Sandra Fisher-Martins is a 2017-18 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. She is also a plain-language activist and entrepreneur. Sandra shares the candid truth about leaving her 10 year old organisation to pursue an Oxford MBA.
“Can you read this letter for me?”, asked Mr. Domingos, the office center caretaker.
We stood by his desk and he watched while I sifted through it. I explained that the letter was in fact a surgery voucher from the Ministry of Health paying for a surgery in a private hospital of his choice. His smile was a mix of relief and disbelief.
“I had thrown it in the bin. Then I remembered you telling me about your job the other day…”
Mr. Domingos had his first job at the age of five and taught himself to read as an adult. He enjoyed the sports newspaper, but struggled with official letters, forms and pretty much everything else. His life story was unique, but his experience of depending on others to access crucial information was not uncommon. Nearly 4 in 5 Portuguese are ‘functionally illiterate’, which means that their reading skills are insufficient to meet the demands of daily life.
I founded Português Claro (‘Plain Portuguese’) in 2007 because I was appalled by the gap between the average literacy skills of our citizens and the complexity of the documents we had to read to get on with our lives. From electricity bills to insurance contracts, from bank statements to government websites, everything was riddled with jargon and legalese. How could anyone make informed choices? How could anyone know and act on their rights?
Sandra and the Claro team at work
Sandra delivered a talk at Productized 2016
The low literacy problem is an important and complex battle to wage, requiring massive investments in education. I was too frustrated to wait. Seeing an opportunity to meet the needs of today’s Portuguese adults, I set out to persuade businesses and government agencies to simplify the way they communicated with the public.
Having little business experience, during my first years at Claro I used to dispel the flashes of self-doubt with fantasies of getting the Skoll Scholarship and picking up, in one swift year, everything I would need to run a successful social venture.
I never applied. I was too busy running the business and learning by trial-and-error to be a plain-language expert, a salesperson, an accountant, a project manager, a recruiter, a team leader, and a CEO. Stopping for a year was impossible.
And then, after nearly a decade of challenges and growth, Claro hit a sudden wall. A change in government had led to a sharp decline in private and public investment and our sales were plummeting. Faced with the possibility of having to close the company, I started questioning the sustainability of the change we had created over time. Without Claro to provide plain-language services, would these organizations revert back to their old ways?
As my doubts grew, it became clear that I’d allowed myself to be sucked into the day-to-day of running a social enterprise when the real challenge was in creating sustainable systemic change. It was time to stop and have a rethink.
I went back to the Skoll Scholarship and the Centre had added more programming focused on system change. So I decided to apply. This time I wasn’t looking for tools to run a business. I was looking for a space for reflection within a world-class network of systems thinkers, social entrepreneurs and researchers.
It is now Week 4 in Michaelmas (in plain language, that’s the beginning of November) and although the MBA has barely started so much has happened. This is a high-frequency learning environment, with daily opportunities to engage in mind-expanding conversations. Today I met with Patrick to learn about his experience running an impact investment fund in Peru. Last night I explored with Emily the systemic consequences of an ill-conceived agricultural investment in Ghana. Through this exposure to diverse experiences and approaches, my initial questions have evolved and unexpected themes — like ‘identity’ — have surfaced. Clearly, this journey has just begun. I am eager to see where it takes me.
Some social entrepreneurs and social enterprises are expressing the desire to avoid such a label. Additionally, knowledge among citizens of what social entrepreneurship is and means is still generally low, even though the sector has been around for several decades. What might be amiss? I argue that the ongoing failure to coalesce around a recognised definition or model of social entrepreneurship is part of the problem, revealing risks and opportunities for the sector at a worldwide level.
My research on social entrepreneurship in England suggests there are three different – and only partially overlapping – conceptions of what social entrepreneurship is and of how it should be supported. The first and most prominent part of the sector is focused on the concept of social enterprise, that is, businesses trading for social purpose. It is very heterogeneous in terms of players involved and ways in which social enterprises are described and organised. Within it, the main source of funding for both social enterprises and sector intermediaries is the government, and both the citizen and business sectors are mostly seen as customers.
The second and more “niche” part of the sector is more cohesive and focused on social entrepreneurs, described as lone heroes disrupting the system to eliminate the root causes of social inequality and injustice. Here, the role of the government is very limited and businesses and charities are seen as advisors and funders, rather than customers, while communities are the beneficiaries.
The third one, despite being the original conception of the term in England and the most widely adopted “on the ground”, is presently the most neglected by the public discourse. It describes social entrepreneurs and enterprises as acting to enhance their communities, either through involving community members in economic activities and decision making, or redistributing resources within a given area or population of interest. In this part of the sector, boundaries and players’ roles are very blurred and there are multiple typologies of social entrepreneurial activity, sometimes overlapping with other areas above.
