The impact of social enterprises

You’ll already know by now, aside from my interest in microfinance, I have also developed a curiosity in social enterprises and the impact they have on (primarily) ultra poor women from rural Bangladeshi villages. Not everyone is an entrepreneur afterall and social enterprises tend to work for the benefit of staff and surrounding communities, rather than for the benefit of investors and shareholders.  Commercial strategies are applied to the business so it’s a “real” business, but the profits are used to further the organization’s social mission rather than line the pockets of owners and shareholders.

In Bangladesh, social enterprises tend to produce goods that can be sold for a fee, more often than not at a cheaper price than their commercial competitors and leverage a generally uneducated workforce  to produce these goods by simplifying the production process.  They also offer good working conditions, a salary and other benefits such as day care, medical & eye care, schooling for the kids etc for the staff – unheard of with their commercial competitors.

Over the past few weeks, I visited BRAC’s Ayesha Abed Foundation production centre where mostly women (and some men!) were busy dying bolts of fabric with both chemical and natural dyes; block printing beautiful Bangladeshi designs onto lengths of cotton from hand-carved wooden blocks and embroidering exquisite designs onto shalwar kameez and kurtas by machine and by hand.  The beautiful (to my mind art) pieces are sold in the Aarong retail stores scattered around Dhaka.  I believe they are introducing an online shopping function very soon and will ship abroad :-).

Last month, I also visited two more BRAC social enterprises – the first was a BRAC Nursery, which is like any garden centre you and I are familiar with.  They cultivate and grow many plants:  from fruit trees to flowers to cactus plants.  Local women are hired to work in the nursery and get to earn a steady income.  The nurseries do a decent trade and are self-sustaining.

The second BRAC social enterprise I visited was involved in the manufacturer of sanitary napkins.  When you think of the steps involved in this process, it is pretty simple and young women from a rural and uneducated background are easily trained to complete the end to end production.  Provision of cost effective sanitary napkins is key to provide personal hygiene products to women, to then allow them to leave the home to work. I never really had given this much thought (we westerners take so much for granted) but I know Child Haven faced similar issues in India and have teamed up with an Indian inventor who has created a machine to facilitate hygienic production of sanitary napkins.  Scroll down to read the article.  Yen To (an ex-RBC GAMer) is investigating the idea to purchase one of these machines for a community she worked in, in Nairobi, Kenya – so this really is a serious issue for developing countries.

Another social enterprise that peaked my interest here in Dhaka, was one set up about 10 years ago by an English lady Samantha Morshad, who married an English-Bangladeshi and moved to Dhaka in 2004.  Pebble Child Hathay Bunano was created in the same year, clearly Samantha did not sit around for very long after her arrival.  Leveraging the culture of arts and crafts, Samantha trained poor rural women how to knit and crochet to produce the knitted kids toys you may recognize from your local toy store.  this business has gone from strength to strength.  I would have loved to meet Samantha in person but her travel schedule means she returns to Bangladesh just as I leave.  What a pity, but there is always next time.

It’s been an interesting opportunity for me to explore how the most simplest of ideas, with the most simplest of production processes, can be so profitable such that they drastically change the lives of the predominantly ultra poor women of Bangladesh who work in these enterprises.  The next trick will be to figure out how to translate some of those experiences to marginalized groups of people in our western world, and give them the dignity of being able to learn skills and earn an income.

About Kate Coffey

After 30 or so years in the investment management industry, 2013 saw me turn my life up-side-down, making my way first to Nepal, then Bangladesh during that first ‘year away’. The year took me on a journey I did not expect, had me fall in love with Nepal and its people, and become inspired at the work of Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Centre (SIRC) located in Bhainsepati - 2 hours east of Kathmandu in the Saanga foothills. Since 2014, I have returned to SIRC numerous times, working closely with the folks there in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquakes. In Bangladesh I marvelled at the strength and resilience of marginalized women who have the courage and audacity to break the rules and make a better life for themselves and their children through microfinance programs with BRAC. 2016-2017 saw me embark on a totally new experience in Sri Lanka, a place I never would have chosen to end up in. It’s the 40C+ heat, big humidity and tropical snakes & animals that scared me! But I ended up love love loving! my time there, working with predominantly Tamil small business owners in remote villages in north and east of the country, trying their best to recover their businesses and the lives of their employees, after decades of a civil war. My time in Sri Lanka made me realize my hard-earned business skills and experience can really be put to good use! The work the BIZ+ team and I did there ended up earning me International Volunteer of the Year Award in December 2017, presented on Capitol Hill, Washington DC no less. I am currently home on Bowen Island, in the west coast of Canada, shoring up my finances before I head off to who knows where, for my next expert volunteer assignment. This blog initially started out as a travelogue of sorts to keep friends and family worldwide updated while I was off on my travels in 2013-2014. Since then it has morphed into a life story of the many places I have lived and worked and of the wonderful people I have met along the way. I hope you enjoy.
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