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Social Entrepreneurs Turn Business Sense to Good

United States, November 25, 2008

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Steve Hamm

Business Week
November, 2008

As chief executive of Mercy Corps since 1994, Neal Keny-Guyer helped turn the Portland (Ore.) relief organization into a global powerhouse with 3,500 employees and a budget of nearly $300 million. But he was taken aback last year when one of his lieutenants proposed the radical step of buying a bank in Indonesia. Why would a not-for-profit disaster relief agency go the capitalist route and buy a bank?

Gradually, though, he warmed to the idea. He saw that, if Mercy Corps operated a wholesale bank that could offer capital to some 2,000 local microcredit organizations and had an ATM network, it could help turn microfinance into a powerful force in Indonesia. Keny-Guyer was in uncharted territory, however. In the last days before the acquisition closed in May, he feared the risky gambit would end in disaster. "I imagined a newspaper headline saying, `Mercy Corps' Bank in Bali Fails,' " he recalls. "I thought of the reaction of our donors to that bit of news."

Now, as the renamed Bank Andara cranks up operations, Keny-Guyer is hopeful. If the strategy works in Indonesia, he says, Mercy Corps may try it in the Philippines next.

This departure from business as usual in the nonprofit realm is part of a major shift in the way people are taking on the world's social problems. In developing nations and parts of the U.S., governments have failed to make substantial progress against poverty, disease, and illiteracy. Traditional charities and social service agencies often provide Band-Aids for problems instead of long-term solutions. Now a new breed of do-gooder—the social entrepreneur—is trying fresh approaches. While the term is used in many different ways, there's a narrow definition that gets to the heart of what makes these people stand out: Rather than depending solely on handouts from philanthropists, social entrepreneurs generate some of their own revenues and use business techniques to address social goals. "Traditional ways of doing things haven't produced the kind of progress we all hoped for, so we're trying to come up with new approaches that are truly transformational," says Keny-Guyer.

The idea of the social entrepreneur has been percolating for decades, but it has become a mass movement in the past couple of years. Thousands of people are launching ventures and trying out new business models, both for-profit and nonprofit. Now that the global financial crisis is squeezing charitable giving, socially oriented organizations are pushing even harder to reduce their dependence on donors and generate their own funds. Lehman Brothers, for instance, was a generous backer of both nonprofits and social entrepreneurs. No more. In this climate, only the most efficient and effective organizations will thrive.

Social entrepreneurs are being backed in part by a new generation of super-aggressive philanthropists and social investors, including Microsoft (MSFT) co-founder Bill Gates and former eBay (EBAY) executives Pierre M. Omidyar and Jeffrey Skoll. These guys expect results from their social investments and grants. Says Gates in an interview with BusinessWeek: "Nonprofits are applying what we've typically thought of as business strategies for better outcomes, and businesses are beginning to apply what I call creative capitalism strategies to increase the positive social impact of their work. That's a powerful combination." He believes the most effective way to make social progress is through partnerships among nonprofits, businesses, government, and philanthropists.

Which Model Works?

In this emerging social sphere, there's a danger of confusing enthusiasm with effectiveness. Many social enterprises, from microfinance organizations to those aimed at purifying water or improving agriculture, aren't being built to grow large or to last. They're poorly managed, undercapitalized, or overly dependent on philanthropic handouts. In India, for example, there are an estimated 1.2 million organizations aimed at addressing social problems. "Many are just too small to be effective," says Manoj Kumar, chief executive of Naandi Foundation, a large Indian social service organization.

In a sense, the social enterprise phenomenon is like an industry just starting to take shape. Think of the early days of autos or computers, when startups tried a variety of approaches to see what worked best. For this movement to have a major impact, it needs the same kind of dynamic business climate as Detroit in the 1920s or Silicon Valley a decade ago. What's necessary—once the global financial crisis eases—is free-flowing capital, a willingness by entrepreneurs to aim high and take risks, and a level of transparency that quickly makes obvious what's working and what isn't. "You have to get beyond the gee-whiz factor of social entrepreneurship," says Michael E. Porter, a professor at Harvard Business School. "Which of these models really works? How do you create a high social value per dollar invested?"

It's difficult to prove success in such an immature field. Nobody has come up with numbers quantifying the overall impact of social entrepreneurship. Some organizations make impressive claims. Grameen Bank, the pioneer of microfinance, says it has brought 65% of its 7.5 million clients out of "extreme poverty." Yet while Grameen's home base of Bangladesh is crawling with microfinance outfits, it remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with 40% of its people under the poverty line.

At the same time, there's much disagreement over which business models are best. Grameen founder Muhammad Yunus, who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his work, argues that social businesses should not make a profit off of poor people. In other cases, people who call themselves social entrepreneurs seem to be in it mainly for the money. Banco Compartamos in Mexico, for example, charges interest rates topping 100% per year, claiming that such rates are justified because it's expensive to operate a microfinance business (BW—Dec. 13, 2007). Yunus berates for-profit outfits for charging exorbitant interest. "When you charge high rates, you're no longer microcredit. You're a loan shark," he says (see a video interview with Yunus).

