Thane Kreiner

Ten Years in Social Entrepreneurship: The 19 innovators who presented at GSBI represent broader entrepreneurship trends

The social entrepreneurship concept and community have grown tremendously in the last decade. In the august company of pioneers such as Skoll Foundation and Acumen Fund, Santa Clara University’s Global Social Benefit Incubator (GSBI™) celebrates 10 years of working with over 150 social entrepreneurs to build financially sustainable ventures that scale.

On Aug. 23, 19 truly amazing social entrepreneurs in our tenth cohort delivered their business plan presentations. Individually and collectively, they reflect broader trends in social entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship more generally—especially the rise of women as pioneers in social entrepreneurship, the pursuit of energy solutions that are independent of grids or other infrastructure, the use of mobile platforms, and focus on increasing agricultural productivity in Africa.

Women. Ten of the 19 social entrepreneurs who were awarded scholarships for the GSBI are women, and so for the first time, we have a majority of women in the cohort. While this majority reflects global population dynamics (due to lower life expectancy for men), it also exemplifies what the latest literature teaches us about the different, but complementary, leadership abilities of men and women. One Child One Light’s female leader Ramani Vedula aims to bring four million children back to school and increase the literacy rate through an innovative solar power lantern-charging model. Nazava’s woman entrepreneur Lieselotte Heederik brings safe drinking water to poor households in Indonesia, saving them money and reducing carbon emissions. Headed by a male entrepreneur committed to keeping girls in school, BaNaPads produces affordable, eco-friendly sanitary pads from banana stems in Uganda.

Energy. Because of the significance of energy as a barrier for the poor, we have consciously pursued an energy sector strategy formulated by GSBI Director Emeritus Jim Koch and Base-of-Pyramid (BoP) thought leader Al Hammond. A sector strategy also allows us to gain deeper insights into the technology solutions, business model innovations, and contextual factors that can influence whether a social enterprise can scale in a financially sustainable fashion.

Half of our cohort seeks to address energy poverty, including EcoEnergy Finance, which delivers clean energy to rural Pakistan, a true frontier market. UbiLuz gets clean energy to poor people in Central America. Potential Energy, formerly the Darfur Stoves Project, has already helped more than 120,000 displaced persons in Sudan and Ethiopia. And Mali Biocarburant, a leading specialty oil and biodiesel supplier in West Africa, also provides livelihoods for smallholder farmers and enables food security through intercropping.

Agriculture (in Africa). Speaking of agriculture, this year’s cohort includes a cluster of three social enterprises working in Kenya, all headed by women: Kilimo Salama, an innovative micro-insurance program for smallholder farmers; Backpack Farm, which provides training and green agri-tech solutions to improve the agricultural production capacity of smallholder farmers; and, M-Farm, leveraging broadly available mobile technology to create markets for smallholder farmers.

Mobile apps. Building on the ubiquity of simple mobile phones as the entry point for solving some of the world’s most pressing problems, many of the entrepreneurs have mobile strategies. All of the agriculture-focused social enterprises in this year’s cohort leverage mobile technology in some fashion. So, too, does InVenture with the ambitious mission of enabling financial access for all through simple, accessible SMS-based financial tools. CarbonKeeper, initially focused on mobile information management for rural energy businesses, broadened its vision to mobile CRM for social enterprises during the course of GSBI and has renamed itself CustomerKeeper.

Increasing sophistication of social entrepreneurs. In general, we are finding social entrepreneurs have more real-world experience as well as more academic credentials. Starting in Rwanda, the Chief Instigating Officer of Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) Elizabeth Scharpf, focuses on better sanitary protection for women; she holds two Harvard degrees. Increasingly sophisticated social entrepreneurs leverage individual and collective wisdom, learning from success stories to create their own. SalaUno, in Mexico, is essentially replicating the successful business model and enabling culture of Aravind Eye Care to eradicate preventable blindness. In India, Sarvajal marries electronic point-of-sale technology with a micro-franchising strategy to deliver safe drinking water through “water ATMs.”

Nokero is an excellent example of sophistication in the energy sector. In operation only two years, this remarkable social enterprise has already distributed more than 400,000 solar powered lights in 120 countries – using just $60,000 in start-up capital. In a first for the GSBI, Nokero has multiple distributors in the class, including Earthspark International, which distributes clean and affordable energy products in Haiti. Solanterns, another classmate, is testing market demand for Nokero’s products in Kenya as it drives to replace one million kerosene lamps with solar lanterns.

The Power of Community. Solar Sister, a GSBI 2011 alum, is also a distributor for Nokero in Uganda, demonstrating the power of the GSBI network: social entrepreneurs who share a vernacular for sustainable, scalable businesses and find they can readily partner – when it makes sense. And our alumni are reproducing! Lifeline Technologies, a for-profit progeny of GSBI 2004 alum non-profit Lifeline Energy, highlights the emergence of hybrid structures that ensure impact-first investment of operating surplus.

A video replay of last week’s event, featuring business presentations from each of these amazing social entrepreneurs can be found here.

Thane Kreiner is executive director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Society, at Santa Clara University, home of the GSBI.

Base of the Pyramid, business development