Is this division a trivial matter interesting only for academic debates? I argue that there are a number of important practical issues, which either directly or indirectly stem from the lack of a clear definition. First of all, it hinders the ability of government or international bodies to create tax benefits or effective funds to support social entrepreneurship. Without being able to constrain the field of organisations entitled to receive such support, such efforts are frequently ineffective.
Secondly, the lack of a clear definition contributes to maintaining low levels of knowledge about what social entrepreneurship and social enterprises are, and what their value for society is. This, in turn, often hampers their ability to attract private funds. I know, indeed, from the interviews I conducted for my PhD project that some social enterprises and entrepreneurs face the problem of being perceived as “too business-like” for foundations, charities and private donors and “too social” for traditional investors and businesses (and sometimes even for the social investment sector).
Thirdly, the lack of a clear definition means that it is also much harder to establish roles and rules of interaction within the sector. Businesses are sometimes requested to be commercial partners or to involve social enterprises in their supply chain and sometimes they are requested to act as advisers and philanthropists. Government and local authorities would like to outsource public services to social ventures rather than to businesses but often they find themselves unable to distinguish between the two and to obtain the guarantee that there will be no “mission drift” once a contract is awarded.
Finally, the lack of a clear definition implies a lack of clear sector boundaries and of a clear positioning within the wider economic system. Many supporters and insiders continue to proclaim their hope that social entrepreneurship will become mainstream and either change the way that all businesses operate (‘social enterprise’) or will make the whole third sector more efficient and financially sustainable (‘social entrepreneurship’). Can these things happen while the sector keeps pushing in different directions, thus reducing its relevance both within the business and the third and public sectors?
I would like to conclude this post with two thought-provoking questions. First of all: why not refer to social enterprises as sustainable businesses? This might be the first step to merge this part of the sector with movements such as the B Corporations, in order to jointly represent a new, more socially-savvy side of the business sector, able to ask for tax incentives and to attract social investors and funds. Social entrepreneurship could be reserved as a definition of innovative projects carried out by third sector organizations trying to tackle the root causes and not just the symptoms of social issues, thus distinguishing them from the traditional charities and NGOs delivering fundamental but more traditional social products and services. Activities not fitting with these two definitions but that are important at community-level could be labelled as “community-based entrepreneurship” or just be re-included in the broader third sector.
Secondly, can sector supporters and intermediaries try to find a compromise sector definition accepted by all? As expressed by some interviewees contacted for my PhD research, the most influential organisations in the sector appear to be connecting and networking with one another but are in reality very territorial. They all hold on to their own conception of social entrepreneurship and they all hope to drive the sector in their desired direction, thus making it increasingly difficult to find a solution to the definitional and support debate. Sometimes creating a good ecosystem of support might entail stepping back and coordinating what happens as a skilled director rather than as the star of the show. Allowing the formation of clarity around the sector, its definition and its boundaries, while continuing to lobby and campaign for it, might really unlock those financial resources, public support and understanding that many organisations are craving for.
A group of 2016-17 Oxford MBAs go on the annual Africa Trek. This year’s destination: Nairobi and Kigali
Part 2: Rwanda
A city in transition: the above image shows the recently built CBD which has sprung up in the past decade, while the image below shows the areas hugging the CBD.
Rwanda is a small land-locked country, with a population of 11.2 million. For most, the atrocities of the 1994 genocide come to mind when the country is mentioned. However, the government is trying hard to overcome this history through pursuing a strong development agenda, leading to impressive annual GDP growth of 6.9%.
Arriving from Kenya, the contrast between the two countries was immediately stark. During our cab ride from the airport I noticed the perfectly manicured shrubs along the side of the road and the immaculately clean streets, with workers out-and-about sweeping, cleaning and repairing. I also noticed the beauty of the city – rolling green hills covered in terracotta houses, transitioning into new skyscrapers as we neared the city centre.
New offices and hotel developments in the CBD.
Another defining feature of the city are the thousands of motorbike taxis that swarm up and down the hilly roads ferrying commuters to different parts of town. A highlight of the trip was using this mode of transport to get between company visits, with a group of nearly twenty suited-up MBAs pulling up concurrently.
Hailing a large group of moto taxis to take us to our first company visit.
Operations manager Albert Munyabugingo discussing the growth of Jumia Food in Kigali.
