Asset-Based Community Development — If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together

Published On: 3 February 2022|

Entrepreneurship in its current form is predominantly inward-looking and needs-based. Yet, the most significant opportunities lie in problem-based solutions. These include social problems found within communities, which require entrepreneurs to view as economic generation opportunities. From this comes the concept of asset-based community development.

Mr Martin Manmohan (left), Business Development Director at Drivio, spoke in-depth about asset-based community development during last week’s Economic Activation Workshop of the Student Women Economic Empowerment Programme (SWEEP).

SWEEP, launched in October 2021, is an initiative of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Programme, inspired by the widespread concern over the underrepresentation of women in entrepreneurship. It aims to provide a safety net of transferable and practical skills and opportunities to student women at South Africa’s public universities, backed by a foundation of academic stewardship.

Defining asset-based community development, Mr Manmohan said this refers to solutions derived from everyday social problems. They view local assets as a primary foundation for building sustainable communities, drawing upon existing community strengths.

Mr Manmohan reminded SWEEP members of the six types of assets available at their disposal. These were:

  • Individuals – people we know; people we label
  • Economy – businesses; commerce
  • Associations – informal and formal groups
  • Physical – spaces and places
  • Stories – memories; experiences; histories
  • Institutes – formal organisations

He went on to say that most communities possess a set of almost similar problems, the primary area to look for economic opportunities.

Mr Manmohan said people usually make the mistake of assuming that there is no money in their communities – citing that even the presence of social grants alone indicates an economic opportunity. To counter that perception, he introduced what he called Community Assets Mapping and the Leaky Bucket theory.

In essence, Community Assets Mapping looks at people’s interests, skills, and passions. People with shared interests then connect. Again, Mr Manmohan pointed out a common misconception that the responsibility of solving social problems lies solely with government. Consequently, people overlook entrepreneurial opportunities residing in communities.

Still on social grants, Manmohan said the collective of these grants circulating within the community can make a difference. He added that zoning in on people’s gifts in community assets mapping is essential. “This is where, especially corporates, make the mistake of giving handouts rather than taking our strengths and converting them into assets,” he said, referring to corporate social investment projects.

Moving to the Leaky Bucket theory, Mr Manmohan said it was premised on the knowledge that communities do receive money in the form of salaries and grants. What is critical is finding where the money goes and plugging into those needs. He made an example of a town called Koffiefontein, whose community was earning a sizable amount of money. Each year, households in Koffiefontein spent R250 000 on eggs purchased from a neighbouring town.

Wikipedia defines the leaky bucket as “an algorithm based on an analogy of how a bucket with a constant leak will overflow, if either the average rate at which water is poured in exceeds the rate at which the bucket leaks, Or if more water than the capacity of the bucket is poured in all at once.

“So, in asset-based community development, you do not tell people what to do; you ask them what they would do,” stressed Mr Manmohan. “Within a year of this question being posed to the people of Koffiefontein, they had set up their own egg laying plant…That is how you retain money within a community.”

Mr Manmohan challenged students to apply a similar model to universities.  “As a student, ask yourself, what comes into the university and what goes out, and how the ‘what goes out’ can be converted into an economic opportunity for yourself or those around you,” he said.  He then lamented the selfishness in entrepreneurship, evident in people wanting to succeed alone. “Unfortunately, that is when businesses are prone to failure,” he said.

Work with others

He encouraged student women to look for specialists when going into business.

His advice was to identify good finance and marketing students to partner with, once they have developed a product, and form a company. These individuals would then help with the costing and marketing of the goods. Partnership, he said, mitigates business failure. It also ensures shared risks, such that even if a business fails, individuals take away lifelong lessons.

He said it was better to work in a team, as it helps to instil relationships that benefit communities.  “That is the approach we are using to drive Drivio, our business… We see the university as an asset. We see students as assets. We want to make sure that when you go out into the world, equipped and armed with your driver’s license, you have a better chance of finding a job or starting your business.”

“If we come together, building our assets within our community, our country can go forward,” he concluded

Discussion time

The session facilitator asked Mr Manmohan what, in their journey, had been the most difficult challenge concerning asset-based community development. In response, Mr Manmohan narrated the story of Drivio.

Answer – I think the most difficult challenge is trying to get people to understand the concept of asset-based community development. We are very inward-looking. We look very close to our families and not outside of that. Unfortunately, that is where, I think, people make the biggest mistake.

For me, it has been an exciting journey stretching to 13 years. I started off working at an innovation hub as an Operations Manager. I came across a client who was working with the Gripen Aeroplanes Simulation. He was asked a question: what was going to happen when his contract with the organisation ended?  A lot of people count on some contract, or on winning tender, for further income generation.  But life changes very quickly.

“So, together, we came up with an idea. The then minister of education had made a ruling that every student should leave school with either a learner’s or a driver’s license. So, you can see, we did not have to identify a need. It was there. We just had to find a solution. Then when we looked at the traditional driving schools and looked at innovation and technology, combined with the experience and skills in terms of simulation. We decided on a driving school.”

Manmohan says they received a lot of funding from Suzuki, Industrial Development Corporation and various other agencies. “There are agencies there to help you if you are willing to work. Things do not happen overnight. Prepare — be it business plans and other vital components of the business. It is all hard work that you need to apply.

“So, we looked at assets. For example, for the body of the simulator, we turned to the Vaal University of Technology’s incubator.

“We opened multiple stores. Some did well, but others, not so much, especially the one located in the Vaal. We thought about the number of people who were still in need of licenses and asked ourselves why they were not coming. We soon realised that the extent of corruption that had infested our communities was hindering our success. It was difficult to penetrate the market with an ethical business.

“So, then we had to relook, to identify opportunities. We asset-mapped and found that in South Africa, we have 26 public universities and 72 campuses but, most people could not find jobs because they had no drivers licenses. That was an ideal opportunity. We got our market and here we are today.”

Nqobile Tembe is a contracted Communication Consultant at Universities South Africa.