When I was growing up in Ethiopia, Cameroon and Mali in the 90s, my friends and I talked about creating companies that addressed problems in our communities. However, we always thought that first we’d have to become financially solvent ourselves. The perception that planting the seeds for a formal business requires a degree of financial security, experience or access to capital still persists, especially across the developing world.
But it is no longer warranted. The information required for designing a business with the potential for positive social and economic returns in virtually any part of the world has been democratized. What it takes is an awareness of the opportunity and the will and a strategy to pursue it.
For many aspiring social entrepreneurs, developing actionable ideas that inspire them is challenging. However, I would urge them to instead look to successful, evidence-based solutions which already exist. There is no shortage of inspiration from organizations ranging from TED, Ashoka, Echoing Green and the Aspen Institute, to local and international news outlets and community organizations. Social networks are also teeming with positive stories about individuals and businesses fighting poverty. Finding ideas or business models to adopt or that inspire you costs basically nothing.
For example, the impact of a model that provides credit to poor women is widely publicized and the approach replicated in virtually every country. In addition, business models such as empowering microentrepreneurs to deliver “pay-per-use” services ranging from lighting to clean toilets in countries such as India, Rwanda and Mexico are also gaining prominence.
Designing and implementing a business plan alone can be daunting. However, advances in information technology now allow greater access to resources than ever. You can tweet to key experts, email finance professors and “poke” successful entrepreneurs. Datasets, academic studies, government reports, and documentaries that were once the privilege of the few or gathering dust in libraries are yours to explore at the click of a button. Google Earth and YouTube allow you to get a good feel for the sights and sounds of a remote community in Guatemala for example, or a cyber café in Lagos. No visa is required to understand firsthand why a project has succeeded or failed, to have your financial model vetted, or to enlist an experienced entrepreneur as a mentor.
Depending on the country, starting and operating a business can be highly regulated and complex. However, pressure exerted by donor countries and international organizations over the past two decades has significantly improved this process in most countries. The World Bank’s annual Doing Business report gives prospective entrepreneurs a good sense of the costs and difficulties of registering a company, obtaining construction permits, or getting contracts enforced. In addition, investment codes offer incentives like tax breaks and lifting ownership restrictions to investors to facilitate business creation.
To be sure, while the information, technology, and incentives to start a business are available to an increasingly large group of people, there are still significant barriers to overcome, especially for individuals with low levels of education and income. Furthermore, while there is more money available to fund poverty-fighting businesses from donors, development banks, philanthropies and angel investors than ever before, getting access to it is still arduous. This is why established social entrepreneurs should make their business plans available in the public domain. In academia, best practices dictate that authors of published articles make their datasets and instructions for replicating their statistical analyses and/or experiments publicly available. To the extent possible, social entrepreneurs in particular should follow suit and enable aspiring entrepreneurs across the world to deconstruct and emulate their business plans in their communities.
Ten years ago, I never imagined that I would be a business owner in my twenties, but the game has changed significantly over the past ten years. Together with my brother Mohamed Ali Niang, I founded Malô SARL, a company in Mali that adds vitamins and minerals to rice grown by smallholder farmers, combatting vitamin and mineral deficiencies that lead to diseases that cause millions of deaths across the world each year. I was in the middle of writing my PhD exams when we drafted our first business plan, and what I thought was simply an academic exercise has become my life’s work. The exposure to other social entrepreneurs, the feedback from professors, competition judges and peers amazed me. I am convinced that if more people regardless of their nationality, location, or educational background had exposure to good, executable ideas and especially plans for businesses that they could modify and implement in their markets, the odds of eradicating structural poverty would increase dramatically.
Niang, a 2013 New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute, put a US academic career on hold to return to his native Mali and launch Malo Traders, an organization designed to combat extreme poverty and malnutrition by increasing the incomes of smallholder farmers and providing affordable fortified rice to consumers. As the co-founder of Malo, he received prizes and awards at competitions such as the Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition, the Pace Pitch Contest, Temple University’s Be Your Own Boss Bowl, and the Dell Social Innovation Competition. He is also a founder and board member of Tambaroua Business Farming. Follow him on Twitter at @salifrniang.
The Fellowship, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, offers development experts from Africa and other parts of the developing world a year-long program of media support, training, research and writing under the guidance of experienced mentors and trainers.
The program will help Fellows to sharpen their messages, elevate their stories, focus their media targets, and communicate their insights across a variety of media platforms – illuminating crucial grassroots perspectives for a broad worldwide audience.