Reflections – Social Enterprise World Forum 2019


People keep on asking me what my key learnings were from the Social Enterprise World Forum in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia). So I thought I would take this opportunity to share with you what I got from attending the forum.

The forum was more than just a conference. For me, it was an amazing immersive cultural experience I got to meet, converse, dine and dance with people from all round the world, Despite our cultural differences, our borders and our distances, I felt at home. Our goal was the same and that goal connected all of us.

I witnessed people from around the world driving for the change they wanted to see, to better their communities. Having followed the social enterprise movement in Australia, the social enterprise model that I am accustomed to is one where a social enterprise is set up to provide support or resolve a certain social issue. For example, cafes that provide employment for disadvantaged youth, a cleaning business that provides employment for people with disabilities, a catering business to provide employment for refugees. Often the driving force of these enterprises are passionate individuals who have seen firsthand the difficulties experienced by these disadvantaged communities.

What was interesting is, countries like Ethiopia or Kenya’s social enterprises are driven by the community. The community come together collectively to decide on the priorities, whether it is providing funding for books so that children can attend school, or investing in farmers.

It appeared that in countries where there is lack of government support towards social issues, communities take charge in creating their own governance to ensure the sustainability of the community. The tendency is towards co-operative communities. Many of these examples were shared during the Urban Study in Ethiopia where we visited community driven social enterprises, like Indigenous organisation Jerusalem Children and Community Development Organization.

I also heard from rural villages’ leaders about how the community organises itself to ensure everyone in the community is supported and looked after. In small villages where the population might be 500 people, everyone that can, is asked to make a small financial contribution, a membership fee or you might even want to call it a tax, the money from these fees is used to create opportunities and benefits for the local community, in the form of employment, discounted food, women education, children education. How the money is spent is decided collectively by the village.

I had the pleasure of being part of a plenary “Engaging with traditional knowledge and Indigenous resources’ with panellists from Ghana, Canada, New Zealand and Ethiopia. What all the panellist shared is that whilst for some of them, the term social enterprise was new to them, their communities and villages practiced it as a way of living. Indigenous communities operate under the same principles of social enterprise, where the good of the broader community is taken in account with every decision made.

Globally, the concept of social enterprise is growing. However, whilst we have defined it as a term, in developing countries like Ethiopia, social enterprise has always been the way that local communities survive. In countries like Ethiopia where governments provide very little in terms of public services and support, social enterprises ensures the sustainability of these communities.

A leader of one social enterprise said “…we have been doing this all along, we just did not have a name for it. Whilst we have been learning lots of things from the West, you can now learn from us.”

I learnt that social enterprise has many facets and forms, and depending on the needs of the community it requires different models to operate. Regardless of what type of social enterprise, in all instances, collaboration is required for success. The co-operatives in Ethiopia need to collaborate to ensure the success of their social enterprise, whether it’s growing coffee beans or providing women with education and employment.

Lord Victor Adebowale the Chief Executive of Turning Point who spoke at the conference, said that “we need to change from a competitive model to a collaborative model of doing business”. To that he added “…humans have been trained to compete and therefore collaboration does not come naturally”. According to another speaker, Harish Hande, co-founder of the Selco Foundation in India “lack of collaboration between social enterprises is part of the problem”.

The message that came through was very clear. Collaboration is key in succeeding as a social enterprise, no matter where you are in the world and what you do. Yet, it is the hardest things to do, as it involves letting go of our egos and the concept of ownership and it requires for us to change our mindset about how we measure success. After witnessing the energy at the SEWF, I feel positive that as individuals we can shape a better future for humanity and the planet. We have everything we need to resolve the challenges that we face today, from climate change to global poverty.

If we come together as a united global community where religion, politics, race and status does not drive our being. We can focus our energy and goals in creating opportunities where no one is left behind. We can be inspired by what lays ahead.

Comments are closed.