Several motivations drive people to become social entrepreneurs, but at its core is usually a desire to effect change. These sentiments were shared by three panellists at last week’s Entrepreneurship Lekgotla 2023, that concluded at the University of the Western Cape on 8 September.

The annual Lekgotla is one of several flagship projects of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme of the Department of Higher Education and Training, that is administered by Universities South Africa (USAf).

The three panellists, Ms Maambele Khosa (2nd from right), Founder of SheCab, Ms Sam Gqomo (2nd from left), Director of Womandla Global Network and Ms Dadisai Taderera (far left), Co-Director of Ashoka in Africa, were participating in a session titled How do we ensure the sustainability of social entrepreneurship initiatives? Moderated by Ms Gail Motlhaudi (far right), Senior Lecturer: School of Economic and Management Sciences at Sol Plaatje University, the conversation dissected elements contributing to the sustainability of social enterprises – drawing from lived experiences.

Anchored on the EDHE 2023 theme, Social Innovation for Societal Impact, this Lekgotla had gathered entrepreneurship leaders to empower studentpreneurs with knowledge and to instil in them a desire to shape their communities.

Setting the stage, Motlhaudi said business considerations are often motivated by profitmaking and the lifestyles that profits enable. She said even though social entrepreneurs’ ambitions are driven by compassion for people and communities, that is not enough to sustain their businesses.

This engagement was therefore aimed to inspire changemaking in studentpreneurs while empowering them with practical knowledge when pursuing this route.

We need to do it ourselves

To illustrate her point, Khosa referred to a common practice in rural areas where community members contribute funds to bury their fellow villagers. She asked how these communities would scale up their operations if they did not have the means to measure the impact of their actions.

What has worked for her at SheCab is collaborating with people bringing in different skills such as bookkeeping, marketing and platform development. She believes collaboration, especially with other entrepreneurs, is another way of growing each other’s businesses. She said social entrepreneurship, like other forms of entrepreneurship, still required sound business strategies to thrive. “So, we are intentional with everything that we do.”

All business types incur running costs

Khosa underscored that even though there were different rules of engagement for non-profit organisations and market-based businesses, it costs to run any business and therefore, even social entrepreneurs – out to solve a societal problem — must remain cognisant that it takes a budget to pay service providers, employees and other overheads.

She concluded her input with this question: What role are you playing to resolve a challenge facing your community? To university leaders she underscored the need to transform students’ mindsets and to enable an understanding to not look to government to provide employment solutions.

Shared value drives social entrepreneurship

Gqomo, the founder Womandla Foundation for social entrepreneurship, said they initially encountered pitfalls due to not knowing how to navigate social entrepreneurship, then still a relatively new concept in South Africa. Among others, they were puzzled by how to bring about desired change in their target groups: girls, and women. She added that when registering a business venture in South Africa, people usually have to choose between Proprietary Limited (PTY LTD) or non-profit company options, saying there is nothing in between to cater for social entrepreneurship. The Foundation then birthed Womandla Global Network to run revenue-generating activities to fund the Foundation’s social projects.

Before establishing proper funding models for their initiatives, Gqomo (left) said they took from their own pockets, which was unsustainable. Among other solutions, they learned to work alongside like-minded corporates to bring change in the identified communities. This required them to identify the right organisations whose social initiatives aligned with their goals, and to network and position themselves appropriately. That is how they could diversify their services and skills provision.

“While social entrepreneurship is about the heart, we should not run away from the subject of money, because we need it. For our work to be impactful, we need funding.” That is why, in addition to partnering with big corporates, they also use the barter system to enhance the sustainability of their value proposition.

Besides funding, Gqomo added that social enterprises, like conventional businesses, require the same attention in advocacy and publicity. She said that in addition to monitoring and evaluation activities, how organisations packaged themselves was crucial.

Lastly, she mentioned relationship-building as another critical factor in ensuring the sustainability of social enterprises. She advised the studentpreneurs to keep communication open with those they engage for their campaigns and projects and treat them as stakeholders.  “Keep them in the loop,” she said. “Be it through mailing lists or other communication avenues. Invite them to speak at your events or to be mentors. Relationship building needs constant engagement; it will move people, compel them to stay, work with you and see you grow.”

In her concluding remarks, Gqomo urged the studentpreneurs to find their alignment. Notwithstanding the myriad social challenges out there, she said she believes each person has a passion beyond self-preservation, urging that “that should be the starting point. Once you care about something and move to resolve it, that attracts all the support you need,” she said.

Social entrepreneurs are hope-builders

Taderera (below), the third panellist, mentioned Mr Bill Drayton, the co-founder of Ashoka, who coined the term “social entrepreneur,” noting that there was little recognition at that time, for the unique difference that social entrepreneurs were making. Ashoka’s ethos reads: “… Ashoka envisions a world in which everyone is a changemaker: a world where all citizens are powerful and contribute to change in positive ways.”

She said Ashoka had conceived social entrepreneurship as being about identifying problems and producing solutions from a systemic perspective, which then changes how communities function. “In a world with so many problems, social entrepreneurs become hope-builders. That inspires me,” she said.

With a presence in over 90 countries, Ashoka identifies leading social entrepreneurs and provides them with financial, knowledge and logistical support.  The common thread with these individuals, Taderera said, is that they pursued change-making in their formative years. For example, she said a child may notice that their classmate does not bring lunch to school and, after discussing this issue with their parent, decides to pack extra food for the other child. She said when the child witnesses the difference that makes in the receiver, it plants a seed and they begin to see that they can effect change.

Taderera therefore surmised that if young people can learn conscious empathy from a young age, the world will be endowed with problem seers and solutions seekers – instead of waiting for the government, corporations or donors. She said adopting this awakens in them a sense of agency and the will to make a difference. That is how they become social leaders who develop problem-solving enterprises.

She said at the rate at which things were changing, it was vital for people to become lifelong learners. She said that mentality helps to sustain life and keep up with changes. “Enabling people to cope with change is important,” she said. “It starts with how we nurture those skills in young people to ensure they think about how to contribute to this change.”

The Ashoka Co-Director said the sustainability of social entrepreneurship lies in producing people who take ownership of problems and bother to identify their root causes so as to find solutions.

In conclusion, Taderera said society must aspire to a situation where solutions overcome problems. Therefore, a belief must be instilled in everyone, that they have agency to create change. “We need to start thinking differently about how we raise our children, and about the curriculum because [currently] it is like children are being trained for a chess game, when the actual game is football. They graduate and realise that they do not have the skills. So, by teaching them to be social entrepreneurs from a young age, you are teaching skills for life.”

To the social entrepreneurs already decided on their pursuits, she cautioned against self-isolation. Instead of trying to solve a problem by oneself, one should aim to seek solutions in a community of other people. She added that not finding a way out can even affect one’s mental well-being, whereas “a community will give diverse perspectives; you will hear and learn from others and thus benefit from lifelong learning,” she said.

Nqobile Tembe is a Communication Consultant at Universities South Africa.

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