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Posted by Sarah Brown on 06 Jun '19

Are you a social entrepreneur?

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I am very excited this month because I am getting the opportunity to talk about something I am passionate about, social entrepreneurship. The meeting is being held in Sheffield on 18th June 2019, you can click on the image below to book tickets. Link will not work after that date

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So are you a social entrepreneur? The dictionary definition is

a person who establishes an enterprise with the aim of solving social problems or effecting social change

What I think is missing from this is the element of being viable, a social entrepreneur is not a charity though I think a charity can act as a social entrepreneur. If that sounds like a contradiction let me explain.

For me a social entrepreneur has a theory of change that includes generating income as well as changing the world. This is what makes them so exciting, they can keep on changing the world. Traditionally a charity has a theory of change which is focused on its social impact and doesn’t include anything about how it will generate the income to achieve it. However, charities can be set up to be entrepreneurial as the One Acre Fund shows.

A charity acting like a business

The One Acre Fund is a charity that exists to serve poor, rural farmers in Africa. It is all about changing the world.

Social Entrepreneurs Andrew Youn,  Eric Pohlman in Rwanda and John Gachunga in Kenya founded the charity. Like many social entrepreneurs they were inspired by what they saw.  Two farmers in Kenya were working similar plots of land. The differences were small: one planted in rows, while the other broadcasted seed. One could afford higher quality farm products. Yet one farmer harvested four times as much food as the other. Providing access to better farm products and education on farming techniques became the driving mission behind One Acre Fund. 

Its vision on its website is:

“When farmers improve their harvests, they pull themselves out of poverty. They also start producing surplus food for their neighbours. When farmers prosper, they eradicate poverty and hunger in their communities.”

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One Acre Fund is a social venture which works to teach and promote best practices in agriculture in Africa, specifically Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania and also provide finance for seeds and fertiliser. Its goal is to positively impact more than 20 million children by 2025 and serve 1 million farm families, which translates to more than 5 million people, by 2020. It was launched in 2006 as a pilot project with 40 farmers and by the end of 2018 it is serving 800,000 farm families projected to grow to over 900,000 in 2019. Its impact has been to double and triple crop yields for farmers who have had traditionally to live on $1 a day. It illustrates how blurred the lines are between charity and business. While it does take donations it has a sustainable financial model that allows it to grow and change the world for more people.

The impact of One Acre Fund on a single farmer illustrates this; her one-acre plot now produces five times the yield she got previously. She produces more than enough to feed her family and by selling the surplus has purchased a cow and a goat, bought clothing for her family, and constructed a modest home.

Beyond this the One Acre Fund impacts communities, as farmers expand, becoming business people, employing others and becoming community leaders. Additionally, as the children get education and can fulfil their potential, they also can create businesses or become teachers or doctors impacting the success of their country and the wider world.

One Acre fund has also grown to employ 7,300 people, 95% rural and many previously subsistence farmers.

The success of One Acre is based fundamentally on learning. The model has four steps:

1) Truck distribution of thousands of tons of seed and fertiliser to over 1000 distribution points in rural areas where 100-200 farmers pick up supplies on foot. Initially One Acre tried more exotic crops but learnt from the farmers what was working and what wasn’t and refocused on basic staples.

2) Providing finance, typically $80, so farmers can purchase the seed and fertiliser. This is linked to the farmers being taught how the loan works and how they have to pay it back. The loans are paid back piecemeal in small payments that are recorded using a paper-based system. 99% of the farmers pay on time.

3) Learning what crops will work in a particular area, working with the farmers to teach them simple techniques like a planting string marked at intervals so that the seed spacing allows each plant to get enough water and light or how to use a thimbleful of fertilise in each planting hole so it goes to the plant and doesn’t just run off into the environment. Farmers gather weekly in groups of 30 to attend training sessions where they have a short explanation and then go into the fields to practise.

4) One Acre practises what it calls “market facilitation” to ensure farmers maximise their profits. Individual farmers have limited negotiating power with the middlemen who buy their crops, so One Acre negotiates on behalf of about 100 farmers to increase efficiency and the price achieved. This last step is critical to make the others work.

Collaborating to change the world

One Acre is a great example of collaborative growth, going from a small pilot to an internationally acclaimed organisation in less than a decade. Its model has made it attractive to funders

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in November 2013 launched a three year, $11.6 million partnership to leverage the One Acre Fund operating model to bring innovative agriculture technologies to more rural farming families

MasterCard Foundation in October 2013 announced a $10 million partnership to expand access to financial services and training for smallholder farmers. The partnership is linked to Kenya’s microfinance sector with the aim of increasing lending in rural Africa. It also allows One Acre fund to employ more than 770 additional staff.

One Acre fund has been successful because it has attracted other foundations who recognise that working with the fund will help them achieve their goals as foundations – the perfect collaboration. Consequently, The Barr Foundation has given $3.7 million to support crop insurance, tree planting, solar lights and staple crop diversification. This follows an initial smaller donation of $1 million which showed the collaboration would work. USAID have given $3.5 million.

One Acre Fund views its work with farmers as a partnership, as it will only work if they do their part.  Similarly, it seeks to collaborate and partner with the other areas in the supply chain, from the distribution of supplies to marketing the end products.

Winning by being Good - Responsible Organisation Charter

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I include the One Acre Fund in my book on Winning by being Good which outlines the elements it takes to be a responsible organisation. These are all critical for being a social entrepreneur as they combine being economically viable, running an organisation in an ethical way and looking at the wider picture of how you change the world.

So, are you a social entrepreneur?

To answer this be truly honest about how you are changing the world both directly and your broader impact. How do you measure your success, if it is only in money then no, but if it is your success in changing lives and you track that as much as the money then I think you can claim to be, particulalry if you were driven to start by seeing something wrong that you wanted to address.

If you want to learn more read these:

Be really clear about what you offer

Responsible Organisation Charter

Six strategic reasons we can all learn from the Olympics