From homeless chefs to fire hose handbags, social entrepreneurs thrive in UK

by Zoe Tabary | zoetabary | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 11 September 2017 07:00 GMT

Handcrafted purses, body lotions with advice on how to self-check for the signs of breast cancer and organic baby clothes are on display at the Brigade restaurant in London, September 7, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Zoe Tabary

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"Businesses need to recognise the surge in customers wanting to tackle social community issues"

By Zoe Tabary

LONDON, Sept 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Leon Seraphin left school aged 14, was unemployed for years and spent several months in prison for a botched robbery.

In 2004, an employment charity offered him an apprenticeship at an east London restaurant, which he said taught him not just how to cook but "how to keep a job: getting up in the morning, being on time".

Seraphin went on to become a chef himself, including a stint with leading chef Raymond Blanc.

"I even cooked for the Queen: smoked salmon, lamb, and bread and butter pudding," he said proudly.

He now works at Brigade, a London restaurant which trains and employs homeless people.

Seraphin is one of nearly one million people who work in about 80,000 social enterprises in Britain, according to Social Enterprise UK, the British body for social enterprise.

A social entrepreneur is typically someone who uses commercial strategies to tackle social and environmental problems, combining social good and financial gain.

Businesses designed to bring about social development have mushroomed in the UK and globally over the past decade.

Russell Gill, head of membership at British supermarket Co-op, a consumer co-operative, said "there is no sector that can't benefit from having a social purpose."

"Businesses need to recognise the surge in customers wanting to tackle social community issues," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at a gathering of social entrepreneurs in London last week.

Leon Seraphin cooks chicken at the Brigade restaurant in London, which trains and employs homeless people, September 7, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Zoe Tabary


An increasing number of small businesses in Britain and around the world are offering consumers environmentally sustainable alternatives.

British startup Elvis & Kresse makes luxury items like handbags and wallets using decommissioned fire hoses from London's Fire Brigade.

Kresse Wesling and her husband Elvis started their business "with 40 pounds in pocket, making belts in their bedroom" after realising that London fire services were throwing away 10 tons of fire hoses a year.

"I've always been fascinated by garbage," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Reducing food waste is increasingly popular, too. London opened its first zero-waste supermarket this summer, which sells goods in bulk, products made out of waste and durable alternatives to typical throwaway products such as plastic cutlery, razors and sponges.

Toast Ale, for example, is a craft beer made entirely from surplus bread that would otherwise be thrown away.

"Forty-four percent of bread is wasted in the UK," said Julie Prebble, production manager at Toast Ale. "So we're turning a product with a short shelf life – bread – into beer, which lasts longer and is more lucrative."

Handbags made of old fire hoses from London’s fire services, London, September 7, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Zoe Tabary


According to Gill, while social enterprise is about making a difference in people's lives, it is "no excuse for a second-rate product, you have to be as good as the competition".

"Unlike charity there has to be something in a social business not just for others, but more importantly for the customer," he said.

Wesling agrees. "Social enterprise need not mean poor quality: our craftsmen come from Prada and Vuitton, we're just cheaper because we don't have supermodels or shareholders," she smiled.

Contrary to the public perception, social businesses are "obsessed with maximising financial value".

"Give me 1,000kg of leather scraps and I'll make you 100,000 pounds – most of which goes towards paying people's wages," she said.

However, access to capital remains a major hurdle for many businesses, said Kieran Whiteside from Good Finance, a website that helps social enterprises understand and access investment.

"Social investment is only right if it can be repaid, so social enterprises need to have a good grasp of their financial situation," he said.

(Reporting by Zoe Tabary @zoetabary, Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit

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