Social enterprises combine passion and profits by building positive impact directly into the business model – and they are on the rise. More and more, consumers are voting with their dollars to support companies that have a mission. Recent research shows that 56% of U.S. customers won’t buy a brand they perceive as unethical, and 86% of Millennials believe company success should be measured by more than just bottom-line financial performance.
From Kenya and Mexico to the U.S., these five founders of social businesses share their stories and secrets for success.
Stella Sigana, Founder & Owner of Alternative Waste Technologies (AWT)
Alternative Waste Technologies is a mission-driven social enterprise in Kenya that guarantees safety while cooking and reduces the climate change impact of traditional fuels by manufacturing charcoal briquettes as an alternative to traditional charcoal and firewood – both of which contribute to air pollution. The company also creates employment opportunities for out-of-school youths as a pathway to business ownership by offering jobs and graduating them to become franchise owners.
Kenya is experiencing rapid urbanization at an annual growth rate of over 4% across all major cities, with 70% of the population settling in slum settlements. Because cooking is a major activity in any household, charcoal burns in every one. It’s predicted that 900 million people in sub-Saharan Africa will cook with traditional biomass by 2020.
AWT aims to mitigate climate change and deforestation, which are rampant in Kenya, by collecting agricultural wastes from farms (which is often burnt to pave way for a new planting season) and charcoal dusts from settlements and recycles them to produce fuel blocks known as briquettes. Briquettes work much better than traditional charcoal and firewood because they are smokeless, don’t spark when lighting, have a high calorific value, burn longer and offer value for money.
Sigana, who grew up in a middle-class household in Nairobi, says she used to “watch Kibera Slums from a distance. It is said to be the biggest slum in Africa, with a population of 500,000 inhabitants on a 2.3 square kilometer piece of land.” Her curiosity about life there lead her to work in the heart of Kibera Slums, which piqued her interest in waste management initiatives. Through research and study, she discovered charcoal briquettes. “My passion for creativity, business and solving a social problem fused together, and it’s been a wonderful journey ever since,” she says.
To other aspiring social entrepreneurs, Sigana offers this advice:
- Don’t view social problems as “cut and paste” projects. Take time to understand the particular needs of the communities you wish to develop an intervention for. Just because a project worked in one area does not mean that it will automatically work in another area. Talk to community members and get their buy-in.
- Think like a non-profit but act like a corporation. Ideally, your product or service is providing a triple-bottom effect solution: it’s solving a social problem, an environmental problem and an economic problem. It therefore requires patience. You will not make profits immediately. You will work thrice as hard as normal business owners but keep going and don’t lose focus. Profits will only start trickling in once your product or service has been accepted and adopted by the community. You will make it.