Dakar — Thirty African social entrepreneurs have been selected by a U.S.-based organization for an ambitious program designed to help them achieve their desired social yields.
At a recent ceremony in Dakar, the entrepreneurs were officially inducted as “Ashoka Fellows” who will receive a full living stipend and logistical support for three years, enabling them to focus on their individual projects.
Ashoka is an international organization based in Arlington, Virginia, which takes the principles of venture capital and applies them to social improvement.
Said Coumba Touré, the director of Ashoka Sahel: “Each one in their field and in their methods of work, contain an enormous potential and enormous promise… That’s why Ashoka invests in them.”
Ashoka works on three basic premises. According to Diana Wells, the organization’s president, it identifies and supports innovative social entrepreneurs when they need it most, grants them access to an international network of social agents, and finally establishes new ways in which citizens interact with business and government.
Touré told AllAfrica in an interview: “What we search [for] in the social entrepreneurs is that their work will go further and have an even larger social impact, going to much higher levels and touching more people. We want people who can make radical change. We want systematic change.”
Ashoka aims to develop what it calls “the social sector” – a term it prefers to use instead of “nongovernmental” or “nonprofit” sector. It says on its website: “Citizens—people who care and take action to serve others and cause needed change—are the essence of the sector…We believe that when one or several people get together to cause positive social change, they instantly become citizens in the fullest sense of the word.”
Ashoka works to develop the social sector by supporting individual social entrepreneurs, promoting group entrepreneurship and establishing sector infrastructure. A large part of its work is popularizing its way of looking at the field of social entrepreneurship.
Joseph Sekiku, a community radio operator from Tanzania who works to make information and technology give farmers an advantage in markets, was one of those named as a fellow.
He sees the concept of social entrepreneurship as fundamentally an African idea. “I am because we are,” he said, quoting from theologian John Mbiti’s seminal work, African Religions and Philosophy. “I think social entrepreneurship tries to bring this essential African element of I am a human being because of other human beings.”
For Pat Pillai, a South African fellow, the meaning of social entrepreneurship was not so apparent at first. But after being educated in Ashoka’s philosophy, he said he is energized to work within a larger context.
“I didn’t know that I was a social entrepreneur until Ashoka came along,” said the former teacher and business entrepreneur. “We were just going along doing something. Ashoka has got us to understand what that is and how we need to continue doing what we are doing in order to create more social entrepreneurs. That’s the power of the network.”
Pillai’s program, Life College, is a 10-year-old effort to change what he calls the psychosocial education of failure among South Africa’s township youth into a champion mentality.
He has already cultivated relationships with Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and businessman and inspirational speaker Stedman Graham to mentor youth in his program.
Life College works with five schools in South Africa and Pillai, since working with another Ashoka fellow, is looking to expand to Uganda. He already sees the returns of the Ashoka investment.
“We believe that the investment in Life College is going to change lives significantly… We’ve calculated that the economic prospects of a child in our programs increase eight-fold. Invariably, they go on to lead others and they then install those principles and values in their organizations, teams and companies.”
Even to be considered for a fellowship, aspirants must have five attributes: a pattern-changing new idea, creativity, entrepreneurial quality, social impact, and ethical fiber. Once nominated, typically anonymously, candidates go through an extensive multi-step process that includes two separate reviews, a selection panel and final approval by the Ashoka board.
But finding fellows is not difficult. “Social entrepreneurs are more numerous then you think,” Touré said. “Wherever there is a problem, there are people who search and find solutions.”
One of Ashoka’s previous fellows is Senegal’s Binta Sarr, founder of the Association pour la Promotion des Femmes Sénégalaises. Since she was selected in 1992, more than 70,000 women have benefited from the organization’s micro-finance program. Legislation has also been passed to criminalize violence against women.
“Since Ashoka covered my living expenses, I was able to focus all my efforts on my projects,” Sarr said in a telephone interview.
Her 15 years of being a social entrepreneur has taught her the importance of determination and constant innovation. She hopes that the new fellows will start out with this in mind. “I think what is important is engagement,” she said. “Innovation is a continual process; it’s never finished.”
Ashoka has supported the work of around 2,000 social entrepreneurs in 60 countries. According to recent Ashoka-sponsored studies, more than 90 percent of fellows continue their social work after their term and just over half of all social enterprises impact legislation.