are bridging that gap between charity and business.  Essential to their processes is highlighting a social or environmental problem and then creating a business to fix it. And could there be a better way to help bring clean water to one million people than by drinking craft beer?

For years I sat on charity boards saying they should look at creating products that people already purchase and take the profits from them to fund their work rather than lamely seek donations. They rarely did. But Brewgooder does exactly that. Teaming up with the legendary Brew Dog, who supply craft beer at cost to them which are now sold across much of the country, they use all their profits to fund to date 60 water projects which have delivered clean water to 33,000 people in Malawi.

People may not necessarily think about the world’s water shortages, but they will always drink beer.


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