There is a lot of publicity being given to social enterprises nowadays but what is it that makes an enterprise, “social”?
A social enterprise is a business that benefits people. It is about doing something good that also makes profits. A social enterprise trades goods or services in order to solve social or environmental problems. Examples include a shop that sells recycled clothes and products or a café that trains and hires street children.
Typically, a social enterprise would make profits but re-invest at least half of those profits into their business to achieve their social objectives. They make enough profits to sustain themselves in the long term, but profits are not just for the shareholders, but to fulfill the social objectives too.
I first came across businesses like these when I was traveling. Artisans D’Angkor in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap was set up to revive Cambodian cultural heritage through its crafts: silk weaving, stone and wooden carving, Friends café in Phnom Penh was set up to keep children off the streets by training them to cook and run a restaurant.
Later through work, I was introduced in more great detail a social enterprise that was run at a greater scale: Grameen Bank or Bank for the Poor, in Bangladesh.
I had the pleasure of meeting the founder of Grameen, Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus who started it all. He set up a bank that lent money to the very poor and mostly women to do small businesses. An unheard of concept before he came along and convinced people that poor women are good banking customers. Women will be more likely than men to repay loans, and money lent to women will directly benefit wider society children and whole families, thus uplifting more people out of poverty sooner.
Eight million customers later, Grameen Bank is a model that has been replicated all over the world. Yunus was so inspirational that I was convinced to set up Senijari soon after as an effort to empower our artisans and revive our heritage! I still have a lot to learn how it all works, but in time I hope I will be setting up or supporting businesses that help solve social and environmental problems.
The concept of social enterprise in Malaysia is not foreign anymore; there is a growing support from corporations. AirAsia Foundation has supported many interesting ones around the region like Picha Project in Malaysia, Rags2Riches in the Philippines and Kotagede silversmiths from Jogjakarta.
Rags2Riches make beautiful designed bags through recycling yarns and training artisans from amongst the urban poor in Manila whilst the silversmiths project in Jogjakarta is reviving a dying cultural heritage. Both resonate well with Senijari.
One of my personal favourite social enterprises in Malaysia is The Picha Project (www.pichaproject.com), a project that helps the refugee communities in Kuala Lumpur make a living through catering their local food. Having tasted and being introduced to delicious food from the Afghan and Syrian refugee communities living in Kuala Lumpur, and knowing that you are helping families earn a basic living to send their children to school, the Picha Project has really found a way to address some of the pressing issues we have – through a common love of food.