How do you define Social Enterprise in Sri Lanka?

Yesterday was my second day in Sri Lanka, my new home for the next few months and after a series of incredibly interesting conversations i’m realising quite precisely the challenge we have ahead of us on our Immersion Programme that starts next month.

It’s a good challenge to have. There are hundreds of socially and environmentally impactful organisations here in the ‘teardrop’ of the indian ocean, but very few of them consider themselves ‘social entrepreneurs’ or social enterprises.

On the Immersion Programme, our team’s job will be to educate the social start-ups we match them with, about their role as global change makers – whilst supporting them with capacity building and sharing the tools that will help them approach their work differently and in the longer term be more financially sustainable.

The question keeps coming up though – how do you define a social enterprise?  It would seem that there is yet to be an agreed framework for such a definition. At the moment people here might freely use the term social enterprise or social entrepreneurship because its a buzzy phrase, but as to how much profit defines them as an ‘enterprise’ even, or how much profit is put back into the mission is uncertain – but our partners, SE Lanka, are starting to share a core message in their training sessions. So long as a majority of their profits, even if as little as 51% for now is reinvested into the mission then by Sri Lankan standards, that’s technically social enterprise. Although I was reminded that a soft message needs to be asserted.

It’s a big ask to expect people to shape up their infrastructure to western standards, especially in 6 weeks. So talking about revenue and profit and where it goes is naturally a sensitive subject.

In time though SE Lanka would like to see more of a UK standard on reporting the numbers, currently hovering around 65% of profit being reinvested back into the mission for CICs (community interest companies).

Further into my 2nd day it became obvious there are many socially minded/ environmentally conscious businesses in Sri Lanka but currently are not defining themselves as Social Enterprises.  One conversation I had with a highly successful serial entrepreneur who came here from Canada to reconnect with his Sri Lankan roots and bring electricity to rural communities in 1988 (interestingly it was solar – highly ahead of the game), confirmed that there are parts of Sri Lanka which are still not on the grid – including their well known resort in the north – a haven for affluent tourists seeking that all important digital switch off.

Another chat with a PR specialist who has a lot of CSR clients, revealed that the biggest social and environment issues here in Sri Lanka include deforestation, waste refuse / recycling (or lack thereof), domestic abuse, child abuse, under-employment (people working in jobs below their level of competency) and women’s issues like harassment and rape/assault. CSR is still a tick boxing exercise here for most of the larger companies, but equally people do care and there are some larger orgs who have a strong mission at the heart of their business model.

They might just refer to themselves as being an ‘ethical company’, organic or fair-trade, or environmentally friendly. Which is no surprise – these terms were being used in the UK long before Social Enterprise kicked off. The mission / intended impact is the same though – and it’s clear that the entrepreneurs and farmers we have met are thinking sensibly about how they do business.

Check out Brandix, who are into water conservation; there’s BPPL who make brushes from recycled plastic who have just gone global; and MAS holdings (who were mentioned three times in three separate conversations) a sportswear manufacturer who are big on women’s empowerment.

If you’d like to #JoinUs in Sri Lanka in February we still have 2 places left for specialist volunteers to take on the role of Social Impact Consultant and share skills with grassroots social entrepreneurs aiming to tackle environmental and social issues in their community. Deadline 18th January. Places will go on a first come first serve basis. APPLY NOW. Find out more on www.socialstarters.org

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