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Promoting social entrepreneurship

Promoting social entrepreneurship

Reach for Change has been operational in Ethiopia since 2015. The group helps develop the local social entrepreneurs find solutions to some of the social issues in the nation. Here, The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew speaks to Anna Chojnicka, the head of Reach for Change in Ethiopia about the highlights of some of the work of the international organization in Ethiopia, what makes it different than its contemporaries, how it helps harness the potential of young people and how it plans to take its unique concept in many parts of the country. Excerpts:

The Reporter: It has been almost four years since Reach for Change was established in Ethiopia. Tell me about that?

Anna Chojnicka: Reach for Change Ethiopia’s mission is to improve the lives of children, youth and women across Ethiopia. We do this by supporting Ethiopian social entrepreneurs to design and develop innovative solutions to some of the biggest problems facing these communities. We then help them to develop these solutions into successful, sustainable social businesses.

Your organization describes itself as one that “harnesses the power of Ethiopia's best social entrepreneurs to improve the lives of children, youth and women across the country”. Tell me about that?

What we mean when we talk about social entrepreneurs, are people who identify a social challenge faced by society, and then develop a solution to that challenge that is underpinned by a strong business model. They are generating income through their work, but the core purpose of what they are doing is to improve people’s lives, not to generate profit. We believe that this is one of the most effective ways to create lasting positive change on society, because these organizations are locally led andfinancially self sufficient (not dependent on donors as NGOs typically are) and as such are far more sustainable in the long term.

They are also able to adapt to the evolving needs of the communities they are working to serve, rather than being tied to the requirements of donors that may take them away from where they need to be going to create most impact. This enables them to be more agile and innovative, designing and scaling solutions that really work.

What we mean by the ‘best’ social entrepreneurs is that we work with incredible people who are smart, brave and passionate, and dedicatethemselves tirelessly to improving people’s lives through their work. They have a deep understanding of the problems they are working to solve, and often have been affected by the problem themselves. As such, they care deeply about working to solve it and are better placed than anyone else to do so. It’s not easy being an entrepreneur, you constantly come up against obstacles and people telling you ‘no’, so the people who have the resilience to keep going in spite of that are superheroes in my eyes.

How do you do that? How do you support social entrepreneurs?

We have three main programs that support social entrepreneurs right from the beginning, when they just have an idea that they want to pilot, all the way through to taking the strongest social enterprises to scale. The first is our Accelerator, where we support early stage entrepreneurs to bring their idea to life, supporting them to run a successful pilot project. The next stage is the Incubator, where we support them to transition from a project to an organization, where they establish a strong team and develop their business, operational and social impact models. Our final program is the Rapid Scale program; for this we work with organizations that are already consistently improving lives and generating revenue through their work, and are now looking to expand. We help them to do that rapidly and effectively. Through all three programs, we provide social entrepreneurs with financial support, expert coaching and capacity building, and access to networks. In doing so we help them to develop the strategies that they need to achieve their vision, and to execute on those strategies. It is not about us telling them what to do or trying to steer them in a particular direction. We believe in them and their vision, and our work is to support them to develop the tools and expertise they need to get there.

We also realized very early on in our work, that in order to support social entrepreneurs to thrive in Ethiopia, it was not enough to just support specific social entrepreneurs, but we would have to work to develop the whole sector, creating an enabling ecosystem for social entrepreneurship. Recently, Social Enterprise Ethiopia was formally established as an association, a locally led grassroots movement, driven forward by Ethiopian social entrepreneurs who are all committed to developing the sector. We’re proud to be one of the key partners supporting their work.

One of the unique components of Reach for Change is the ‘BIG Ideas for Children Challenge’. What exactly is the challenge and share with me the highlights of some of the ideas your have supported?

Our overarching mission is to improve the lives of women, children and youth across Ethiopia. This can include any sector from education to health, food security to jobs creation, and so on. Sometimes we run projects that are geared towards a specific impact area, because we see that there is a particularly pressing need for it. For the Big Ideas for Children Challenge, we are supporting social entrepreneurs whose work improves the lives of children, specifically focusing on improved pre and primary school education and early childhood development.

There are so many amazing entrepreneurs and amazing ideasit’s hard to pick a couple of highlights! To give you some examples, we have Tsion Kiros who runs Midako and is currently in our Incubator Program. Midako is revolutionizing the way children are learning Amharic using innovative teaching methods, building a new generation of young readers in Ethiopia. Just this week, they received an award at the 5th All Africa Public Sector Innovation Awards for their work.

Another is Ayatam Simineh who runs Beautiful Minds. They are working towards reducing death and illness among children caused by communicable diseases. One root cause of this problem is that children are not washing their hands properly, with many schools not providing soap. So Beautiful Minds recycles and produces affordable soap to sell to schools and then educates the children in a fun and interactive way around how to wash their hands properly and develop hygienic behavior, which they then pass on to their families as well. They started in 2 schools and are now working in over 20 across Addis Ababa. They also support women cooperatives to sell the soap, creating jobs as a secondary impact of their work.

As well as the Big Ideas for Children Challenge, last year we also rana fully digital Accelerator – supporting ideas that use technology to improve lives, and a program specifically supporting women social entrepreneurs. At the moment we are developing our new strategy to identify key areas we should be focusing on in the next five years, to address the most pressing needs of women, children and youth in Ethiopia.

In Ethiopia, there are groups similar to Reach for Change, such as iceaddis and blueMoon. What is unique about Reach for Change?

Reach for Change is the first and only organization in Ethiopia focusing solely on social enterprise. We also work with organizations right through from inception all the way to scale.

