By Zarreen Kamalie
If you haven’t already heard, Akon has taken a break from loneliness, belly dancers, and celebrating his sex life with the Lonely Island. Rather Akon is lighting up Africa, literally. Akon Lighting Africa is Akon’s, along with business partners Samba Bathily’s and Thione Niang’s, endeavor to bring sustainable solar energy to the rural towns of African states. He attributes this venture to his childhood experience of studying in the dark, thus limiting him and others in his position in a variety of pursuits that can both include and go beyond academics.
What Akon has done is amazing, and has no doubt sparked admiration, inspiration, and motivation among Africans through greater access to their lived environment at all hours, the capability to pursue their studies and goals further, and more. But, let’s not ignore the role of fame and money. For your run-of-the-mill local, aspiring social entrepreneur, there are physical and institutional obstacles that await. While there are a number of successful locally initiated social enterprises in Africa, it’s important for aspiring social entrepreneurs to be aware of what they could potentially be up against.
For all the issues that the continent currently faces, the idea of social innovation and entrepreneurialism is still a new one. That’s why you may find encouragement of social innovation among individuals, and the state hard to come by. This can become problematic when you, as an entrepreneur or budding enterprise, are trying to get on your feet and find yourself blocked by poor awareness and convoluted regulations and legislations.
While it may be discouraging to have your idea shot down because the positive implications it could have are unfathomable by those around you, you should still make sure to exhaust every avenue and make the most of any connections you may have.
Look for successful social entrepreneurs in your area or get in touch with someone in your region and ask them about how they overcame this obstacle – chances are they’ll be able to give you contextually appropriate advice. Using platforms like Africa Gathering and Ashoka East Africa to find other social entrepreneurs is a good start.
As for the government, the British Council has found that governments are more inclined to engage with social entrepreneurs when there is potential mutual benefit. Be sure to know what your local district is dealing with, you may just be the answer to their prayers.
To give you an idea of what to look out for in terms of rules and regulations, here is A Guide to Legal Forms in South Africa for Social Enterprise. Similar information for other countries in Africa should also be available through the International Labour Organisation.
Given the publicity and influence that comes with a household name in the music industry, money often isn’t an issue. For the common person trying to get their idea off the ground, this is a whole other game. Funding becomes a major obstacle, and is the make-or-break behind any successful business.
Ghana, in particular, has done well when it comes to financing startups and social impact activities with the appropriate financial policies and, government-led and shared, initiatives. Some of the options include Acumen Fund, which consists of philanthropic capital to invest social enterprises upon application. As well as Slice Biz, founded by William Senyo, a diaspora fund that draws on the crowd investment and donations of the Ghanaian diaspora.
However, for those outside of Ghana and the Ghanaian diaspora, funding cannot be accessed through this network.
Good news is capital and funding can be found anywhere, and social entrepreneurship and social innovation is gaining some serious recognition by big companies that are just itching to get their philanthropy on. Other African diasporas are a growing source of financial help for many African communities and individuals on the continent. with crowdfunding and venture capital or philanthropy gaining equal popularity for new social ventures.
Just check out these 15 Social Venture Capital Firms and find one that suits your ambition.
The environment. Yes, Mother Nature herself may take one look at your idea and go “no, honey, that won’t work here.”
Of course this is purely case specific, and may not even apply to you if you know your area top to bottom, left to right, like the back of your hand, or, if the environment has absolutely no bearing on your idea at all. On the other hand (the one that doesn’t remind you of your area), not only could the environment have implications for your product, your product could have serious repercussions on the environment if you’re not careful.
Finding the most ethically sourced materials and labour is the best option, as it would do no good to your cause to cut corners. Engage with the community so that you have the best point of reference when making decisions on materials if necessary. Also, be sure to also take note of the sociocultural setting of your target area, making sure that your business and product is considerate of already established coping mechanisms and habits.
This should shed some light on some of the challenges one could face when trying to navigate the social enterprise landscape. But even if you don’t have Akon status, look to thriving locally based enterprises like Solar Sister and all that they have managed to achieve.
There should be nothing standing in your way to have the exact same impact.