Editor's Note: This post was first appeared in NextBillion en Español and can be found here in Spanish.
A new initiative to accompany Argentine social enterprises recently came into being. Based in Buenos Aires, Njambre (a Spanish term for “swarm”) is being promoted by Paula Cardenau, Emiliano Fazio and Federico Seineldin. I had the opportunity to talk with them to find out more about this new space of support, advice, and mentorship for social entrepreneurs.
Jenny Melo – NextBillion en Español: How did this initiative to collectively build Njambre arise?
Paula, Emiliano, and Federico – Njambre: Each one of us has a lot of work and life experience devoted to supporting transformation processes towards a more inclusive system. Ranging from having undertaken our own businesses like Openware, to working together with social entrepreneurs at Ashoka, or collective constructed spaces like VALOS, MoveRSE, RARSE (Argentina CSR Network), or co-working spaces, to name a few.
In recent years, parallel to the activities that each one of us was doing, we started to be involved with some social enterprises—in management, as investors, and enabling access to new networks—and that made us realize the tremendous added value that this strategic alliance has for social enterprises that are taking their first steps. These two dimensions were combined with our desire to join forces and work together and with the competitive advantage of being located in three different cities in Argentina: Rosario, Mendoza, and Buenos Aires.
Jenny Melo: What is the relationship between Njambre Accelerator and Njambre CoWorking?
Paula, Emiliano, and Federico – Njambre: They are essentially linked from their origin, and share an agenda of values such as building community, innovating, and creating a new context. They are mutually reinforcing. In Mendoza and Rosario, the social enterprises participating in the accelerator have access to the physical space and services of Njambre CoWorking (in Buenos Aires we are partnered with a similar space). Njambre CoWorking is also a hotbed of entrepreneurs where it is very probable for some social enterprises to go on to participate in Njambre.
In any case, we insist that the most important thing is that they share the value of creating community. Why do we emphasize this? Because, like many others, we are convinced that system or paradigm change cannot come from isolated organizations or people. That way of thinking is obsolete. Today, the value of networks and interconnections for achieving genuine change is increasingly evident. Because of this, when we designed the Accelerator (truthfully, the term “to accelerate” troubles us; what we propose is much more linked to help give birth, accompany, nurture, mother), our priority was to become a community of resources at the service of social enterprises, a space where everyone—social enterprises, the Njambre team, mentors, investors—works collectively to advance each one of the social enterprises. For this reason we have instances in which the entrepreneurs mentor each other, or spaces for collective knowledge generation, for example. We are all to some extent co-responsible for their success or failure. That is the logic that has “swarm,” which accompanies new life.
Jenny Melo – NextBillion en Español: What is Njambre Accelerator’s philosophy and vision? How does the accelerator work?
Paula, Emiliano, and Federico – Njambre: Njambre’s vision is that of an Argentina populated by social enterprises of new economies. Why do we focus on this type of business? Because they are the ones that can really influence or change the rules of the game in respect to how the market operates today, towards a system that is centered on the wellbeing of people, especially underserved communities, and/or in resolving dilemmas of taking care of the environment. In them, the market approach is a tool for empowering people and/or mitigating the suffering in life, in which we are including humans. They aren’t just enterprises with some social impact, but are directly a new type of organization that creates wealth in a different way and in a broader sense: social, economic, environmental, cultural, and spiritual. They have the highest potential to create jobs in sectors that are very neglected today; and they come with critical goods and services, in accessible forms, to disadvantaged communities.
In Njambre, we identify entrepreneurs with ideas and with the potential of becoming sound social enterprises, and we commit to them, we get actively involved in their management, we take risks, we find solutions together, and enable them to grow long-term solutions to social and/or environmental problems. Among other things, this joint management and partnership includes thinking about the business model with an integrated vision, financing, participating in the work space, and access to networks and key opportunities. The fact that we are involved temporarily—for the six months covered by the program—in the management of the company makes the partnership totally tailored to the entrepreneur. We all assume the risks and commitments so that the company can succeed. And, returning to the concept of swarm and the importance of community, this guidance and mothering of companies is done by the entire community; we are all a part of it.
Jenny Melo – NextBillion en Español: What are the plans and challenges for 2012?
