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A Special Series for the 2014 Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship

Each year at the Skoll World Forum, nearly 1,000 of the world’s most influential social entrepreneurs, key thought leaders and strategic partners gather at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School to exchange ideas, solutions and information. We asked a number of speakers to discuss the critical issues, challenges and opportunities underpinning their sessions in advance of the Forum to ground a richer debate both online and in Oxford.

Learn more about the 2014 Skoll World Forum, sign up to our newsletter to be notified of the live stream, view the 2014 delegate roster and discover what themes and ideas we'll be covering this year at the event. Also, read about the seven recipients of this year's Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship.

 
 
 

Hitting The Impact Jackpot

Kristin Gilliss

Associate Portfolio Director, Mulago Foundation

 
 

The Purpose of Healthcare

Gary Cohen

Co-Founder and President, Health Care Without Harm

 

Inside Root Capital's Women in Agriculture Initiative

Catherine Gill

Senior Vice President, Investor Relations & Operations, Root Capital

Preparing for a World With 9 Billion, Designers Are Rising to the Challenge

Lynelle Cameron

President and CEO, and Senior Director, Sustainability, Autodesk Foundation and Autodesk, Inc.

 

Building the Impact Investing Market in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia

Liz Patterson

Lead on Social Impact Investment, UK Department for International Development

 

Education is a Savior

Rafiatu Lawal

National Chairperson, Campaign for Female Education

Why Energy is Inextricably Linked to Environment

Sean McKaughan

Chairman of the Board, Fundación Avina

 
 

Smallholder Impact and Risk Metrics: A Labyrinth of Opportunity

CJ Fonzi

Project Leader, Dalberg Global Development Advisors

 
 

Sustainable Development Needs The Private Sector

Andy Wales

Senior Vice President Sustainable Development, SABMiller plc

 

Connecting Poverty and Health

Barbara Bush

Co-Founder and CEO, Global Health Corps

Andrew Youn

Founder and Director, One Acre Fund

Well-Crafted Entertainment Can Change the World

John Marks

President and founder, Search for Common Ground

 

Profit-With-Purpose and the G8

Sir Ronald Cohen

Chairman, Social Impact Investment Taskforce established by the G8

Tom Fox

Policy Lead, UnLtd

Cliff Prior

Chief Executive, UnLtd

 

Data and the Human Touch

Jim Fruchterman

Founder and CEO, Benetech

Can Social Enterprises Really Solve Poverty?

Can Social Enterprises Really Solve Poverty?

Harvey Koh

Director, Monitor Deloitte

April 6, 2014 | 1584 views

 

Half the world lives on less than $2.50 a day. That’s over three billion people. Over a billion have inadequate access to water, and some 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation. Every third child in the developing world does not have adequate shelter. The sheer scale of the problems of global poverty are overwhelming.

In the fight against poverty, one of the most exciting developments in recent years has come in the form of a new kind of business. It goes by many names: social enterprises, inclusive businesses, market-based solutions to poverty, among others. These enterprises create sustainable social impact by providing the poor with beneficial products and services, while creating improved livelihood opportunities. These innovative models can be found today in a wide range of areas, from healthcare to education, sanitation to housing. The excitement around them is heightened by the belief that they will achieve scale by tapping investment capital—including from impact investors, which intentionally deploy capital to achieve social impact as well as financial return—just as mainstream, commercial businesses have done.

But while the proliferation of new market-based solutions is encouraging, not many have made a significant dent on the problems they are trying to address. When our colleagues studied 439 market-based solutions in Africa, they found that a mere 13% of them had achieved significant scale.

The problem is that these social enterprises are usually operating in an environment that doesn’t support them, and sometimes is outright hostile. Take, for example, the value chain barriers facing organizations trying to deliver innovative, life-saving drugs to the rural poor in developing countries. While people in rural areas might desire and be able to afford these medications, logistics providers might not exist to get these products to their villages. And even if logistical hurdles were overcome, how would villagers get their hands on these drugs when they have no doctors to write prescriptions or pharmacists to fill them?

Or consider the public goods barriers facing an organization offering clean-burning cookstoves to poor customers. This firm is faced with not only the challenge of designing, developing and delivering a quality product at an affordable price, but also with convincing customers of the benefits of its innovation. The problem is that many of its target customers have low awareness of the health hazards of smoky cookstoves, and therefore little appreciation of the benefits of a clean-burning stove. On top of all of this, there may also be government barriers that potentially inhibit the growth of these new industries, such as where governments make solar lighting products bear a significant tax burden while heavily subsidizing the use of kerosene.

For the entrepreneur who is striving to make these models work, this is a steep, uphill struggle. Some choose to try to solve these problems themselves; for instance, they might extend their business models into gaps in the value chain, but at significant cost to the business in terms of complexity and risk. Others try to influence change in the environment. For example, an entrepreneur might try to make the case to government policymakers for more conducive regulation, but lacks the relationship access and clout needed to be effective.

The landscape of social enterprise is strewn with these tales of struggle and frustration. And yet, only a few solutions have achieved impressive scale and by doing so have been able to improve the lives of millions of people.

What’s different about the solutions that scaled is that they resulted from the powerful interplay of social enterprises and industry facilitators. From smallholder tea in Kenya, to microfinance in India, to solar energy in Bangladesh, we have seen that while innovative enterprises are clearly the engine of change, external facilitators can help them succeed and scale by working alongside them to tackle the tough barriers that stand in the way. We have seen a range of different actors—foundations, aid donors, nonprofits, multilateral development agencies, impact investors, government agencies—step into industry facilitation roles, but the common theme is that they worked to resolve scaling barriers to the benefit of all social enterprises in an industry, not just one.

Can social enterprises really solve poverty? Our considered view is that they can indeed make a tremendous contribution, but only if those of us who support these enterprises widen our lens and change our approach. We need to start seeing the systemic nature of the challenges that they face and play a stronger role to helping them overcome those challenges. If we do not, we run a very real risk that social enterprises will continue to inspire and excite, but not change the world in any significant way, and will always be the idea whose time never came.

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On April 7th, Monitor Deloitte released Beyond the Pioneer: Getting Inclusive Industries to Scale, a report describing these challenges and how they can be overcome, and outlining practical recommendations for key actors. The report can be downloaded for free at www.beyondthepioneer.org

Harvey Koh is a Director at Monitor Deloitte. He co-leads the Monitor Inclusive Markets unit based in Mumbai, India, that is dedicated to catalyzing market-based solutions to poverty through both research and action initiatives.

 
 
 

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