This is my second blog post outlining some of the things I’ve learned and been thinking about during my secondment to the University of the Western Cape in South Africa as part of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research and Innovation Staff Exchange project – For a Better Tomorrow: Social Enterprises on the Move (FAB-MOVE). Before I return from the balmy South African winter to the bracing late Scottish summer I thought I’d offer some reflections on the role and capacity of the social enterprise sector in the face of the challenges they face in this beautiful and fascinating country.
But first I’d like to report on a couple of the visits and introductions I made during my stay. One of these was to the Carpenter’s Shop a social enterprise in central Cape Town. I was accompanied on this visit by Rachael Millson, South Africa Hub Manager at the Social Enterprise Academy, and was introduced to James McDonald, the Carpenter’s Shop’s Business Development and Social Enterprise Manager. The Carpenter’s Shop is one of several social enterprise partners working with the SEA and the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape, on the Social Change Collaboration project, which provides social entrepreneurship internship opportunities to international students visiting South Africa.
The Carpenter’s Shop provides support, accommodation and employment training for homeless people in Cape Town. It started in 1981, providing free washing facilities to homeless people (which it still does) and for several years trained many of these in carpentry. However its most successful recent business venture, launched in 2012, is a car washing and valeting service. Profits from this help fund supported temporary accommodation for up to 40 residents and also a business training programme which helps applicants into employment and independent living. James McDonald is collaborating with student interns working on the Social Change Collaboration to explore ways to make more effective commercial use of the Carpenter’s Shop’s other resources, including their kitchen and catering facilities and IT and computing equipment.
Subsequently I visited Philippi Village – a community business facility, providing space and support for SMEs and social enterprises in a reclaimed factory site on the outskirts of Cape Town. Philippi is a one of the largest but also one of the youngest townships in the Cape Town area, with an estimated population of 150,000 people, even though it dates back only to the early 1980’s. The Village is itself a social innovation, and includes a satellite campus of the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business where part of the MPhil in Inclusive Innovation is delivered. It also hosts several social enterprises. This includes Harambee – an employment recruitment and training initiative which integrates marginalised young people into the mainstream economy. Another social enterprise located in the Village is U-Turn, which employs homeless people to sell second-hand clothing donated through clothing bins located at over 30 sites throughout Cape Town. And a third is the Afri-Can Café – a branch of the Afri-Can social venture which supports a range of businesses, including converting shipping containers into functional cafes with on-site bakeries.
These examples demonstrate the energy and imagination which distinguishes social enterprises in South Africa and across the world. The social entrepreneurs (both individuals and community groups) who devise and develop such initiatives deserve respects and praise for their creativity and dedication, as well as more practical government support and public recognition. However, for all their enthusiasm, and despite the undeniable fact that social enterprises can transform the lives of some of those whom they help, it is important to consider what impact they can have in the face of the severe challenges which confront South Africa, or the rather different social and economic issues in the UK and Scotland. It might reasonably be objected that social enterprises and innovations are not designed nor intended to fix societies’ problems, but that in itself is a useful reminder of their place in the mixed economy of welfare. One virtue of social enterprises and innovations is that they provide grass-roots responses to problems, and are therefore rooted in the experiences of those directly affected by such issues. However this local-centeredness is also their limitation, as many of the conditions and challenges with which social enterprises grapple may be evident in but are not caused by particular communities. The demographic, labour market, criminal justice and infrastructure problems which confront South Africa cannot be solved by micro-level enterprises and initiatives alone, however laudable these are. While it is important to study and learn from the successes and struggles of social enterprises, it is equally important to retain a sense of perspective and moderate our expectations of what impact they can be expected to have in the face of macro-level structural factors. Some innovative social enterprise may be able to reach out to, patch up and set upon their feet some of those who are in danger of slipping out of mainstream society. But while social enterprises focus on rescuing some of the casualties of social injustice we must also have regard to those who benefit from and perpetuate it.
Many thanks to Stephen for his two-part blog series on his time in South Africa with the FAB-MOVE project. We are fortunate to have had a number of staff and students travelling with FAB-MOVE and hope to share these experiences in upcoming articles. For more information about the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research and Innovation Staff Exchange project – For a Better Tomorrow: Social Enterprises on the Move (FAB-MOVE) please visit their website.