Jumia Food is part of the Jumia group, a leading actor in online commerce in Africa with an ecosystem of online services and marketplaces including: Jumia (online shopping site for electronics, fashion and more), Jumia Market (allows users to sell their products online), Jumia Travel (African travel bookings), Jumia Food (food delivery service), Jumia Deals (classifieds), Jumia House (real estate), Jumia Jobs (recruitment), Jumia Car (vehicle marketplace), Jumia Service (e-commerce fulfilment and delivery).
Jumia Food launched in 2013 in Rwanda and was the first food delivery service in the country. Operations manager Albert Munyabugingo described the various tech components of the business, including the customer, vendor (restaurant) and dispatching software, and how these all had to integrate seamlessly to ensure a good customer experience.
The business model is based on the 10% – 35% commission paid by the restaurants to Jumia, with higher commission getting restaurants more visibility on the platform. The restaurants are given twenty minutes to prep the orders, something we believed would be quite a challenge given the more relaxed approach to service we had experienced. Also interesting to hear was their strategy to grow their middle-band customer, as they saw a higher customer lifetime value here than targeting wealthier, ex-pat clients who are more likely to leave the region in the future.
Munyabugingo spoke about some of the issues of doing business in Kigali, including internet outages (which necessitates Jumia staff manually phoning through orders to restaurants) and heavy rainfall which can affect delivery times.
The Office and Impact Hub Kigali
MBAs visiting the Impact Hub, run by Jon Stever, third from the left.
Jon Stever is an American expat who founded The Office in October 2012, the first open community working space in Kigali. Comprising a five storey-building in central Kigail, the space brings together makers, entrepreneurs and organisations that are working in social enterprise and civic and cultural arenas. Stever is also involved in running Impact Hub Kigali, a coworking space that operates out of The Office.
Stever gave the group a great overview of the entrepreneurial landscape in Kigali. In terms of issues, he spoke about the lack of trust and collaboration between local entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial support organisations which hampers collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas. He also discussed the high cost of internet connectivity and issues of down time. However, it was extremely inspiring to hear him talk about government efforts to improve business infrastructure, and the lives of Rwandan’s more generally.
Stever previously worked as an economist for the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning and spoke about the passion of civil servants and the tight performance management practices used to hold all civil servants to account.
One Acre Fund
Seeing One Acre’s work on the ground – we visited a village in Karongi to speak to farmers who use One Acre’s services and observe some of the fields where they were testing different seed.
A member of the One Acre team discusses the trials that are being carried out to test different seeds. Tests such as this one help the organisation select the seeds that are best suited to the local weather and soil conditions and produce the highest yield.
We visited One Acre’s Rwanda headquarters in Rubengera, a 2.5 hour journey west of Kigali on the edge of Lake Kivu, which separates Rwanda from The Democratic Republic of Congo. The journey was breathtakingly beautiful with lush rolling hills covered in thousands of small rectangles of cultivated land dotted with homesteads.
It was interesting to note that the further we journeyed from Kigali, the worse the roads became, eventually the jeeps we were travelling in were using the full width of the road to dodge the wide potholes that pitted the asphalt. This reminded us all of the transport and logistic difficulties companies and organisations face when working in the region. It also perhaps points to the tension in government spending between urban and rural areas.
One Acre’s headquarters are built into the hills over-looking Lake Kivu and comprise accommodation and work space purpose-built for their staff, 98% of whom live in the field. Each space has a deeply peaceful feel – the kind of place you might come to do a mindfulness retreat. The physical design of the space fits their purposeful mission: to support small scale farmers to increase yields and to move out of poverty. The organisation currently serves half-a-million small-scale farmers, with the aim of increasing their reach to a million by 2020. They deliver their highly-localised services through a field staff of roughly 5000, working in Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Malawi.
Jeremy Golan, Financial Advisory Services Manager for Rwanda, described One Acre’s offerings, which have been refined over their ten years of existence:
Farming inputs, including high-yield seeds and fertilizer.
Credit to purchase inputs, which is later collected via community-based groups to build accountability. One Acre also offers other finance products such as crop insurance.
Distribution / delivery to bring the faming inputs to within walking distance of the farmers.
Training on agricultural techniques.
Market facilitation to increase profits.
Golan, who has a background in consulting, emphasised that the organisation is run very much like a private sector company, with many of the management team coming from corporates or consulting. This ensured that operations were kept lean and the organisation was constantly innovating to find better ways to serve their farmer clients. It was inspiring to hear that some of the best minds, pulled from the likes McKinsey & Co, where now channelling their skills and energy to help those most in need.
