Source: Council on Foreign Relations
Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is from Benjamin D. Stone, director of strategy and general counsel at MicroCredit Enterprises and vice chairman of Indego Africa. Here he discusses Indego Africa’s experiences grappling with the tension between a social enterprise’s social mission and commercial goals.
Social enterprises enable people in the developing world to chart their own courses out of poverty by combining effective aspects of public and private sector ventures and harnessing market-driven forces. Yet, as I have learned through my work at the nonprofit social enterprise Indego Africa (IA), appropriately balancing a social enterprise’s social mission and commercial aspirations is immensely challenging. Based on my experience, when these prerogatives conflict, a social enterprise must ground decisions in a consistent long-term vision.
Launched in 2007, IA partners with over 500 female entrepreneurs who operate within small for-profit businesses in Rwanda called cooperatives. IA connects these women with global markets by selling their jewelry, accessories, and home décor on IA’s online store, to boutiques and stores worldwide, and to major brands in the United States. The revenue covers IA’s operational costs, including raw materials, shipping, fair-trade wages for the artisans, and employee salaries. The remaining money is pooled with donations and grants to fund training programs for the artisans in business, literacy, and technology. IA has helped artisan partners put more of their kids in school, increase the number of meals their families eat per day, access running water, and more. But its mission goes beyond achieving temporary impact: IA aims to equip female artisans with the skills and confidence they need to compete in the global markets long term, without assistance.
To achieve this ambitious goal, and balance commercial and social objectives, IA started out with two rules for choosing artisan partnerships. First, IA only partnered with women who were already members of a registered cooperative, so that these women would view IA as a business partner rather than co-founder. Second, IA only partnered with women who already knew basic artisan skills to ensure that, with minimal training, they would be capable of producing complex orders on tight timetables.
These rules remained sacrosanct until 2010 when two NGOs, Survivor’s Fund and Foundation Rwanda, asked IA to help twenty-five remarkable women from the Kayonza district of Rwanda start an artisan cooperative. The women were all mothers of children conceived by rape that occurred during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Most were poor, illiterate, HIV positive, and did not know how to sew or weave. Even in the face of such difficult circumstances, these women were determined to give themselves and their children a better life.