Plenty has been written about seemingly intractable social problems throughout the world and the large sums of money spent trying to solve them. In the past two decades, a new approach has begun to deliver better results: the social enterprise.
The term “social enterprise” is broad and can encompass both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. For-profit entities can be social enterprises if their central mission involves the betterment of people and the environment. Today, a wide range of social enterprises have demonstrated a zeal for innovative, nontraditional solutions, an approach that has been shown to work.
The following are four examples of how “social entrepreneurship” is having an impact in a wide range of endeavors around the globe.
Mexico: Visionaries with a cause
Founded in 2011 as a for-profit enterprise with a social mission, salaUno provides quality eye care to Mexico’s poorest citizens. It now serves about 35,000 people each year.
Writing in Forbes magazine, salaUno co-founder Javier Okhuysen noted that eye-related health problems are the second leading cause of disability in Mexico. SalaUno’s number-one mission is to eliminate needless blindness in Mexico, and a key part of accomplishing that is by performing low-cost cataract surgeries. Okhuysen estimates there are 2 million untreated cases of cataracts in Mexico.
SalaUno had a worthy predecessor on which to model its enterprise: the long-established Aravind Eye Care System in India. It now has one main and five satellite surgical clinics throughout the Mexico City area. It also operates 20 vision centers and conducts extensive community-outreach activities.
SalaUno has racked up some impressive stats. According to the Center for Health Market Innovations, 22,000 patients received an eye consultation from salaUno, 21,000 were screened in outreach camps and 4,200 people received corrective eyeglasses. Most notably, salaUno performed 5,400 cataract surgeries in its first two years of operation, Okhuysen said.
Tanzania: Learning in a digital sphere
Educational access has been one of the thorniest challenges in the developing world. Many nations, especially in Africa, are physically rather large and lack infrastructure such as roads to connect people with educational opportunities. In Tanzania, social entrepreneur Faraja Nyalandu is tackling that head-on through an innovative online curriculum provider called Shule Direct.
To meet the needs of its secondary school population, Tanzania needs 26,000 more science and mathematics teachers. Yet, Tanzanian institutions of higher learning graduate cannot meet even half that demand. To fill the gap, Shule Direct provides “anywhere, anytime” learning opportunities to students. It operates from the principle that for students, “learning is a right, not a privilege.” It offers digitized notes, tutorials, quizzes, podcasts and videos, and delivers content to students via the web and mobile technology.
Shule Direct’s cloud-based lesson materials encompass the entire Tanzania National Syllabus for Secondary Schools. All online lessons are developed and authored by educators, and all content has the stamp of approval of Tanzania’s Ministry of Education. Its flagship product is the Open Educational Resource (OER), a content repository accessible by all secondary-school teachers and students in Tanzania.
Shule Direct’s goal is improving learning outcomes among students in Tanzania — and, ultimately, other countries in Africa. Online learning is a popular venture: in Kenya to the north, Eneza Education is providing access to educational content on the web, on smartphones and on basic mobile phones.
Nepal: Taming the paper tiger
To many people in developing countries, something as simple as paper recycling can seem quite revolutionary. Expertise on paper recycling can be scarce, leaving people and municipalities at a loss on what to do about accumulated mountains of office paper, newspaper and even shopping bags.
In Nepal, a group of social entrepreneurs founded Blue Waste to Value, which offers a dual benefit. It creates ways to reuse paper that would otherwise accumulate in dumps. It also employs local people in a brand-new kind of enterprise. Companies and organizations pay an annual membership fee to participate; the fee ranges from $50 to $200, based on the organization’s size.
A recycling team picks up waste paper from participating organizations on a weekly or monthly basis. The paper is then recycled into products such as gift bags, photo albums and stationery. Blue Waste to Value also provides jobs in the communities it serves.
Bangladesh: The bucks start here
Most of the world’s rural poor live far from the banking institutions we take for granted, including bank branches and ATMs, not to mention sources for funding a fledgling enterprise. Seventy percent of people in Bangladesh live in such rural locales. Yet there are 121 million mobile phone subscriptions, a number equivalent to three-fourths of Bangladesh’s population.
With the assistance of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the social enterprise bKash was founded in 2013 to connect Bangladesh’s people to the financial world via their phones.
In just three years, bKash has amassed 13 million subscribers. The ability to receive money from loved ones in faraway places is just one of the simplest services bKash offers; others include establishing interest-bearing savings accounts, paying bills electronically or sending cash to a family member via an electronic “wallet.” The bKash system operates nationwide and prides itself on the security of its electronic platform.
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- Javier Okhuysen, "A Chance to See is a Chance at Life," Forbes
- Thandisizwe Mgudlwa, "Is Social Entrepreneurship the New Face of Development?," News24.com
- Berenice Magistretti, "How Social Entrepreneurship is Making a Difference in the World," TechCrunch.com
- "Meet the Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneurs of the Year 2015," Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship