Adam Lewis

Social Enterprise in Haiti: An oxymoron or a reality?

It is no secret that social entrepreneurship is trending. Not just on Twitter (via the hashtag #socent) but in real life, too, with thousands of socially minded innovators pioneering new, market-based solutions to some of the world’s toughest challenges.

But this “movement” has hit some roadblocks. In many parts of the world, communities are too poor to qualify as viable customers, leaving little if any revenue to be made. In other places, social enterprises have found success cultivating a market, but haven’t been able to scale up their operations beyond a small region or population. And in particularly vulnerable areas, NGOs have saturated the market such that businesses have no way of contending for customers. After all, how can anyone compete with free?

This last challenge is especially prevalent in Haiti, where the 2010 earthquake devastated hundreds of thousands of people and an ensuing cholera outbreak killed thousands more and remains endemic throughout the country. In light of this, foreign aid has flooded in from all angles, comprising two-thirds of the government’s budget and paving the way for unprecedented NGO activity: There are an estimated 16,000 NGOs in Haiti – more than one per square mile.

It was within this challenging – or opportunistic, as some would argue – context that more than two dozen development-minded thinkers and doers, myself included, convened in Cambridge, Mass., this past weekend to design a clean water social enterprise for Haiti. Dubbed the Archimedes Project, this competition-based workshop set out to find a creative, market-based solution to end cholera in the country. The winning idea is expected to be up and running by this time next year.

If you’re like me, the prospect of a successful social enterprise in Haiti might strike you as about as likely as a successful social enterprise on the moon (maybe less likely, since the moon isn’t battling a deadly waterborne disease). But we forged ahead anyway, motivated by the challenge, inspired by the cause and energized by a collective commitment to impact.

(The devastation after the 2010 earthquate in Haiti.)

After learning about the many factors contributing to Haiti’s dire circumstances – including broken if not nonexistent infrastructure, constrained economic development and a lack of clean water that has allowed cholera to pervade both rural and urban communities – we dived headfirst into a 36-hour “ideation” workshop. Divided into teams, we pored over statistics, theories and other background materials to gain a deeper understanding of the situation. We consulted with experts from NGOs and academia working on clean water projects in Haiti. And we brainstormed potential solutions to a problem that seemed intractable for any organization, let alone a social enterprise.

The initial business pitches were fascinating in their uniformity. Despite conceptualizing their models independently, four of the five groups landed on a variation of the same idea (though each proposed a unique source of revenue): an online network to help coordinate existing clean water efforts. The fact that 80 percent of the teams thought up comparable ideas was revealing: Either the groups were equally uncreative or they all sought to avoid redundancy and instead encourage better organization and collaboration among projects already under way.

But by the time of the final presentations, the five groups had five distinctly innovative ideas. One team proposed “gamifying” clean water and sanitation education through mobile phones. Another team devised a database that could evaluate clean water programs and match them with specific community needs. A different group came up with a strategy for raising awareness about clean water and helping organizations market their services. My group, which I am disheartened to report did not emerge victorious, created a business plan for a locally produced and distributed flavor capsule to be sold alongside water purification tablets.

But the winning group – to whom I will offer a bitter congratulations – thought to recruit and train “community chlorinators” who could be hired as clean water liaisons between NGOs and urban slums.

Overall, it was an exhilarating weekend, both for the participants and the social enterprise community at large. While the Archimedes Project was small and targeted, it represented an important paradigm shift in how the world combats pressing challenges like cholera in low-income markets like Haiti. There is a clear and nascent desire to make development efforts sustainable, using market forces to create lasting impact. I look forward to watching (and helping) this movement continue to make strides, hopefully eradicating donor-driven models as effectively as it could eradicate disease and poverty.


Adam Lewis is an associate at Rabin Martin, a global health strategy firm in New York.

Education, Environment, Health Care, Social Enterprise
academia, infectious diseases, public health, social enterprise