What struck me most about One Acres work was the level of trust they need to develop with farmers, as their work targets the heart of their client’s livelihood and identify. Offering people alternative seeds, or recommending slightly different farming methods is essentially asking farmers to shift their behaviour away from well-practiced norms. It seems this trust is created by building a staff who are farmers themselves and live in the villages One Acre aims to serve, by running highly-localised tests at village-level to show the value of different seeds and techniques, and by taking a very long-term view on building both social and infrastructural capital.
To conclude, the Africa Trek will definitely be one of the highlights of my MBA. It was a rare opportunity to have a privileged access to CEOs and other business leaders, and to learn first-hand about the business models and activities they are pursuing to help build the region. As an African, and as a business student, I am hugely excited by amazing work I witnessed in East Africa. The experience opened my eyes to the opportunities of the region, but also reminded me that there is much work to be done to ensure those living in poverty are supported to move up and live more dignified lives free of carting heavy water drums, free of preventable illnesses and free of the structural violence that comes with poverty. There is much work to be done.
Author: Gillian Benjamin
Gillian Benjamin is a social design practitioner from South Africa. Driven to use design to create social impact, she founded a design studio to serve social justice organisations and later worked at the Cape Craft and Design Institute running design thinking projects in healthcare, education and the built environment.
A group of 2016-17 Oxford MBAs go on the annual Africa Trek. This year’s destination: Nairobi and Kigali
Part 1: Nairobi
A man pushes his bicycle through Toi Market, a thriving second-hand clothing market in Nairobi that stretches multiple blocks, eventually ending in Kibera slum.
In April 2017 17 MBA’s spent an unforgettable two weeks in Kenya and Rwanda. The student-driven trek aimed to expose participants to the business context in each country. Organised by students from the region, it tapped into local networks to give an ‘insiders view’ of each city. During the April break there were three other concurrent international treks and electives taking place in Johannesburg, New York, the Middle East Singapore and Hong Kong.
I chose to join the Africa trek as I had limited experience and knowledge of East Africa (ashamedly, as I am a native South African). I was curious to learn more about the thriving economies of the region and gain a comparative understanding of Eastern versus Southern Africa.
The trek exposed us to diverse companies and business models, from a consulting firm helping international development organisations better support local SMEs to an off-grid energy company serving the bottom of the pyramid. Through each company presentation we learnt a little more about the nuances and opportunities of the region.
While the company visits were fascinating, another area of great value came from the opportunity to spend two weeks with my classmates. In the rush of a 12-month MBA there is limited time for slow, deep conversation. However, the interstitial moments of travel provided the perfect opportunity to bond; a 20-minute cab ride to the airport or sharing a meal over dinner gave each of us the opportunity to learn a little more about others’ backgrounds and future ambitions. The accrual of these small interactions created a special bond that will live on well beyond the MBA.
Open Capital Advisors
Students on the MBA Africa Trek at Open Capital consultants in Nairobi, with alumnus Holden Bonwit in the centre.
Open Capital Advisors is a management consulting and financial advisory firm with 40 employees spread across offices in Kampala (Uganda), Lusaka (Zambia) and Nairobi (Kenya). They offer consulting services to local businesses, investors and international organisations, with two-thirds of their investment work being in the social impact space. We were hosted by Oxford Saïd alumnus, Holden Bonwit (MBA 2013 – 2014).
Bonwit shared what he believes are the three of the biggest challenges for growth in the region:
Talent acquisition and lack of human capital to implement strategies
Lack of infrastructure
Lack of access to capital for SMEs (due to a miss-match between the needs of SMEs and the instruments offered by international Development Finance Institutions)
He spoke of the enjoyment he gets from working on meaningful development projects where his skills and expertise have real impact. He also introduced us to the concept of the Kenyan side-hustle (or multiple side-hustles), evidenced by the fact that a single family usually has about 11 discrete income streams.
MBA students meeting with CEO of Safaricom Bob Collymore and his team
We were honoured to spend time with Bob Collymore – CEO of Safaricom – Kenya’s largest telecom. It has a valuation of $ 8 billion and accounts for approximately 40% of the Kenyan stock market. M-PESA, the pioneering mobile money solution, is one of Safaricom’s products.
Continuing the narrative from Open Capital Advisors, Collymore spoke of how their people strategy is their biggest strategy, saying, “You can have a bad strategy but a good team and the outcome will be good, however, the opposite is not true.” With a firm belief that quality products are created by engaged staff, he spoke of how the company strives to ensure their people have a good work-life balance and get eight hours of sleep – allocating each staff member a ‘thrive-buddy’ to keep them on track and ensure they aren’t overworked.