To others, the profit motive is crucial for addressing the needs of poor people. C.K. Prahalad, a University of Michigan Ross School of Business professor and author of the influential book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits, argues that the poor should be seen as consumers, not charity cases. Their basic needs can best be addressed by businesses that are attuned to dealing with them. "If we get entrepreneurship right, social entrepreneurship won't matter as much," he says.

Vikram Akula, a social entrepreneur based in Hyderabad, wants it both ways. He's out to prove you can make a healthy profit while serving—and not gouging—the poor. Akula grew up in Schenectady, N.Y., but returned to his native India in the mid-1990s after he got a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago and worked as a consultant at McKinsey & Co. He first worked for a government-run microfinance organization. But with limited funds, it couldn't expand fast. He says his conversion to the for-profit, faster-growth model came after an encounter with a poor woman he had to turn down for a loan because he couldn't operate in her village. "She said: 'Don't I deserve to get out of poverty, too?' " he recalls. "I decided to come up with a model that works so you don't have to say no to anybody."

Today, Akula is chief executive of SKS Microfinance, which has 9,500 employees and 3.3 million customers throughout India and is adding 300,000 new clients per month. SKS charges an average of 26% annualized interest. Given the cost of granting and servicing microloans, that's considered a reasonable rate by many industry observers. SKS had revenues of $48 million in the half-year ended in September, up 153%, and net income of $6.16 million.

A journey with Akula into the villages of India's state of Andhra Pradesh shows just how aggressive he is about applying business methods to economic development. In a schoolyard in Narayanraopet, a village of 3,500, three dozen women dressed in brightly colored saris sit in a circle in the shade of a spreading rain tree. K. Sandhya Rani, a self-assured 18-year-old SKS field assistant, takes attendance, collects weekly loan payments, and hands out new loans with all of the efficiency of an employee at McDonald's (MCD), which, in fact, Akula uses as a model of business-process excellence. (When he set up the company, he even tracked the time it took to do things with a stopwatch.) The whole meeting lasts just 25 minutes.

Afterward the women hustle back to their shops and farms. There, money from SKS pays for more goods and for the purchase of chickens and buffalo. A woman named Sarojamma carries in her hands a six-inch pile of currency with which she plans to buy rice, lentils, and other food to replenish the shelves in her four-year-old kirana, or mini general store. In the coming days, she explains, her husband will call on his mobile phone to suppliers in neighboring cities to find the best prices for the items they stock, then take a bus and a taxi to fetch the goods back to Narayanraopet. Sarojamma has a simple dream: "I want to make my shop bigger."

Sarojamma and people like her represent a new market opportunity for companies that hope to reach India's vast population of villagers. SKS's Akula is using his network of field agents and customers as a distribution channel for moving a wide variety of products and services on behalf of business partners such as Nokia (NOK). SKS helps sell mobile phones, insurance, and foodstuffs for shopkeepers. "The potential here is huge," says Devinder Kishore, Nokia's marketing director in India.

"Business is Business"

While Grameen Bank's Yunus doesn't believe in profiting off the poor, he, too, sees his microlending network as a strategic jumping-off point for all sorts of economic activity. The bank's parent company, Grameen Family of Enterprises, is forming joint ventures with large multinationals in an effort to develop vast new markets and improve the health and livelihoods of poor people. The first of the ventures, Grameen Danone Foods (GDNNY), sells nutrition-enhanced yogurt to poor people in affordable, single-serving packages, with a portion of the deliveries handled by Grameen Bank customers.

But the strains between social goals and business imperatives are showing. Wahidun Nabi, the executive director of the venture, who came from Danone in mid-2007, says he's being forced by economics to sell larger packages and market to those with more money, which means he's doing less than he might have for poorer people. "For the success of the project, we must improve the bottom line," he says. "This is a social business, but business is business."

Such strains are even more intense in fledgling social enterprises. Belgian Bart Weetjens was focused purely on altruism when he started an organization called Apopo a decade ago. It trains African giant pouch rats to sniff out land mines on former battlefields. The mines, if they remain undetected, occasionally blow up and hurt people and animals. The program was a modest success, with mine-clearing operations in Mozambique and a contract to expand into Africa's Great Lakes Region. But Apopo ran into problems when Weetjens tried to secure a more dependable source of funding. An adopt-a-rat program launched on the Internet, HeroRATS.org, failed to attract many supporters. "We're living in uncertainty," says Apopo Chief Executive Christophe Cox. "If some of the main donors drop off, then we're finished."

So Weetjens and Cox decided to run Apopo more like a business and generate their own money from operations. Earlier this year they hired Virtue Ventures, a consulting group specializing in social enterprises, to help them write a business plan. And in the summer they brought four interns from the MBA program at Oxford University to their headquarters in Tanzania to help size up their money-earning potential. Options include expanding mine-clearing operations to the Middle East, getting into the cargo-inspection business, and forging aggressively into disease detection. It turns out the rats can sniff out the presence of tuberculosis, and perhaps other diseases, at costs dramatically cheaper than traditional laboratory tests.

