Has our obsession with scale blinded us as to the real way to have impact?

When I was in Nairobi a few weeks ago, our team at SEED brought together more than 500 people at our 2015 SEED Africa Symposium to discuss the latest developments in social and environmental entrepreneurship. The attendees were made up of entrepreneurs, policy makers, investors, philanthropists, consultants and business advisors, NGOs, incubators and accelerators; and came to network and discuss a wide range of topics.

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What became clear over these three days was – no matter which session you went into – that the problems faced by social and environmental enterprises were well known: a lack of business skills; difficulty in accessing finance; insufficient or inadequately implemented policy support; and difficulty accessing and serving new markets. The problems pointed to a systemic lack of capacity in the ecosystem that social and environmental enterprises operate in and cut across country boundaries, technology and business models.

So having learned that the obstacles social and environmental enterprises face are so similar, why are so many in this space focused on scaling up individual businesses or particular technologies rather than taking a systemic, ecosystem approach? Would we be more effective in supporting social and environmental enterprises if we were more agnostic about the type of technology deployed if we better connected up our services with others in the space to help create a seamless offering; if we supported businesses and services who support individual entrepreneurs or enterprises? If entrepreneurship offers local solutions to local social and environmental problems shouldn’t we be encouraging clusters of entrepreneurship rather than a one size fits all approach where a success story from East Africa is transported to Asia where its relevance might be questionable?

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After 10 Years of SEED Awards, here at SEED we’re more and more taking a look at just this problem. Whilst we will continue to support individual social and environmental start-up enterprises with tailored support and advice, we’re increasingly looking at how we can foster the development of an ecosystem where our tools and experience can be used not just by those we directly impact but more broadly. Our first foray into this area has come with our BDS+ programme where we work with business development service providers in the country to give them the tools to work with social and environmental enterprises more effectively. Our recent reports have looked at what policy recommendations can be made to governments to help them support the green and social enterprise sector more broadly. And we’ll continue to convene cross-stakeholder meetings where real problems and solutions can be discussed and actioned. 

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It’s our aim with this approach to reach out to more than our annual winners but instead help encourage the green and social enterprise sector more broadly. But we will need the help of other partners whose remit includes encouraging ICT developments which can help connect different ideas and technologies. Of funders who are willing to support the often unglamorous work in deep dives into market and finance policy to give businesses the best chance of growing. Of investors who are willing to invest in the intermediaries, recognising that whilst they may not be able to directly measure tons of carbon saved or children fed they are indeed key to solving this problem. 

We are constantly asking social and environmental entrepreneurs to adapt, to innovate and to be smarter in providing solutions and services. Perhaps it’s also time for those of us supporting the green and social enterprise space to do exactly the same.

If you want to be part of this change, save the date for the SEED Africa Symposium 2016, which will take place from 28-29 September 2016 in Nairobi, Kenya.