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Monday, March 28, 2011

THIS IS AFRICA & A Social Enterprise Debate

Let's Drop the Word "Social"

On Saturday I attended re:Vision 2011, YSEC's second annual conference on social entrepreneurship.  There was a unique spirit in the room,  a buzz of excitement throughout the day as young social entrepreneurs (or those to-be) got hyped up by the inspiring speakers, networking with each other, and bouncing great ideas off one another. 

Throughout the day, however, I couldn't help but think back to another conference I attended just a few weeks ago, where a man who is making some serious change in Africa claimed his opposition to the concept of social entrepreneurship and social enterprise.

He has a very interesting opinion, and it is an important one to share as this field continues to flourish:

Tal Dehtiar, founder of Oliberté Footwear, caught my interest not only with his system-changing business model, but also with his heated opinions on aid and what a social enterprise really means.

Tal believes that aid does not provide sustainable solutions to major issues in developing countries (aside from natural disasters). Like I do, he believes that building businesses (and therefore creating jobs) fosters natural economic growth and empowerment.  We both developed some of our opinions on aid from a book I highly recommend called "Dead Aid", by economist Dambisa Moyo

Tal's belief in how to eradicate poverty and trigger growth in developing countries forms the basis of the Oliberté business model.

Oliberté Footwear is a shoe manufacturer.  Like the other big shoe companies out there, it has designers, suppliers, manufacturers, distribution systems, etc..

So what is the key difference between Oliberté and the Nikes of the world?

Oliberté's supply chain operates fully in Africa.  It is the first company to have a fully-operated shoe company based out of Africa and sold in the West... most of the big players in the shoe industry shift but one step in their manufacturing process overseas and call it CSR (corporate social responsibility).

Amidst the major challenges and constraints of building an entire business in many countries in Africa, Tal and his team found a way to make well-designed, fashionable shoes that are sold at price-points comparable to other high-end brands, at the stores we all know and love.  Oh yes, AND they are creating jobs, empowering individuals, and fostering growth in communities that are often perceived to be desperate (and might I add that women comprise approximately 50% of the workforce!).  

You ready to head to the mall yet?

Here's the way Oliberté explains their concept:
When we first shared the idea of manufacturing our footwear in Africa, many thought why? Why or how could anyone want to make shoes in a place full of so much poverty and corruption?
The answer was simple – we never have and still don't see an Africa that's categorised by negative generalizations. Oliberté believes that with the right partners, each country within Africa has the means to grow and support its people. So that's what we do – Oliberté partners with factories, suppliers, farmers and workers to produce premium footwear in Africa, but we do more than that. We work create fair jobs, with the goal of contributing to the development of a thriving middle class.
It is generally accepted that a thriving middle class is a key component to the success of any country. In Africa the middle class is increasing in size and one of Oliberté's goals is to support that growing middle class by building a world class footwear brand that can create thousands of jobs and also encourages manufacturers from other industries to work in Africa.Currently Oliberté operates in Ethiopia, Liberia and Kenya with the goal of expanding to Cameroon, Congo, Uganda and Zambia in the coming years.
So I'm sitting in the audience in awe, thinking "Wow! What an incredible social entrepreneur!"

But according to Tal, he is not a social entrepreneur, he is simply an entrepreneur.  

In Tal's opinion, he is running a shoe company that just happens to be having a huge impact in developing countries.  He thinks that every business should be treating its employees fairly and operating through sustainable supply chains, so to designate a separate concept to those businesses who happen to be operating the right way seems almost silly. It leads people to mentally separate ethics and business, when really, this is how business should intrinsically run anyway.  Of course, I agree with this, and value his opinion very much.

Tal said his parents immigrated to Canada and grew a business that employed many people. And according to most of us, they would not be considered social entrepreneurs despite the fact that creating jobs most definitely solves a social issue.  And because almost every company hires people, wouldn't, then everyone be a social entrepreneur?

Interesting opinion, and he almost had me sold.

But here's the the thing.  Ideally, yes, we all envision a world one day where businesses are run completely sustainably and ethically.  Unfortunately, that's not reality...YET.  But that's what the members of the social enterprise movement are working towards.  And we're going to need to coin this as a movement until the socially and environmentally detrimental companies change their values and practices.

So in my opinion, there IS a definite difference, and right now there needs to be one.  The social entrepreneurs and social enterprises (click here for my take on the difference between these two terms) are actively shifting mindsets of consumers and corporations. These are the innovators, the change leaders, the ones who are going to help us battle climate change and poverty.  And until our marketplace becomes fully ethical and serving people the way it was originally designed to, the "social" piece of the concept must remain.  There is a clear difference between an entrepreneur and a social entrepreneur...and Tal is a concrete example of the latter.  His business principles are leading by example.

My hope is that very soon, the concepts of social entrepreneurship and social enterprise cease to exist so that these organizations and companies that are driving system-change become the main-stream enterprises.  Let us all aspire to create a world where the word "social" is dropped...where instead, "social" implies the norm.

Until then, we have a lot of work to do my friends.

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