Social Enterprise & the Market (not that market)

My experience so far has been very work related. We are a small start up social enterprise and as such face a number of challenges that I think would be interesting to discuss. But first I want to share a couple daily life snapshots so as to give a glimpse into my daily wanderings. I currently live about 15 minutes from downtown (or 2 hours, depending on traffic) and within walking distance of an area called Westlands. Westlands is mix of bars, restaurants and shops catering to everyone, from the European or American UN or aid worker who likes to frequent bars, American-esque café’s  and Indian restaurants, to the middle class Kenya businessman eating at middle class restaurants, to the average Kenya shopping and eating in the markets. It’s a place where you can spend $13 on a meal or $1.50 on a meal.

(Although I will note, and probably write more about this later, food prices are skyrocketing here, and that is very dangerous. Food staples doubled recently and prices are going beyond peoples ability to feed themselves. Things are going to get crazy soon.)

Let me first explain the little market area. The market I go to is right behind the gas station (I think that one is an OilLibya, which is a name that caught my eye) and is a maze of wooden and sheet metal shacks. It forms an indoor market with small roofless paths that are full of people and wind between shops. You can find everything from the knife sharpener (who is very menacing looking, pressing the foot pump while red sparks fly off a shiny silver machete) to the shop with every plug, screw or rope you could want, you pass the abundance of fruit and vegetable shacks, passing the man who sells TV’s (mainly flat screen) and dodge a bloody cow carcass dangling from the roof of the butchers 3×3 shack. A little further you pass the Mama who does the tailoring (bring her a shirt you like and some fabric and she’ll make you a brand new one just like it! ) and next is my vegetable guy. The shop is probably 4×4 sq ft and is lined with shelves of bright fruits and crazy looking vegetables. He pulls up a little stool, and if you’re lucky the fruit lady is there and will cut up a bowl of fresh fruit (oranges, papaya, tangerines, banana, avocado and beat root) for about 75 cents. So as you sit and enjoy your fruit, you tell the man what you would like, he throws it in a bag and as soon as your done with your fruit you’re off! In the market are also a number of different Choma places. Choma is a style of barbecuing meat or chicken. They have the little grill outside, the guy making Chapati, and usually a nice little crammed seating space. If you can wriggle yourself next to a guy slurping down Ndengu (lentil soup) you can get a bowl of meat, plate of Sukuma (Kale) and Ugali (Maize flower) for 120 Ksh (About $1.50.) It’s a great place to watch Mexican soap operas dubbed in English, ask questions about food to the guy you’re rubbing knees and elbows with, and hope the smoke filling the shack is from the grill and not car or some other type of exhaust. It’s my favorite spot to eat.

Now a quick bit on working for a social enterprise, I mean For-Profit, not just profit generating. I make that distinction because ever since social entrepreneurship became the buzz word, everybody and their mother is working in social entrepreneurship, and as we all know about the debate and discussion (both polite and borderline needing UN peacekeepers) over the definition and what really is social entrepreneurship, I believe one of the biggest distinctions is being For-Profit or Non-Profit. (Although the spectrum visual gives a very good explanation of the degrees of difference from Social Entrepreneurship to Social Enterprise) This is an important distinction because of the difference in how you behave as an organization, how you make decisions, correct mistakes and plan strategy. For Profit is just as its name suggests, For profit, not meaning that that is the one and only goal, it means that THE COMPANY WILL NOT SURVIVE IF IT DOESN’T MAKE MONEY. Its plain and simple, for profits play a survival game. They are taking the risk by saying, either what we offer is desired and we will become successful, and therefore be able to help more and more people, OR, we are doing something wrong and while we may have thought people wanted what we can offer, they aren’t buying, we aren’t making money, therefore we are no more.  Non profits on the other hand, don’t play that survival game ,they play a different one. Their survival is dependent on their ability to convince people with money that what they are doing is both desired and beneficial. (And as a disclaimer, I am in no way bashing on NGO’s and non profits, I am trying to be honest in making a distinction, and when said out loud it doesn’t sound very nice. But this is one perspective and one point of view. ) So as everybody who has worked in the private sector and NGO world knows, the incentive structure is very different. Social enterprise copies the business model of end user driven support, without purchases of whatever product is offered, a social enterprise is starved of oxygen.

You may again ask, why am I making this distinction. I am saying this because my experience working for a social enterprise here in Nairobi as well as working with the Global Center, has shown me that these two different worlds (for/non profit) and their differing incentives structures and models have developed different languages and ways of understanding how to “help,” and that is getting in the way of the two groups working together. What do I mean by language? The words used to describe how we work and what we are doing is very very different. And in the same way translations get mixed up, these two groups often misunderstand eachother and this leads to a barrier, a sense of mistrust and a lack of mutual support and progress. Ok, that may be making a lot of assumptions, but think about it. When I speak about what I do people understand me a certain way. I set up Franchise Distribution and Training Centers, I work with clients, I want to expand our sales and reach, I want to increase profits and partnerships, I work with cash flow analysis, price models, supply chain management and all this other stuff that sounds way too business like, cold and really not very “helpful” to anyone except the company. BUT that’s the problem! I, a few years ago, would have also understood it as businessy and complicated and not belonging in the rhetoric of the development world. Yet if I were to “translate” that from social enterprise-ese to NGO-ese, it would sound more like; I set up Farms that provide training on how to improve farmers crop yield, to increase their standard of living, send their kids to schools, ease the labor burden of the women in the family and every person we work with is a farmer in the community that then works with others and together they can lift a community to another level, having access to adequate nutrition, better manage scant water resources, I want to reach out to more communities, improving lives of farmers across Kenya, I want to get more money to do more of what we are doing, work with different organizations that can add to our training and increase access to more and more people, I need to ensure proper delivery of the farming inputs so farmers can have what they need on time to grow better crops, and I need to make sure everything is affordable and accessible to the people we want to work with. See how those two sound a little different, but they are saying the exact same thing!

So, given this difference in ‘language’ I have found that I am not always well received in the NGO world. Yes they are nice and polite, but a lot of people don’t get it. They hear business terms and for profit and blah blah…. They stop listening. It’s the nature of the beast; social enterprise is not as fluffy and save the children sounding as, well, Save The Children. I feel like a business student in an Anthropology class. People look at you as if you don’t belong. I also don’t want to make this sound worse than it is, there are many people that understand (especially if I use NGO-ese) and to tell you the truth, the people that are most excited are the Kenyans. NGO-ese unfortunately is very typical of Americans and Europeans working on aid or  development projects, the average Kenya (like most people) knows more about the private sector. We interact every single day with the private sector, it makes sense to how we function, we give and receive, we work and receive, then we repeat.

So I guess what I am trying to say is that it is a struggle. Social Enterprise is an equalizer and a model for development of all kinds in all places. Instead of needing to create new organizations for every little thing, it encourages putting the heart back in business, of redirecting the focus away from only profits and toward human gain and improvement. Every company has the potential to be a social enterprise and to do good while making money, it is something that really can make a difference in this world.


“I never said it would be easy, I only said it would be worth it.”

— Mae West


2 thoughts on “Social Enterprise & the Market (not that market)

  1. Hey Man. This is pretty interesting– aside from your bashing on business students in anthro classes that is. I think there are quite a few IR majors in these type of fields who are kicking themselves for having not taken a couple basic busi 101 type classes along their course of studies. It’s amazing how semantics send people for a loop like this… as if the for profits are popping the silver fillings out of the poor kenyans teeth. Okay so I’m using a bit of hyperbole, but we all know just how high that soap box can get– right? Shoot me an email at some point. I’d like to know what you’ve been up to.



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