The pressure of switching to a for-profit model is evident during a meeting of the two founders and their student advisers in Morogoro, Tanzania. The six gather for their weekly progress discussion in the war room, where interns work in stifling heat under two fast-spinning ceiling fans. It's not clear how big the long-term cost differential will be for their rats compared with other outfits that use European-trained dogs for mine-clearing. Cox cautions against exaggerating their advantages: "We don't want to compare the worst dogs with the best rats."

Weetjens, the organization's front man, says it now looks like Apopo may continue the mine-clearing operations on a not-for-profit basis but try to turn disease detection into a profit-maker. Their tests with Tanzanian health-care clinics are producing strong results in cost and quality.

For all the challenges that Apopo faces, there is anecdotal evidence that social enterprises can grow large and balance their social and economic imperatives. But it requires a lot of time and effort.

That was the case with Sekem Group, an Egyptian conglomerate with businesses in organic farming, garment manufacturing, herbal medicines, and food processing and distribution. The family-controlled company got off to a fragile start in 1977 in the desert 50 kilometers northeast of Cairo. Egyptian-born founder Ibrahim Abouleish had been managing a pharmaceutical-research facility in Austria but returned to his homeland after he realized that two decades of socialism had ruined the economy. His goal was to convert the country to organic farming and enrich Egyptian culture with a renaissance of art and education. Abouleish chose a place in the desert far from urban influences so he could create a self-defining community. It all started in a mud hut built for him by Bedouin.

The original hut remains as part of a guest house on a campus that now includes 20 sparkling-white buildings for offices, farm operations, and factory work. Sekem has 2,500 employees, 500 acres of nearby farmland, and a vast composting operation. The company, which has been growing at 25% per year, brought in $40 million in revenues and $3 million in net income in 2007—after spending much of its operating profits on schooling and health care for employees' families. Sekem just bought 4,000 acres of arid land on the Sinai Peninsula and in the Western Desert that it plans on converting to farming.

The Need For Capital

For Abouleish and his son, Helmy, who now runs day-to-day operations, more important than the financial accomplishments is the impact of Sekem on Egyptian agriculture. When done right, organic farming uses a lot less water, and farmers don't spend money on expensive and polluting herbicides and pesticides. When Sekem started operations, there was no organic farming in Egypt. Today there are several other major organic growers, and Sekem has developed a network of 800 independent farmers on 50,000 acres whose produce it exports to major grocery chains in Europe. The company's nonprofit Sekem Development Foundation runs a school, a medical center, and economic development programs in the seven villages around the campus. But Ibrahim Abouleish is not satisfied. "What we have achieved is a great model. Now we have to change the whole country," he says. He figures it could take more than 100 years to reform Egypt from the bottom up.

While Sekem shows that such enterprises can grow up and make progress, there are many economic and social hurdles that need to be cleared for this phenomenon to become powerful. Money is a major issue. While philanthropies and investors are plowing hundreds of millions of dollars into social enterprises, that's still minuscule compared with the $35 billion in venture capital invested worldwide last year.

To attract more capital, social enterprises have started trying to better quantify their results. A group spearheaded by Acumen Fund, a nonprofit supporter of social enterprises, has begun gathering an ocean of information into one massive, easily accessible database. That way, results can be monitored by the funders and investors, and social entrepreneurs can see how they stack up with their peers.

Still, it's hard to justify most social enterprises on strictly financial grounds. In many cases, investors have to accept lower returns than they would expect from traditional investments. That trade-off has tormented investors in Freeplay Energy, a social business that sells hand-crank radios and lights for people in developing countries and Western nations. The company went public in Britain in 2005, but its revenues have been disappointing, and its stock price plummeted until it was taken private again this year. "It's hard to have a social mission in a capitalistic system," says Rory Stear, Freeplay's co-founder and co-chairman.

When Ramalinga Raju, chairman of India's Satyam Computer Services (SAY), set out to improve India's woeful health-care system, he decided to bring in government as his partner. His idea was that, by combining Satyam's technology and business-operations expertise with government resources, innovative new health-care initiatives could spread rapidly. Emergency Management and Research Institute, a free ambulance service he launched in 2005 in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, has branched out to two other states. The government pays 95% of operating expenses. "I have no doubt that this will be a model for the rest of the world," Raju says.

Maybe. Raju's ambulance service is catching flack from rivals. Sweta Mangal, co-founder of Dial 1298 for Ambulance, which operates in Mumbai, says EMRI relies too much on government support, which might be fleeting. She also doesn't think it's affordable for governments in emerging nations to offer free ambulance service for everybody. Her company charges wealthy and middle-class patients, which subsidizes free service for poor people.

This is just one of the debates that show how unsettled the world of social enterprise is—and may remain. Until today's entrepreneurs discover which business models really work, there will be uncertainty and wasted effort. The movement is growing and taking on more ambitious projects. But from Mercy Corps' Keny-Guyer to Satyam's Raju, these entrepreneurs know most of their work still lies ahead of them.