Advancing social sustainability together

© Getty Images/jacoblund

Making life that little bit better: this is one of the ideas pursued by social entrepreneurs, if not the key driving force behind what they do. Social entrepreneurs are start-up founders looking for innovative solutions to social or environmental problems, for products or services that bring about a change of mindset – always with the aim of having a positive impact, at least locally or regionally. Alumniportal Deutschland recently organised an online conference where experts from all over the world were able to share their ideas on the subject. Under the motto ‘Who is driving the change?’, Germany alumni and alumnae met at the alumni platform’s virtual annual conference on 17 and 18 November 2022, mainly to talk about whether or not social entrepreneurship can have an impact on the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and if so, how achievement of the relevant goals can be advanced.

‘Conscious capitalism’: norms and values as a key asset

First, however, the idea was to introduce entrepreneurs – who are regarded as being capitalist, after all – to the idea of social awareness. Keynote speaker Raju Gurung advocated not so much that capitalism had to be overcome but that it should be redefined in such a way that norms and values are the key asset. ‘Our entire economy has been built on physically existing commodities,’ explained Gurung, who has founded two start-ups that trigger social change on a small scale, while at the same time running a consultancy firm for entrepreneurs and companies that are likewise looking to expand into this area.

‘Nowadays we consume more than ever before – but the success of a company is now measured less by the value of its goods and more by the sum of its customer data. Sooner or later, this will be replaced by customer values.’ In a way, this is already happening, he said, since business no longer focuses solely on maximising the interests of shareholders but also those of stakeholders, including employees and indeed society at large. Gurung calls this ‘conscious capitalism’.

What happens when humans rule the earth?

What happens when humans rule the earth?
What happens when humans rule the earth? ©

Keynote speech by Raju Gurung, a venture advisor, entrepreneur and Germany alumnus during the conference "Who is driving the change? Social Entrepreneurship and the 2030 Agenda" on 17 November 2022 (recording)

‘Economic sustainability is sustainability, too’

Although the world is currently undergoing a transformation and society is setting new priorities, neither the standing or functioning of social entrepreneurship is easy to define, caught up as it is between idealism and capitalism. In a panel discussion on the real impact of this type of entrepreneur, in particular in terms of the UN 2030 Agenda, some people active in this field were keen to emphasise that the commercial aspect should not be forgotten. Although moderator Ines Amri stressed right at the start that maximising profit should not be the focus of entrepreneurial activity, a social entrepreneur cannot survive in the long run without turnover. ‘Economic sustainability is sustainability, too,’ said Kalie-Martin Cheng. His company markets ‘more than fair’ coffee from Ethiopia, using the proceeds to set up local recycling facilities. ‘We can make a living from our work, and that in turn means we can devote all our energy to changing the world, thereby helping others do the same.’ Daniel Alfonso Garavito Jiménez, CEO of the Colombian remote language course provider EducALL, even went as far as to put the focus back on profitability after all. ‘Even as a social entrepreneur, you have to be profitable from day one,’ he said.

‘We can make a living from our work, and that in turn means we can devote all our energy to changing the world, thereby helping others do the same.’

Kalie-Martin Cheng,
Social Entrepreneur and panelist during the conference

The experts also saw the main difference between traditional and social entrepreneurs as being primarily a question of attitude. ‘Social entrepreneurs pursue an ‘impact first’ strategy,’ explained Vinod Ramanarayanan, programme and portfolio manager of the Indian start-up incubator Social Alpha. ‘They’re certainly out to generate profits, but this is linked to the impact they want to make. It can even lead to them making themselves superfluous. For example, I once founded a company for intelligent data utilisation, at the same time assuming the company would no longer be needed in 15 years’ time because all government agencies would be using my method. That’s my definition of social entrepreneurship.’ Others did not go quite that far: ‘From the research perspective, social entrepreneurs are essentially all organisations that are seeking to bring about positive change in the world,’ said economic geographer Annika Surmeier from the University of Cape Town. And this raises the question of who actually evaluates this change. ‘This is indeed a key problem,’ Surmeier admitted. ‘In Germany, for example, there’s been a debate about how long-haul flights are harmful to the climate and whether it’s absolutely necessary to take a holiday abroad. In South Africa, people were very concerned about this because tourism is one of the country’s crucial economic sectors. For them, restricting flights would definitely not be a change for the positive.’ This is an example of how people’s concrete needs on the ground always have to be taken into account. ‘If you want to change other peoples’ lives, you have to include them in your considerations,’ said Surmeier.

Ideas from the 2022 Alumniportal Community Challenge

Those who took part in the 2022 Alumniportal Community Challenge demonstrated exactly what this might look like by looking at how agricultural systems can be improved. For example, Ricardo Paris and Bruno Ginciene presented the online platform Digital Beehive, which beekeepers can use to determine the ideal location for beehives. Robert Winkler submitted the open source project MeteoMex, which provides parameters for controlling plant growth in a localised area. Meanwhile, Jairo Hernández promoted cultivation underneath elevated solar panels to produce food and electricity in the same space, Ronnie Ssejjuko presented the benefits of mushrooms both as food and – in the form of briquettes – as a source of energy, and Elyeza Bakaze appealed in favour of the use of so-called ‘water soil conservation basins’ to both secure the water supply for crops and prevent soil erosion.

Finally, on the second day of the conference, participants were called upon to get creative themselves. Three different problems formulated by alumni provided the starting point for three workshops. For example, ideas were to be found to protect girls in rural areas from marrying far too early and to ensure high-quality, inclusive and fair education; the question also came up of what type of support social entrepreneurs might wish for in the early stages from the ranks of Alumniportal Germany. It emerged clearly that the Alumniportal network has enormous potential when it comes to reconciling creative ideas with economic reality – something that is essential for a successful project. A lot of participants said they would like to see more dialogue, including feedback rounds and mentoring programmes.

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