The company takes their position as a dominant player seriously, seeing it as their responsibility to act as a good corporate citizen and set the tone for others. Safaricom was one of the first corporates to release a full sustainability report and embrace the Sustainable Development Goals, with each corporate function selecting the goals they wish to work towards and then feeding back progress directly to Collymore’s office.
Collymore’s commitment to sustainability and good corporate governance is also evidenced by his membership in the B-team, which brings together business leaders like Unliever’s Paul Polman, Richard Brandson, and Arianna Huffington to push businesses to become more transparent and sustainable, as well as sitting on the board of the United Nations Global Compact, the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative.
Two Andela students working in the chill-out area of the Nairobi campus.
“Brilliance is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not.”
Andela’s goal is to spread tech opportunity to Africa by finding and training Africa’s next generation of tech talent and connecting them to demand in the West. This is achieved through a two-sided business model: on the supply-side, African candidates apply to join a four-year paid Technical Leadership Program designed to shape them into elite software developers. On the demand-side, a 50-strong sales team based in the US sells Andela’s services corporates looking for excellent tech talent.
Joshua Mwaniki, Country Director for Kenya, told us they receive around 2000 applications per month from people eager to join the Fellowship. With an acceptance rate of 10 – 15 people monthly, applicants have a 0.5% chance of getting in to the programme. What differentiates the Andela from other tech training programmes is their comprehensive Learning Map, which maps a Fellow’s progress against clearly delineated hard and soft skills on a daily and weekly basis.
Andela’s biggest challenge is gearing up to train enough talent, as there is currently more work available than there are programmers to work on the jobs. But upping supply in Africa, Andela is hoping to spread opportunities a little more equally. Their new campus currently under construction will house 1000 students and will go some way to achieving this vision.
Oxford Saïd Alumni Dinner
Current students met with recent alumni who are currently working in Nairobi at Burn and Dalberg.
Chad Larson, Chief Credit Officer, Co-Founder and Oxford Saïd alumnus shows students the entry-level M-KOPA solar unit.
M-KOPA is a pioneer in off-grid, pay-as-you-go solar power systems. With a team of 300 customer care agents on call 24-hours a day, and an on-the-ground salesforce of over a 1000 people, the company is growing rapidly.
Their entry level unit comprises an 8W solar panel, 3 LED lights, a LED torch, a radio and a phone charger. Customers pay an upfront payment of £22 and then pay a 40p daily instalment over a year to pay off the remainder of the unit, where after the unit is theirs. The unit comes with a one-year warranty and has an estimated battery life of four years.
On the ground sales agents help customers calculate the cost-benefit analysis of switching from kerosene to solar, by adding up how much they spend in a year on kerosene, batteries and charging their mobile phone. Once totalled, the entry level M-KOPA unit comes in around one-third cheaper during the payment year, then giving clients a further three years of energy before they need to replace the battery.
Most interesting however is how the company views solar as the foothold into a customers’ home. When a customer is nearing the end of their year-long repayment schedule they receive a call from an M-KOPA agent offering a variety of products; a solar-powered TV, a water-harvesting tank, a bicycle, a cook stove, a starter-pack for chicken farming or a smartphone – any of which can be purchased by extending their existing payment plan. Chad Larson, Chief Credit Officer, Co-Founder and SBS Alum stated, “We are a finance company, selling useful capital assets that save people money.” M-KOPA is focusing their energies on building a ladder of household products, from basic to more advanced, to improve the lives of the poor.
Students shared lunch with Dalberg staff followed by a Q&A session.
“Until the change is done, our work isn’t done”. These were the words of Edwin Macharia, Dalberg Partner and Regional Director of Africa, speaking about how the firm goes far beyond the work of traditional consultants (who are renowned for leave their strategy decks for clients to implement). Dalberg is a platform of companies committed to global development and innovation, including Dalberg Global Development Advisors (consulting), D.Capital (Investment advisory and impact investing), D.Research (data, intelligence and analysis), DIG (Design Impact Group focusing on human centred design) and an implementation support arm.
Dalberg is ten years old and currently has six offices on the continent. Their client mix is one-third governments and large international organisations (such as the UN, DIFD and the World Bank), one-third social sector organisations and foundations and one-third private businesses.
The company is also focused on creating self-driven projects where they spot opportunity areas. Macharia recognises the privileged position the company holds, with contacts in just about every major foundation and development agency in the world. He said, “We are one, maybe two phone calls away from anyone in the world. What are we going to do with that?” One such example is Unleash, an ambitious project driven by Dalberg and other partners, bringing 1000 young innovators into a global innovation lab focused on the Sustainable Development Goals.
