Social entrepreneurs must embrace technology - and each other

by Sophie Hares | @SophieHares | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 18 January 2017 14:07 GMT

Advertising for Paytm, a digital wallet company, is seen at stalls of roadside vegetable vendors in Mumbai, India, Nov. 19, 2016. REUTERS/Shailesh Andrade

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Reaching the people who most need the benefits of technological innovation is a challenge

Fast-moving technological innovation is driving a new era of social entrepreneurship across the world, but reaching those in need can prove the biggest mountain to climb, experts said at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland this week.

“Technology is not a panacea - I’m constantly saying social entrepreneurship is not an app - and often the implementation is much harder than the invention of the thing itself,” said Katherine Milligan, director of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.

“But in terms of cost-effectiveness and being able to reach large numbers of people… technology is a real game changer.”

Taking technology to street corners, India’s Nidan has rolled out digital payment systems to over 2 million street vendors over the past two months, helping them cope with the government’s move to take high-value rupee bills out of the system and ensuring they don’t lose customers.

Nidan’s strategy to organise India’s street vendors, ensure their protection through legislation and provide support to develop their businesses could be replicated for other street vendors and informal workers around the world, said executive director Arbind Singh.

“We believe the revenue model has to be generated by the people themselves so they are able to sustain their institutions,” Singh told a panel discussion at Davos.

While social enterprises might be fighting over the same limited sources of funding, they need to learn from each other and share experiences, as well as working with governments and industry players to secure the roll out of their programmes, experts said.

“We are going through tough times in Brazil given the economic challenge, so during this time, we need to get even closer,” said Eduardo Bontempo, co-founder of Geekie, which is using its educational platform to help millions of Brazilian high-school children improve their exam grades.

Piggy-backing on existing initiatives that target the same groups can also be a shortcut to bringing the benefits of related schemes to those who need them.


GoodWeave International works to uncover and combat child labour primarily in the South Asian carpet industry, but chief executive Nina Smith explained how it has also helped deliver eyecare services from VisionSpring to communities who depend on good eyesight to make a living.

“We think of our organisation as a supply chain for delivering social change,” said Smith.

With its brand-driven approach, she explained how GoodWeave is expanding its focus to the clothing, fashion jewellery and textile industries in South Asia, working with companies including The Walt Disney Co. and Target to eliminate child labour from the supply chain and improve working conditions. It estimates there are 168 million child workers worldwide.

“We’re tying up both ends of the supply chain, down from the brands and up from the community,” said Smith.

With social entrepreneurship now well and truly mainstream, the challenge is to link groups to discover projects and solutions that can be replicated and developed elsewhere, said the Davos panellists.

 “Someone has solved a problem somewhere - so it’s a matter of trying to find the best ideas and connecting those ideas with the networks of entrepreneurs and talented people in other countries that can then localise (them) to their own context,” said the Schwab Foundation’s Milligan.

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