Are they right? Critics say social enterpreneurship is bad

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There are some interesting statistics about poverty reduction over the last couple of decades. Almost everyone who was lifted out of it, proper, lives in China. And they are doing things different from what the textbooks say are ways to reduce poverty. This should creep you out.

It implies that the system is not working. Except, they use funny benchmarks for poverty like spending less than $1 or $2 a day, which is sh.100 or sh.200 . Everyone knows poverty can only be measured relatively. In Nairobi alone, the cutoff for poverty should be around $5 (sh.500). Only then can we really take the hype of Kenyans being lifted out of poverty seriously. Do you find essential commodities cheaper nowadays?

Social entrepreneurship

Besides playing around with data, another choice of poverty reduction is promoting social enterpreneurship. These are businesses with a primary objective to maximize positive social impact. It’s better than a fast food (junk food…junk) business doing CSR. But some still view social enterprises to be hypocritical. @BuildSolidarity, on Twitter, describes the whole concept as “elite do-goodism.”

We need to talk about it. We need to talk about things. All this insistence that school should only churn out ready-for-work drones is bad. STEM is cool but we still need to address the moral implication of things and philosophy behind them. Like social entrepreneurship. This is why, in some quarters, there are calls for the new curriculum in Kenya to include values education. We would stop littering. They say Africans (us) know what a bin is but not why a bin is. Yes. Ouch!

The basis of this criticism is that it shifts Government’s responsibility of ensuring social welfare to private hands. The last part of that statement is a problem in of itself. We’ll get to it. Okaying Government to transfer this burden is part of the play though. People still learn that the Government should be small and have reduced involvement in everything. Even militaries now contract mercenaries to fight for them. But you and I know the consequences of “cutting Government spending.”

The biggest victim in Kenya was maziwa ya nyayo. This is what I’m told, I was born too late to taste it. But I did experience a Government not interested in spending to improve schooling infrastructure. Now we have this scheme of introducing a new-age curriculum but there are not enough desks, books and teachers.

Speaking of new age, do you think that social enterprises deserve the “social” distinction? One problem critics have of it is that it is after all a business. Businesses direct resources to areas where they will generate the greatest return. Social impact in effect becomes a secondary objective. One writer says, “what social entrepreneurs excel at is extending the reach of the market to smaller players.”

This means these businesses will not necessarily solve the most pressing problems. Neither will they intend to provide holistic solutions. The nature of businesses is to specialize, a critic may argue, and only deal with the practical in front of itself. This is part reason where the perception of “elite do goodism” comes from. It’s privileged individuals coming to solve problems they have less clue about. In Kenya, for example, social enterpreneurship is seen to be driven by foreign interests. The same way people view the tech startup industry in Kenya. The foreigners are either players themselves or conduct the orchestra by giving grants and other forms of support to areas of their choosing.

A response

Some of the arguments against social enterpreneurship are fair. It’s true that Government needs to steer the ship, like find ways to support entrepreneurs. Anyway, Government is too slow to solve problems. It’s tangled in bureaucracy and politics and it’s top-down method of dealing with everything. Remember how Nairobi was the center of the universe in Kenya? That was solved by devolving power. Build the ultramodern Wakulima market you promised first, before complaining about Tanzanian policies towards Kenya.  In no way, are social entrepreneurs stealing thunder from the Government.

Even, if a little bit, they were what is the problem? Social entrepreneurship is still relatively new in Kenya. I never even see these entrepreneurs in the news. This is true because we summarize interesting bits of the news every week, don’t miss it on Friday.

The entrepreneurs are practical, bottom-up, in coming up with solutions. They have to work closely with those they intend to help. If their method doesn’t work, then it is private resources that are lost. In fact, Governments should collaborate with them to help the public. This may not necessarily be in the tender style bedevilling Kenya. Just as well, there could be sharing of information between these two parties.

As the field develops, innovation and the competitive nature of business will ensure that more social problems are uncovered and better addressed. Social entrepreneurs are still not close to flexing the muscles a Government entity or a huge CSR department can. Let them continue solving the practical that is in front of them. Social entrepreneurship is good in our books.

It is in this way that there would be holistic solutions not dependent on the promise of “good leaders” to implement them. Just see what happened to public transport after Michuki. Relapse. Compare that to how every Kenyan ended up affording a mobile phone – budget, midprice and high-end is what they call them. Mine is midprice (I’ll get there…).

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Web Content and stuff. You can reach me you know: editor@herbusiness.co.ke, malitrobert@gmail.com

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