Paula, Emiliano, and Federico – Njambre: Njambre’s plans for the first year of operations will focus on three dimensions. The first is to identify 10 entrepreneurs with ideas of high social and environmental impact and willpower for transforming social enterprises, accompanying them, and working with them to consolidate their ideas for businesses. The second is to strengthen the Njambre Community, which includes, in addition to the social enterprises and Njambre team, individuals who want to join as mentors and investors. We want the Njambre Community to be totally integrated with other key players working in Argentina for the advancement of social enterprises, and for the transformation of the paradigm, and for those we have already had several collaboration agreements with. The third dimension is more associated with the spread and diffusion of this new paradigm, for which we will continue writing and spreading the experiences through NextBillion and other sites, and provoking debates and discussions in different spaces and events that we are a part of.
The Social Enterprises
Jenny Melo – NextBillion en Español: Who is involved in Njambre currently?
Paula, Emiliano, and Federico – Njambre: The social enterprises that are a part of Njambre today are MamaGrande, Iyara and Amagi.
Iyara is an organization that contributes to the sustainable development of low-income populations through research, application, and dissemination of technologies with low-environmental impact. Their first product is an electric power turbine generator for lowland rivers for isolated communities.
MamaGrande is a social enterprise that develops solutions for the generation of energy and materials through bioproducts, the bioremediation of ecosystems and life regeneration with 100% recyclable eco-effective developments with renewable sources, that don’t compete on food for humans, space, or other resources. They will also include in their personal productive processes those who are currently in subsistence economies and rural communities.
Amagi provides a solution to people with disabilities and reduced mobility by designing attire that suits their needs and aesthetics. These clothes make it easier for people to gain greater independence, protect their privacy, and improve their autonomy and appearance, thus increasing their freedom and self-esteem in their daily lives.
Njambre’s work strategy is to contribute to the ecosystem of social enterprises and inclusive businesses that are emerging in Argentina. In that sense we are partnering and generating collaborative agreements with critical players like Avina, Endeavor, Equitas Ventures, Sistema B, Ashoka, MoveRSE, the ENI DiTella, the BidChallenge, and Polisofia, among others.
Social Entrepreneurship in Latin America
Jenny Melo – NextBillion Español: How does the social entrepreneurship sector in Latin America look? What are the challenges?
Paula, Emiliano, and Federico – Njambre: The social enterprise sector in Latin America has grown in recent years, but there is still a long way to go. As we have written in several other articles on NextBillion, social enterprises have multiple challenges, including access to finance, lack of appropriate legislation, lack of specific skills within teams that combine the commercial and the social, to list a few. And each one of them deserves a thorough analysis. But one common element that runs through all the challenges is of integration and complexity. How do they manage an organization that isn’t a typical business or traditional NGO, but a new concept, a hybrid that has to continuously, and in all of their daily strategic decisions, delicately manage the tension between prioritizing generating the most social or environmental impact, without neglecting their point of economic equilibrium? We are convinced that in order to address these and other challenges, we need an ecosystem of support and guidance that is mature and consolidated, that enables the birth of new social enterprises in a systematic way.
Furthermore, we need to spread and publicize this new paradigm in areas that are currently unaware of this new form of organization. Although the high potential of transformation has started to become recognized in some spaces and contexts, much remains to be done to involve young people, students, professionals, and potential investors whose knowledge resources and skills, and economics, are key to nurturing social enterprises.
Specifically with regard to access to capital, we observed from Njambre that it is necessary to close the gap between both sides. From the supply side, we need to be able to count on financial mechanisms or tools that are more flexible, soft, and patient. With elements like the lower interest rate of the market, exit strategies based on cash flow rather than the sale of the company, shock loss that mitigates the risk and attracts a better volume of traditional investments, and time horizons long enough to not drown in social business, among others.
In Argentina we have pioneers in this field, such as Equitas Fund. From the demand side, on the other hand, it is key to have a deeper understanding of the business model and what exactly is the most appropriate form of financing for certain stages or determining development of the social enterprise—so both in terms of volume and in financial conditions. As we have already mentioned on other occasions, there is no magic formula, and throughout the life of a social enterprise, various types of funding are needed—seed capital, debt, equity, quasi-capital, convertible debt.