In a world that places heavy emphasis on entrepreneurship, especially among the youth, the term “social entrepreneurship” has become a buzzword that elicits a great deal of attention in the business world. Social enterprises are fast overtaking mainstream businesses when it comes to attracting talent, funding and investor confidence.
African Garage is an innovation hub offering space, seed funding and angel networking to start-ups and innovators. It was established in 2014 by renowned entrepreneur Vimal Shah. In his capacity as the Managing Director of African Garage, Mr Peter Oraya, 26, has incubated and nurtured more than 50 social enterprises since the organisation was founded.
Social entrepreneurship, Oraya explains, comprises of business ventures whose approach seeks to find solutions to social, cultural and environmental problems. Churning profits for their owners is not always the main goal as social enterprises also seek to alleviate poverty and provide social benefits to the communities in which they operate.
“Think of a shrewd business person like Steve Jobs who inspired innovations and made massive profits in his field. Then picture Mother Theresa, the Roman Catholic nun who was widely admired for her charitable works. If your business combines the characteristics of these two individuals, then it can be categorised as a social enterprise,” explains Oraya.
We spoke to a few social entrepreneurs with an aim of establishing why social enterprises are increasingly becoming appealing.
- Social enterprises seek to solve societal needs
Take Kiondoo Kulture for instance, a business owned by 27-year-old Ivy Nitta. Its primary line of business is selling woven sisal bags, or kiondos. While Ivy Nitta makes a tidy sum from her trendy bags, which do not cost less than Sh5,000 a piece, her business is actively giving back to the society by employing more than 30 women who are over 65 years and are living below the poverty line.
“In Kinyui and Kyekoye villages in Machakos County where I grew up, I was increasingly perturbed by the fact that many elderly women were living in neglect since their children had moved to urban areas, leaving them with no source of income. I also noted that kiondos were a dying culture – why not then revitalise them, make them hip, sell them for a tidy sum and create employment at the same time?” she says.
A student of International Relations at the United States International University, Africa, Wanja Kibuki, 22, engaged in some charity work in Kibera slums – the high levels of illiteracy amongst school-going children in these two regions left her deeply unsettled. She decided to start and support as many libraries as possible through her social enterprise, Vitabu Vyetu.
“A shocking percentage of primary schools in Kenya do not have libraries. Since I started Vitabu Vyetu, we have opened five libraries and donated books in 13 projects across the country.”
In the same vein of portraying an altruistic motive through entrepreneurial zeal, Alvin Kibet, 22, founded the Tekelebei Water Project that has since benefited over 100 house-holds in his Leldaet Village in Bomet County. The region has been plagued by outbreaks of water-borne diseases such as Cholera on many occasions, due to the fact that most villagers used unclean water from the nearby rivers for cooking and drinking.
Through the Tekelebei Water Project, Alvin actively educates the rural communities on the best water storage methods and has designed a scheme that enables them to buy water storage tanks on higher purchase terms.
Gabriel Dinda, 23, registered Writers Guild Kenya, early last year. His aim was to transform writing into a profitable craft among the youth.
“I realised that young writers, although talented, faced many challenges while trying to build careers out of writing. Publishers often exploited them and the main-stream media wasn’t a platform that could accommodate everybody. As a result, many young people considered writing as nothing more than a hobby that would never make them money,” Gabriel explains.
Located on the 9th floor of I&M building in Nairobi under African Garage, the organisation has grown, and now has branches in Mombasa, Nakuru, Kakamega and Eldoret.
- Social enterprises can be started on a shoestring budget
“Another aspect that makes social entrepreneurship highly viable is that such businesses can often be started with little or no money,” points out Oraya, the MD for African Garage. With a social venture, he asserts, all you need is an idea and a burning passion to execute it.
“Many of the social enterprises which we have taken under our wing have been started by university students with savings from their pocket money,” he adds.
When starting Kiondoo Kulture, Ivy borrowed Sh20,000 from her parents and travelled to her home village in Machakos County. She then bought thread and yarn with some of the money and distributed the raw materials to two groups.
“I have a penchant for art and design, and I used my artistic skills to guide the women through designing the bags,” she explains.
