SEWF 2019: "We're not the only saviours of the planet"

Social entrepreneurs shouldn’t assume that they are the only ones who can fix the world and instead collaborate with each other as well as governments, NGOs and businesses.

In a strongly worded address on the second day of the Social Enterprise World Forum 2019 in Addis Ababa, Harish Hande, CEO of India’s sustainable energy Selco Foundation, drew attention to some of the less attractive characteristics of some social entrepreneurs.

There was a “self-righteousness that we are the perfect people to solve the problems of the planet,” he said. “We aren’t.”

Hande was speaking as part of a plenary debate focusing upon the future of business and the planet. “In India,” he said, “I can’t get two social enterprises to work together. Let’s not take a holier than thou approach.”

He added: “We have to take a stance and be less hypocritical in what we do as social entrepreneurs.”

Hande urged the audience not to blame others for not achieving solutions but instead to try to create change by forging wider relationships. “Our legacy has to be a little more inclusive,” he said.

We have to be less hypocritical in what we do as social entrepreneurs

The debate was chaired by Baroness Glenys Thornton, a UK Labour politician and longstanding supporter of social enterprises and co-operatives. Introducing the panel, she explained that the speakers were going to focus upon “the role of social enterprise in saving the planet”, she said. “No pressure there then!”

She highlighted that 1,000 jurisdictions had declared a climate emergency and 125 countries had joined the school strikes, adding that she had recently attended a climate march with her six-year-old granddaughter.

Sabrina Chakori, founder of Brisbane Tool Library, who was born in 1992, the year of the landmark Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, said that she was part of the generation who “inherited a sick planet”.

She outlined her vision for an alternative economic system where nations were not always chasing growth at any cost. “Cutting down forests adds to GDP growth, but saving it doesn’t,” she said. 

Lorna Rutto, founder of recycling social enterprise Ecopost, described how she grew up in Kenya in the 1980s in a beautiful forested environment. However, the forest was destroyed in the 1990s, leading to frequent flooding and pollution. 

Lorna agreed with Hande that social entrepreneurs should “all join hands and work together as a team”.

The conversation also took in the role of healthcare with Kibret Abebe, founder of Ethiopia’s Tebita Ambulance. He emphasised that healthcare should be available to everyone, regardless of their status. “Poor or not, everybody’s life should be saved,” he said.

Thornton briefly explored the role of social enterprise in the world’s healthcare systems. “I have a problem with the big corporates in the health service who come into my country and take profits from the NHS,” she said. “I don’t believe, as a taxpayer, my money should be lining Richard Branson’s pockets.”

Returning to the plenary’s original theme, Thornton echoed Hande’s call to action. “It is important that at the Social Enterprise World Forum, as well as learning from each other about how to build our social enterprises, we also have to look at the world and, as a movement, think about what our responsibilities are,” she said.

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Centre photo: Nikoline Arns, Impact Boom