Maua Project (Wrigleys)
Mathare Slum on the outskirts of Nairobi.
Maua project representatives speaking to MBA students in the Mathare Slum, describing the benefits of the project on the ground.
The Maua Project is a project of the Mars Catalyst, Mars Incorporated’s internal think tank. In 2014, Mars’ leadership announced their intention to become the ‘most mutual company’ in the world, delivering value to all stakeholders involved in their value chain.
Maua, Swahili for ‘flower’, is a route-to-market mutuality project in Kenya. It develops micro-entrepreneurs, called Uplifters, who act as sub-distributors connecting stockpoints to retailers, predominantly in areas where Mars currently doesn’t distribute to outlets. This creates work for the Uplifters, and increased market penetration for Mars.
The project makes use of a ‘hybrid value chain’, partnering with a range of organisations and non-profits to support various programme elements like recruitment, training and access to tools. Partners include a logistics company, World Bicycle Relief, Ashoka, a microfinance company and M&E support. In 2016 Maua had 368 Uplifters involved in the programme and aim to increase this to 590 by the end of 2017.
Oxford and Cambridge Dinner hosted by Oxford Saïd alumna, Adema Sangale
The Africa Trek group was hosted by Adema Sangale, Vice-President of World Bicycle Relief in Africa, who brought together alums from both universities who work Nairobi.
Naivasha and Nakuru
After a week of company visits we left the city to see some wildlife and have some well-earned rest.
It’s not every day that you get to summit a dormant volcano (Mount Longonot) and then get to hike around its rim.
Day safari at Lake Nakuru National Park.
Giraffes at Nakuru National Park.
Bird watching on Lake Nakuru.
Hanging with the hippos on Lake Naivasha.
Part 2 of Africa Trek 2017 coming soon where the MBAs head to Kigali…
Author: Gillian Benjamin
Gillian Benjamin is a social design practitioner from South Africa. Driven to use design to create social impact, she founded a design studio to serve social justice organisations and later worked at the Cape Craft and Design Institute running design thinking projects in healthcare, education and the built environment.
By Julian Cottee, Skoll Centre Research & Insights Programme Manager
Our previous blog looked at ‘Six Reasons Why Research Matters for Social Entrepreneurship’, ranging from gaining a deep understanding of problem and solution landscapes, to innovation, and a critical birds-eye view of the sector. The Skoll Centre has since been exploring research for social entrepreneurship through a series of seminars led by impact-focused early career researchers from across Oxford University. Each has discussed their own research experiences and drawn out lessons for better aligning research with the needs of the social innovators.
Evidence and impact
Evidence and impact evaluation are top of the list for many practitioners when asked how research can help their work. Anna Custers, a Skoll Centre Early Career Research Fellow, explored this topic in depth through her experiences with a number of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) assessing the impact of poverty reduction measures in the Global South. The RCT methodology, originally designed for evaluating the impact of medical interventions, is now becoming more widely used outside of clinical settings. Social scientists in a range of fields are adopting RCT approaches, and while many policymakers view them as a ‘gold standard’ for evidence of impact, they are not uncontroversial. RCTs are complex, lengthy and expensive to set up, and they can only be used to evaluate a narrow gamut of interventions. Their strength in demonstrating the counterfactual – what happens in groups not receiving the intervention – also raises significant ethical questions. If demonstrating impact through RCTs were to become a routine part of the funding and policymaking landscape for social entrepreneurship, the range of projects would be curtailed, the speed of implementation would be reduced, and additional research funding would be needed. Further discussions revolve around the question of how much evidence is ‘enough’ to demonstrate impact, and to what extent this differs depending on the scale of the initiative being assessed. An expensive RCT might be appropriate for a highly scalable ‘big bet’ intervention that can be widely replicated if impact can be robustly demonstrated, but many, if not most, projects are smaller and more locally specific.
Ideas around the role of research in evidence provision were further developed by Dr Jenny Tran, speaking about a recent Skoll Centre-funded research project that interviewed 31 policymakers, funders and practitioners in the field of social innovation in healthcare in low- and middle- income countries. The interviews probed attitudes and beliefs relating to evidence within these three groups. Among practitioners for instance, responses ranged from seeing research and evidence as an accountability mechanism – “Research is a tool of justice…how are we holding ourselves accountable to our patients?” – to something that just needs to be done to satisfy the expectations of funders – “We do what we have to do”. The funders interviewed also had mixed attitudes towards evidence, with some admitting candidly that gut feeling was as important as data in making funding decisions. Organisations spoke of a lack of time and expertise to collect good data on their impact. One theme that clearly emerged from the interviews was a lack of consensus on how to operationalise a model of data generation and use amongst all three groups that is of an appropriate scale in terms of the time and resources demanded, as well as being robust and rigorous. RCTs were rarely seen to be the answer. Tran’s paper recommends a number of future pathways for improving research in this space, including further elaboration of the concept of ‘lean research’ striking the balance between appropriate scale and rigour; better technical education; and changing the way evidence generation is funded. All of these are ripe for future exploration. In addition, there is little or no attention currently paid to how organisations measure negative impacts, or their incentives for doing so. This too is an area that deserves further study and the development of practical tools for the generation of objective impact measurement.