But more importantly, we are really happy to be part of a collaborative ecosystem that involves wonderful organizations that are all working to develop entrepreneurship in Ethiopia. We are much stronger when we work together, and we are delighted to partner with many of these organizations to deliver greater impact that we could alone. For example, iceaddis provides training and coaching to our digital startups, because they have much greater expertise around technology and the digital landscape in Ethiopia than we do. We have also worked with xHub, who have provided leadership development training to our social entrepreneurs. 

British Council is a key partner of ours and is doing some fantastic work to develop social entrepreneurship in Ethiopia. Last year we partnered with them to run a program supporting women social entrepreneurs. An important partner of ours is the Ethiopian government and we are also looking at how we can build closer links with impact investors like Renew Strategies, to provide more investment opportunities to our social entrepreneurs once they transition out of our programs. A key part of the value we provide to the social entrepreneurs through all our programs is expert coaching, and we draw in external experts from within Ethiopia and even internationally to do this, so collaboration is in our DNA. 

Last year, when Reach for Change announced a new funding partnership with Ikea Foundation, it was believed it would help a hundred local entrepreneurs develop social enterprises. How successful has that projection been?

The project is ongoing and will continue into 2020 but so far is going really well. Since the project stated in 2017 we have directly supported 63 social entrepreneurs through our Big Ideas Accelerator and Incubator programs, who have all received funding, intensive training, coaching and access to networks, to develop their social enterprises. As of July 2018, their work had directly supported 41,156 children, women and youth in Ethiopia. We measure our impact rigorously and assess how our entrepreneurs are achieving positive outcomes for the people they are supporting. So we don’t just look at how many people have attended a training, for example, but how many of them have genuinely developed a skill or increased their knowledge or been able to access a further opportunity as a result of that training. This helps us to be self critical and clear that our work has real social value.

In 2019 we will support a minimum of 45 more social entrepreneurs through this project (who will take part on our Accelerator, Incubator and Rapid Scale programs) and this does not include those who are supported more indirectly through our work to develop the wider sector.

It has been in Ethiopia for almost four years. The kind of work you do is new within Ethiopia. What have been some of the challenges you are facing in meeting the objective of Reach for Change?

One of our major challenges from the start has been to build awareness and understanding of social enterprise in Ethiopia. Of course, Ethiopians have been running businesses that improve lives throughout history. There has been Ethiopian social entrepreneurs for generations. But as you say, when we started out, the terminology, “social enterprise” was hardly used and the sector was new, so there was a lot of confusion around what it was that we were trying to do. BAs you say, when we started out the sector was new, so there was a lot of confusion around what it was we were trying to do. Sometimes people assume that impact and profit can’t (or shouldn’t) go together. We are saying the opposite: that in fact for an organization to be able to create long-term positive change on society it must be able to generate enough revenue tosustain itself. Furthermore, profit enables growth. If an organization has a strong business model and social impact model then it should follow that the more revenue they generate, the more they improve people’s lives.

This awareness creation is also crucial because there are many people running social enterprises who might not see themselves as social entrepreneurs, because they have not heard of the term. We want to make sure these people hear about it so that they can benefit from our programs and other support programs available.

Another challenge is that there is currently no legal framework that supports ‘social enterprise’ in Ethiopia. Social Enterprise Ethiopia is working hard to advocate for that. Once that is in place, it will make it much simpler for social enterprises to register their organizations in a way that reflects the nature of their work, and for enabling policies to be developed which support the sector.

Finally, social entrepreneurs also face the same challenges all other entrepreneurs face, ranging from policy regulation to access to investment, and infrastructure. One of the things we focus on is helping entrepreneurs to build the resilience, as well as the technical capacity, needed to work past these challenges.

In Ethiopia, Reach for Change has been solely based in the capital, but there is a plan to start working outside of the capital. Tell me about that?

We felt it was important to start in Addis Ababa initially, because this type of work was new in Ethiopia, so it was important to test the model in one place first to make sure it worked. Now that we have seen that it works from Mercato to Bole, we are expanding. This year we began working in the Southern Regional State and in future we intend to expand across all of Ethiopia.

We will soon be selecting more social entrepreneurs onto our Accelerator, Incubator and Rapid Scale programs, so for anyone interested they should keep an eye out for information posted on our website, social media and other channels.

Now that you have been in the capital for three years, what have been the highlights of running such a new concept within Ethiopia?

What I’ve enjoyed most has been meeting and working with such incredible social entrepreneurs. I was a social entrepreneur myself and have been working in the sector for 8 years, originally in the UK as well as East Africa, so I have empathy for what they go through. There is something special about Ethiopia and the people I have worked with here. Their drive to help their country and improve people’s livesis inspiring. And the impact they are having speaks for itself.

Another highlight has been working with my team. I am the only non-Ethiopian working at Reach for Change Ethiopia, and seeing the way they overcome unforeseeable challenges and come up with creative solutions almost on a daily basis, all while maintaining a great sense of humor, is inspiring. I’ve learned more in the last 3 years than I ever have before.

Finally, it’s definitely been a huge highlight to see how far the social enterprise sector has come since we started work here. When we started out, hardly anyone had heard of the term ‘social enterprise’. Fast-forward just under four years and we have seen so many social entrepreneurs develop organizations that are really transforming lives across Addis Ababa and inspiring a new generation of entrepreneurs. And this is just the beginning. There is a lot of momentum building around the sector, so much so that the Social Enterprise World Forum will take place in Ethiopia in 2019. People from around the world will gather here next October to see what Ethiopia and its social entrepreneurs have to offer, and I have no doubt they’ll be as inspired as I am.

Reach for Change is also a global organization working across Africa and Europe.