Bind the gap

2013-07-05 07:30

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Meet the social entrepreneurs who are changing the world around them – and making money while they’re at it.

The smell of freshly brewed espresso fills the air at the funky Department of Coffee, and there’s an energy that only a jolt of java can afford.

This vibey coffee shop in the heart of Khayelitsha, clearly recognisable by the theme colours of red, orange and white, is owned by Vuyile Msaku, Vusumzi Mamile and Wongama Baleni – three enterprising young men who, with the help of a company called The Ministry of Service Delivery, have turned their dream of running their own business into a reality.

In another part of the township, young cyclists in bright lime jackets with grey reflectors and first-aid bags strapped to their backs pick their way through cars and pedestrians. This is Sizwe Nzima’s medicine delivery business, Iyeza Express, which has just earned him a place on Forbes magazine’s prestigious 30 Under 30 list as one of Africa’s best young entrepreneurs.

Both are excellent examples of social entrepreneurship in action – when innovative thinkers get together and change their environment for the better.

‘Social entrepreneurs identify resources where other people see only problems,’ says Tom Shutte, the programme director for UnLtd South Africa, a non-profit organisation that offers financial and non-financial support to social entrepreneurs. ‘These people also focus primarily on “social value” rather than profits. Ultimately, social entrepreneurs are transforming their communities all over the world, by tackling social problems, improving people’s life chances, or delivering environmental sustainability. They are creating effective and enterprising solutions with a measurable impact.’

Unemployment is on the rise. StatsSA’s most recent labour force survey shows numbers have increased by 100 000 to 4.6 million in the last quarter and, also alarming, the number of discouraged work seekers increased by 73 000.

Around the country, the physically challenged struggle to find jobs. It’s not hard to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of our society’s needs. But for some, it’s simply a galvanising force.

It was this kind of thinking that motivated a group of young businesspeople to form The Ministry of Service Delivery, an impact investment company that invests in social entrepreneurs.

‘We were annoyed that nothing was happening,’ says Pieter de Wet, the ‘minister of finances’ behind the initiative based in Cape Town. ‘It felt like no-one really took ownership of the lack of delivery, and so we said “Fine! We’ll create our own ministry and do it ourselves.”

As Wongama explains, cafe society was a foreign concept in the township. ‘In Khayelitsha, people used to drink coffee to get warm. But now people’s way of drinking it is changing. We wanted to bring the growing coffee culture to the black people.’

The Department of Coffee opened late last year in Ntlazane Street, outside the township's bustling train station.

The Ministry of Service Delivery provided the start-up funds and short-term bridging finances, mentorship and full business training, while Department of Coffee is paying back the amount at an affordable rate.

Why would coffee be considered as social entrepreneurship? ‘American studies shows that the more coffee shops per square metre in an area, the better the area is,’ Pieter explains. ‘It creates a social hub for the people, which I believe is vital to previously disadvantaged areas.’

He adds that the plan for the Ministry of Service Delivery is grand: ‘To have a poverty free equal society in Cape Town.’

Sizwe, 21, is also committed to affecting change. He grew up with his grandparents in the township. Both were on chronic medication and, every month, he was sent to collect it. He would go either very early in the morning, before school, or afterwards, when the queues were agonisingly long – and understands first-hand the time wasted, the poor service and the frustration.

While an entrepreneur student at the Raymond Ackerman Academy (RAA), he read a newspaper article about how the health facilities couldn’t cope with the large numbers of chronic patients collecting medication. ‘So then I thought, let me come up with the idea of cutting waiting hours, the cost of travel and not worrying about collecting your medication.’

At first, Sizwe started with his grandparents’ friends. When others heard about it, his collection area grew broader, but was limited to walking distances. With an RAA grant, Sizwe bought bicycles and a cellphone so people could start contacting him. And so Iyeza Express was born.

The business plan is simple: clients get prescription dates for their medication. It’s collected by delivery cyclists, and dropped off at the front door – all for a mere R10. Once the client base grows, this will be a sustainable business. ‘Our plan is to get the health department on board to subsidise it, because we read the objectives in their 2020 health plan booklet and believe it’s part of their service delivery goals,’ he says. There are 250 clients so far and Nzima won a R150 000 grant at the recent SAB innovation awards, which he’s ploughed into the business. It’s a success story in the making – one of many that are changing people’s lives for the better.

Charles Maisel a lecturer at RAA, the brains behind the successful Men on the Side of the Road project and one of Sizwe’s mentors, is a keen believer in the idea that government’s failure to deliver in certain areas creates gaps where innovation can flourish.

However, he says his own company, Innovation Shack, is not a response to unemployment or a drive for social good. He’s simply interested in innovation and the opportunities that brings.

That said, Charles’s work is having a positive effect for many, by creating jobs and fostering innovation. He regularly engages with government bodies, and believes many civil servants simply aren’t interested in smart thinking.

‘A guy working in government has no incentive to be innovative, and if they’re not innovative, they’re going to come up with weaker solutions and, obviously, you’re going to have more and more problems within the system,’ he says.

However, the irony, says Charles, is that government’s failure to be effective – and to fund innovation – does leave huge gaps in the market for entrepreneurs – ‘not social entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs’, he specifies. ‘And that’s a great thing. If government were more efficient there’d be less gaps in the market for people like Sizwe and me.’

In the end, if people want to be innovative about social solutions, they have to do it in a private capacity, as a business. It’s not about being do-gooders, but because it has to be sustainable, money must be made out of a good idea.

‘I think there are huge opportunities for young people,’ Charles concludes. ‘But again, they’ve got to come up with innovative stuff that really works.’

Helping hands

These three community-conscious innovators recently won awards from UnLtd South Africa.

Hygiene

Kim Smith grew up in Bishop Lavis and knows that women who can hardly afford rent and food are unlikely to buy sanitary products.

She envisions producing an affordable re-usable internal menstrual cup for mass distribution as part of her ongoing initiative to educate young girls about menstruation and empower them to take control of their feminine care.

Language

Eita! Sjoe! In a country with 11 official languages, communication is often tricky.

isiTalk, run by Vincent Riess, right, and John Blignaut, is a social enterprise that facilitates the learning of other languages. In organisations and corporations, learners and teachers of specific languages are identified by badges, caps and T-shirts, encouraging employees, volunteers and clients to talk to each other.

Disabilities

Growing up with a brother who was ostracised for not being able to hear, made Charles Nyakurwa determined to make the world easier for those who live in silence.

His project, Deaf Hands @ Work, offers training and job creation for the deaf community using South African sign language to bridge the communication gap. Charles’ dream is to promote community awareness and break down social barriers for people living with disabilities.

Organisations committed to social entrepreneurship

The Ministry of Service Delivery

An impact investment company that specialises in social entrepreneurship projects. It offers financial, managerial, legal and human resources support.

Raymond Ackerman Academy of Entrepreneurial Development 

The Raymond Ackerman Academy runs in Soweto and Cape Town. It’s a six-month, full-time course in entrepreneurial development for post-matric students. www.ackermanacademy.co.za

Unltd South Africa

An NGO that supports people who are committed to delivering sustainable solutions to social challenges in South Africa.

www.unltdsouthafrica.org

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