Guest Articles

May 29

Andrea Nelson Trice

Deprived or Different?: Tips for Social Entrepreneurs Working Across Cultures

The definition of an acceptable standard of living depends on who you ask. An American’s definition might include clean water nearby, a bathroom and electricity. It’s a list that reflects our cultural values.

For example, Americans value efficiency. Time is a precious, finite commodity to us. We publish entire books on how to manage time effectively. Walking two hours each day for clean water is, for us, irrational. Time must be carefully saved and spent, and we easily assume others view time the same way.

Americans also place a high value on achievement and productivity:

Investing in tools like electricity that can increase our productivity is an obvious choice.

But not all cultures value the same things. This is crucial information for social entrepreneurs working across cultures. I’ve personally conducted over 70 interviews with South Asian, Latin American, African and American social entrepreneurs in my work as a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute. As I listened, I was confronted with powerful contrasts; I often heard different values at play.

Let’s narrow this discussion to the African continent to simplify it somewhat.

Regarding water, a Ghanaian man shared, “I know of a small town where the women have to walk two towns away to fetch water. Americans built a boondoggle (a well). They had a big ceremony when it was finished. Women bypassed it and continued to walk to the water two towns away. What outsiders didn’t understand is that this was their break. They were able to talk, socialize. The well was cutting into their social life.”

A Ghanaian woman who was part of this conversation added, “They are not interested in the well because you are actually causing problems for them. It causes depression, loneliness, fatigue. There is social disease because of the well. (Walking two towns away to get water means) you have a happy home, a happy family. She has a distressing area in her life and she goes back to her husband with no problems after going to get water (and talking with her friends.)”

Regarding latrines, a Zambian entrepreneur shared, “I enjoy the walk into the bush. It is relaxing.”

Regarding electricity, a Ghanaian businesswoman observed, “We are happy without electricity. A person goes to his farm when the sun comes up. He rests at 6 o’clock when the sun goes down. He has no desire to connect to the internet. He does not need electricity. … God gave me wiry hair. I don’t need to blow dry it or straighten it. Why do I need electricity?”


Who’s Deprived?

Maintaining healthy relationships, balancing work with rest, controlling time rather than being controlled by it – these are core values for many in emerging markets and they often clash with our values. If we were to define “flourishing” based on the health of our relationships and work/life balance, how many of us would be classified as deprived?

I’m not suggesting that no one in an emerging market wants clean water or electricity. What I have heard and observed over and over again, however, is that there are often bigger dreams – dreams like increased dignity and empowerment, like utilizing local resources to build a more secure future. When our initiatives put those priorities at risk, there will be push back. In the words of a Ghanaian entrepreneur, “It is a problem if people say it is. Until then, it is not a problem.”

This is not a simple issue that can be sorted through in an hour or with a single blog post. It’s about what drives us, where we feel vulnerable, where we feel the greatest distress. A few initial steps may help you, as a social entrepreneur, make some sense of differing priorities and dreams and their role in your social enterprise’s success.

1. Write down several assumptions you are operating from. These might include:

  • Our definition of a satisfying life is essentially the same.
  • We agree on the problem that needs to be solved.
  • With enough money, we can solve this problem.
  • We all expect major change to occur in the next two years (for example, rather than over a longer time period).

2. Ask for input from others.

  • Ask opinion leaders. (However, in many cultures, saying things that could be perceived as confrontational is not customary. Be aware that your questions may only yield answers people think you want to hear.)
  • Ask current, former and potential customers.
  • Ask expats who have lived in the country for years. Those who have really engaged with the culture, learning the language, living near or with local people, can often offer crucial insights about your assumptions.
  • Ask nationals who have spent extended time with Americans. Perhaps they’ve lived in the U.S. or worked beside Americans in their country.

3. Grapple with the implications of what you’ve learned.

Let me close with the story of Charlene Mathonsi, a social entrepreneur who launched an enterprise in 2011. As a farmer and Zimbabwean herself, she approaches her work as an “insider” who shares the values and assumptions of those she’s working to help. In her words:

“Conservation farming is what most entrepreneurs in Zimbabwe are pushing. They brought a technology which they developed in whatever place and they put it in the (local) fields. It’s labor intensive. It’s beautiful. I love it. But it’s not practical. And so what happens is as soon as the field officers turn their backs, the people go to the easier way of doing it.

“I’m a farmer. I have eight years of experience in agricultural production. My enterprise is RED Flowers – Restoring Economic Dignity through farming. It uses the skills a farmer already has and his basic technology and his basic need to uplift, to make him better. It uses the resources we have, not something new. It’s complementary. …

“Flower seeds are a high cash value crop. We get our seeds from Holland. I give the seeds to the farmers, the farmers grow the seeds, and I sell them back to Holland. We give them a cash crop so they aren’t compromising their food crop. They are characterized as subsistence farmers – (they) grow food for consumption so they don’t have money for health care, etc.

“We encourage farmers to use what they have. Just weed it in the same way. We don’t give them insecticides, so their food crops are not endangered. Some of the marigolds they grow are natural pesticides for strawberries. We try to encourage them to use manure, other natural things, so they do not have to buy fertilizer for their crops. There are no extra expenses.

“We have divided farmers into groups. There’s competition naturally occurring among them to see who grows the best flowers, who gets the best seed. Also, this is helping people spread the word among their friends.

“We started with 40 growers. By 2016 we had 140 growers. We have a waiting list of 200 growers who want to grow seed in an area with 2,000 farmers. We do evaluation to be sure farmers have success. Every month we visit farmers to be sure they are doing well. We only have so many people now (who can do these evaluations).”

There are several assumptions in Charlene’s description that may conflict with ours: why change is primarily needed (restoring dignity, having the money to access health care but no mention of a need for more “things”); how to bring about change (using existing technologies); how to market (word of mouth); and the role of expansion (not the top priority). Cultural values are at the core of these important differences, but they remain below the surface unless we take the time to uncover them.


Andrea Nelson Trice conducts impact assessments and research around social enterprise in the developing world.

Photo credit: Frank Keillor, via Flickr.




Agriculture, Social Enterprise
business development