Two other seminars in the series focused on the role of research not in the generation of evidence, but in others kinds of knowledge creation, through embedded partnerships between academics and practitioners. Kate Roll, Senior Research Fellow at Saïd Business School, spoke on the Oxford-Mars Mutuality in Business project, a large multi-year research project exploring the idea of mutuality as an organising principle for business. The project is unusual in that it is carried out by an academic team in collaboration with the Mars in-house think-tank, Catalyst. The allure of the set-up is clear from the point of view of carrying out research guided by real-world priorities – there is potential for unique access to knowledge, skill and legitimacy on both sides – yet challenges are also many. In particular, spanning the research-practice boundary brings to the fore different perspectives on questions such as:
When is work finished? (medium-rare or well done)
With whom can we meet? (negotiating internal access)
What is a good output? (collaboration, consultancy, opportunism)
Who needs to be involved? (setting boundaries in joint research)
Drawing on the theory of organisational hybridity, Kate explains such collaborations as a case of striving to effectively bring together differing ‘institutional logics’: “as the degree of incompatibility between logics increases, hybrid organisations face heightened challenges” (Pache and Santos 2013). In order to realise the unique opportunities for insight and impact, researchers are obliged to adopt the character of the ‘amphibious academic’. Even if they might be happier in water, like the frog, they too can cope ably on land.
Successful examples of such collaborations are not numerous. They require connections, funding and abundant engagement and amphibious capability from all partners. Alex Fischer and Heloise Greeff, members of the Skoll Centre’s Research for Action Network, spoke about Oxford’s Smart Handpumps project, a long-running collaboration with NGOs and government. While the project began by exploring the causes and impacts of broken water pumps in rural Kenya, it has since transitioned to address how broken pumps can be fixed quickly and cost-effectively. The project is now driving technological and systems innovation to the point that it has led to the creation of a social enterprise that will service the handpumps sustainably into the future using the technical and institutional knowledge generated in earlier phases. Alex and Heloise described a ‘research-action spiral’ in which innovation and research have circled around each other in a productive dance. These impactful outcomes of the project could not have been anticipated at the beginning of the research process – a powerful argument for research led by problems and not just solutions. Often, following intuitions and blind alleys was just as important for the development of the impact of the project as any planned research pathway. This highlights the value of flexible funding and creative leadership in action-research projects. Universities are an important ingredient in this kind of innovation and research, as they provide safe spaces for the exploration of novel ideas that may not otherwise be pursued. The role of PhD students too is of significant value – unlike research assistants or employed post-doc researchers, PhD students follow their own research agendas within the wider project, generating new ideas and possibilities.
Skoll Centre Early Career Research Fellow Tanja Collavo hosted a workshop at Marmalade 2017 on the strengths and weaknesses of the social entrepreneurship sector in England… and where next.
The State of Social Entrepreneurship in England – Strengths, Issues, and Solutions.
What is the state of social entrepreneurship in England? In the course of my DPhil research at Saïd Business School I interviewed key people at social entrepreneurship organisations, revealing a snapshot of strengths, weaknesses, worries and ambitions for the future development of the sector. At this workshop I presented some of my findings and asked participants to give their thoughts and elaborate actionable proposals around the issues most important to them.
The debate was lively! The overall agreement was that the sector is growing, vibrant, diverse, exciting, and constantly changing thanks to the very low barriers to entry. Its core strengths are its ability to break silos across sectors and organisations, and its democratic nature, encouraging bottom-up solutions to social problems and the retention of the wealth produced at the local level. Additionally, the perception is that the quality of products and services delivered by social enterprises is constantly improving and that this is a great business card to increase their market penetration both in the business-to-business and business-to-consumer markets. In this sense, many workshop participants welcomed the shift of the sector towards business and believe that more and more social enterprises should aim to become business-savvy and competitive.
But participants also agreed that there are still many key issues holding back the growth and success of the social entrepreneurship sector:
No one talks about failures
There is very little learning inside the sector because media, intermediaries, social entrepreneurs and enterprises talk a lot about successes but hardly ever about failures.