Vitabu Vyetu’s Wanja gathered five of her friends who would serve as the first directors of her organisation on voluntary basis. The five then texted their friends and relatives and urged them to donate books. The books gathered were enough to help Vitabu Vyetu set up its first community library in Kibera.
The founder of Tekelbei Water Project was faced with the tall order of convincing executives of water storage companies to believe in his idea.
“I approached many water tank manufacturers, but most turned me away when they realised that the profits they would accrue would be slim. My persistence finally paid off when I secured a meeting with the CEO of Jambo Tanks. Jambo Tanks agreed to forego profits and give their tanks to the beneficiaries on a credit plan that allowed repayment in flexible terms,” says Alvin.
All Gabriel had to do was to create posters asking aspiring writers to attend meetings across various universities, giving birth to Writers Guild of Kenya.
- They have the potential to bring handsome profits
In addition to effecting lasting change to the society, social entrepreneurs often end up becoming world-renowned millionaires as their innovative solutions to society’s most pressing problems are adopted widely, thus growing their enterprises.
Though she has not broken even yet, Ivy foresees neat returns in the next six months.
While the traditional kiondo goes for about Sh700 or less, the ones made by the women of Kyondo Culture sell for much, much more.
To keep its day-to-day operations going, Vitabu Vyetu mobilised single mothers in Mukuru Kayaba slums to manufacture soap. The organisation’s 25 volunteers train the women on how to make the soap and turn their newly acquired skills into a self-sustaining business. Vitabu Vyetu then markets the soap to local retail shops on behalf of the women.
Writers Guild Kenya makes its money through sourcing writing gigs for its members. One of their main products is event rapporteuring, whereby the organisation sends its members to attend events by various companies and report on them. They also offer personalised writing services, where politicians and other prominent people such as CEOs approach them to, for instance, have their speeches and biographies written. Other clients include County governments and NGOs, for whom they write project proposals among other services.
“We get contracts from many organisations and subcontract them to the young writers whom we have groomed, Says Gabriel.
- Social enterprises attract external funding and support
“The fact that African Garage alone has managed to finance and incubate more than 50 social enterprises in its five-years of existence is evidence enough that investors and venture capitalists are highly likely to put their money in social ventures,” Oobserves Oraya. He notes that due to the businesses’ altruistic nature, the stories of social entrepreneurs have the ability to inspire people to dig deeper into their wallets and be a little bit more generous than they normally would be.
Philanthropists have played a huge part in the realisation of Vitabu Vyetu’s agenda, says Wanja.
Gabriel admits that were it not for donors and funding partners, Writers Guild Kenya would not have risen to the position that it is in today. For Instance, during its first year, the organisation received free office space and was provided with seed capital and mentorship by African Garage.
- A step towards self-actualisation
For many social entrepreneurs, their projects always go ahead whether they get funding or not. This is because to them, it’s more than just business, it’s fulfilment of a higher purpose.
Ivy says, “I studied law at Buckingham University in the UK and did my bar exam in Kenya after graduation. However, by that time, I had realised that a career in Law was not my calling and the idea of becoming an attorney made me deeply unsettled. I gave up on Law when I failed my bar exam and decided to re-examine the purpose of my life. This led to me Kiondoo Kulture. Helping neglected elderly women to earn a living and preserve part of our cultural heritage has provided me with renewed purpose.”
Inspired by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, Vitabu Vyetu’s Wanja recounts an incident that happened last year, and which tugged her heart. She had just watched a bulletin on the news where pupils in Turkana were writing on the ground for lack of books and stationery. Her organisation later on raised money, which was used to buy and donate exercise books and set up a library in that school.
“Stories like these should remind everyone to live for a higher social purpose,” remarks Wanja, who was last year’s Top 25 Under 25 award given by the Business Daily in conjunction with KCA University. Also a recipient of 2015’s Top 25 under 25 Award, Gabriel Dinda insists that his story shows that anyone in this country, no matter how young, can make a big difference if only they decided to impact the lives of those around them in a positive way. Kenyatta University and Kyambogo University of Uganda have since feted him with the Exemplary Leadership Award, and Africa’s Overall Best Entrepreneur respectively.
Gabriel also happens to be the co-author of a book titled, Youth Unemployment in Kenya.
For Alvin, seeing people access clean water in Bomet County at affordable cost makes him sleep better at night.