At its core, social entrepreneurship is about driving positive social change

Published On: 6 July 2023|

Cognisant that businesses of any kind ought to generate profit, Dr Paul Igwe, Senior Lecturer in Strategy and Enterprise and Programme Leader in the University of Lincoln’s Department of Management, in the United Kingdom, states that social entrepreneurship is a direct response to social development needs and is therefore a problem-solving social responsibility.

He was speaking at the recent annual Executive Leadership Workshop (ELW) of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Programme in Cape Town.

Sharing an International Perspective on Social Entrepreneurship, Dr Igwe said social entrepreneurship ideas should be about providing solutions to problems within communities, universities and the broader higher education sector. He emphasised that these value propositions ought to be innovative, adding that most social change initiatives today are required to be market and community-oriented, creating unique value. This, he posited, is one of the systemic and strategic approaches to organisational sustainability.

Coming with many years’ experience in advancing sustainable entrepreneurship, Dr Igwe underscored the importance of a clearly defined purpose and vision and ensuring that stakeholders not only understand these but fully embrace and commit to them.  Of paramount importance in the processes, he said, is the identification of resources and competencies that complement the mission and help create a unique value proposition through research, design and testing directed at solving societal problems.

Dr Igwe (right) said the mission of social entrepreneurship is crucial because organisations bear the responsibility of what they do and how they execute their functions. That means entities must define what they offer, their intended market and consider how they produce their offerings, adding value while ensuring sustainable business behaviour.

“So, we next link this to the sustainability theory: what we do in this cycle must not compromise any resources or the capabilities and needs of society in the future,” he said.

Social entrepreneurship in a healthy natural environment

Dr Igwe raised a question on the ability of businesses to thrive while maintaining social and environmental goals. He invited universities’ executive leadership and the EDHE team to ponder whether the pursuit for sustainability in the present day remains genuine or whether sustainability is merely being used as a marketing tactic to comfort specific stakeholder groups, consumers included.

“These are fundamental questions I want to leave with you as you go back to your programmes,” he said. “It is vital that we focus on the communities and the specific stakeholder groups for whom we want to add value, create or make social change.”

He said social entrepreneurship cannot be everything for everyone, hence, the importance of identifying innovative solutions to specific social challenges. He said an innovation could seek to advance education, or offer environmentally based solutions such as clean water, cities, carbon footprint or clean energy, or seek to generate revenue to contribute to government’s tax base.

Sustainable Development Goals

Dr Igwe said the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals highlighted areas where organisations could implement social and environmental entrepreneurship. However, how achievable the SDGs’ objectives could be was not beyond scrutiny.

He personally found the SDGs problematic because they did not provide for a decolonised approach in the global south. He said he also found the available one-size-fits-all guidelines impractical and unsustainable.

“I think you will agree that ending poverty will be problematic to achieve in many regions, so SDG 1 is highly aspirational at face-value,” he said. He said he found the motto no one left behind impossible to achieve by 2030 in some regions, especially Africa. He therefore championed a need to define what is possible to accomplish for each region.

“For example, South Africa has specific problems that cannot be addressed by looking at them from global or even African perspectives.” He also argued that attaining equity, diversity and inclusivity, for instance, in education, as stipulated in the SGDs, may be impractical in some regions, cultures or localities. Ultimately, he championed African solutions to African problems, positing that attempting to apply global solutions to regional or African problems might be problematic.

In conclusion, Dr Igwe left universities’ deputy vice-chancellors, deans and executive directors with the following questions:

  1. What are the positive and negative implications of technology disruptions on social and environmental innovations?
  2. How can unconventional innovation be integrated into the business models of the programmes that we are pursuing?
  3. Does scarcity of resources favour unconventional innovation, or does it imply only marginal innovation?
  4. Do we need plenty of resources to produce sustainable innovations and consume fewer resources in the future?
  5. How can we integrate digital innovation into what we are doing to enhance technology whilst improving humanity to achieve social value?

Nqobile Tembe is Communication Consultant for Universities South Africa.