The passion paradox
Most ventures start because of founder’s personal experience with or passion for the problem they are trying to tackle. This has obvious positives but also can lead to a “do something now” mindset promoting easy solutions and immediate action more than the elaboration of long-term strategies. Further consequences can be the lack of professional sectoral knowledge and lower inclination towards collaboration due to high levels of personal ownership and commitment, also associated with stress and burnout.
Difficulty accessing supply chains
A third issue present in the sector is the low presence of social entrepreneurial organisations in supply chains, both in the business and in the public sectors. In fact, in most cases, social ventures are too small to bid for contracts and too young to have a proven track record that would facilitate their winning supply or service contracts.
Too dependent on government and poor finance
Participants described the sector as still too reliant on government and as lacking appropriate financial support matching its funding requirements and specificities. Financial support was described as particularly scarce at regional and local level, with core sector and financial intermediaries being based in London and mostly focusing on organisations and areas geographically close to them.
Lack of collaboration amongst support organisations
Finally, the group agreed on one of the main findings of my research projects: the lack of collaboration among sector intermediaries. This leads to a duplication of efforts and to a degree of confusion among social entrepreneurs and enterprises about where to look for support and how to reconcile the different messages they hear from the different intermediaries they are affiliated with.
Out of this list of issues, the workshop participants picked two areas that they thought were especially relevant in order for the sector to keep on thriving: the access of social enterprises supply chains in private and public sectors, and the low collaboration among sector intermediaries.
Social entrepreneurship in supply chains
The group tackling the issue “access to supply chains” found several core causes for this issue. Some causes can be attributed to failings of social enterprises themselves:
a lack of transparency and metrics that would lower the perceived risk of social ventures;
a low understanding of tender processes;
and the inability of social enterprises to scale and integrate or collaborate in order to bid for big projects and commissions.
Other challenges are created by the surrounding ecosystem:
procurement practices and contracts that do not favour the involvement of social enterprises and small organisations in supply chains of corporations and public bodies;
the existing regulatory environment;
and the still low recognition of the value and specifies of social enterprises outside of the sector.
Proposed solutions to improve the situation relied on the involvement of social entrepreneurs and enterprises and/or in that of sector intermediaries. Social entrepreneurs and enterprises should, with the help of intermediaries, lobby both the government for changes in legislation regarding tendering processes, and private companies to convince them about the possibility to collaborate with social enterprises to enhance the sustainability and credibility/effectiveness of their CSR practices. Furthermore, on their own, social entrepreneurs and enterprises should collaborate to win contracts and present stronger evidence about their performance and competitiveness, which would reduce the perceived risk for procuring organisations. Finally, sector intermediaries and research bodies should: analyse where the Social Value Act has worked; prove the benefits of values-based supply chains; and ensure social ventures involvement in supplier network platforms like Ariba.
Increasing collaboration amongst intermediaries
The second group of participants decided instead to work on the problem of low collaboration among social entrepreneurship sector intermediaries. The origins of this situation can be found in the presence in the sector of multiple umbrella bodies and intermediaries that publicly state that they are cooperating and collaborating with one another but in reality are very territorial and not interested in what other intermediaries do because “they occupy a separate niche in the sector”. In addition, many intermediaries have very specific views and beliefs about the definition of social entrepreneurship, about what the sector should look like, or about its role in society. This makes it difficult for them to really collaborate beyond sporadic cooperation for specific projects and events.
In this case, the proposed solution was to start from existing successful platforms involving several intermediaries (such as the Social Economy Alliance) and create a “network of networks”. This would have shared ownership and governance, would avoid exclusive definitions, and would initiate collaborations among different organisations around specific projects, such as “improving the access to supply chains for organisations in the social economy”. Cooperation on specific projects could be a starting point to create trust and a mutual understanding. At the same time, this “network of networks” should map out all the different intermediaries present in the sector and develop an online list differentiating organisations according to their core competences and easily accessible for organisations interested in obtaining support from the ecosystem. The creation of such a database would simplify the research process for individuals and organisations in need of help and would create the opportunity for intermediaries to understand where their respective strengths are and, thus, for sharing best practices and outsourcing to each other non-core activities.
The meeting finished with some networking and the hope that these solutions could lead to some concrete initiatives in the sector as well as to other opportunities to meet and discuss also the other issues present in the sector and ways to solve them in a collaborative way. Is anyone there up for the challenge? From my side, the door is open to anyone willing to know more or to jointly organise something along these lines to help the social entrepreneurship sector as well as other parts of the social economy grow and thrive even more.