Social Entrepreneurship in Africa | getting unstuck on definitions

Since this a recurring theme for me and source of immense irritation, I will copy an excerpt from an email I sent to a Pioneers of Change list at the end of last year.

It was sent following a challenge from someone to show him 50 Social Entrepreneurs in South Africa.


While the field in South Africa is very new, it is booming. I think it can only be booming because we have started to name what we have been practicing for decades. I am not that stuck on purity of definitions and wish that we would not be too rigid about it. What stood out for me when living in the UK is that most of the SEs I came across were to a large degree desk bound although doing fantastic work for the broader social good. I missed being immersed on the ground interacting with people in their situation and responding to that. I have no judgement on either approach and also realize that the digital divide is part of the reason that we are not as research-oriented in Africa when doing social good.

Laying mainstream definitions aside (which is a huge thing in the new SA-SE circles at the moment), one can only be blind not to see the large scale of social innovation over here. For millenia we have been using minimal resources to create social impact through sustainable practices. Several of you may be familiar with the term Ubuntu which roughly translated means I am because you are and basically celebrates the connectivity of man.

I also think that the line of Social Entrepreneurship and Entrepreneurship in an African context is more of a blur and perhaps more closely related. Entrepreneurship naturally creates employment and over here, employing one person is essentially feeding ten people. Surely this too should be acknowledged as social good?


I start my year long Social Entrepreneurship Certificate Programme at the Gordon Institute of Business Science next month. It is going to be interesting (and perhaps challenging) being a student in this space, already entering with quite strong views in probably every module that I encounter.

I had a fantastic meeting with my team in developing The Hub, Johannesburg last week. As most of them had not met each other before, we naturally did a round of introductions. Not a single one of them recognized themselves as a Social Entrepreneur. It seems to be a norm in this space from London to Joburg there is a resistance for SEs to adopt this label. Attached to humility? Not wanting to come across as a do-gooder? I’m not entirely sure, but I embrace the architect designing effective public space that benefits more humane interaction, the mechanical engineer developing green technology, the software developer designing applications for a smart phone affordable to the rural farmer. To me, everyone has the potential to be a social innovator, what resources and opportunities in your context can be applied for broader social impact?

Since I’m on a roll about my ‘issues’ in this space… I so wish our government will get their act together around creating legal entities around what the field requires. We are not a charity! We are a for-profit business that is socially motivated! Profit generated cycles back into the system to extend our offering. It’s weird to see the blank stares when trying to explain this. How long do we need to keep registering as a charity and company? The administration and trickery financial balancing around the legals is killing amazing work!

Come on, let’s be gutsy and challenge ourselves, Social Entrepreneurship does not end with a soup kitchen for the homeless! It is all important but let’s strive for prosperity already!

2 thoughts on “Social Entrepreneurship in Africa | getting unstuck on definitions

  1. This blog dates back one month before our serendipitous convo about lobbying gvt to create an enabling enviro for SE in SA to operate optimally. Looking forward to the challenge. Let’s do this!

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