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To Achieve Lasting Social Transformation, a Systems-Change is Needed

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

- Albert Einstein

To achieve lasting social transformation a systems-change is needed. Good social entrepreneurs connect the dots across disciplines and worldviews, in ways that create new and lasting shifts in paradigms and in the way things are done. They look at the system and think deeply about purpose to come up with better products or services. In this definition, you could say that Nelson Mandela was a social entrepreneur. Amongst a myriad of other things he did, he saw a broken system that oppressed people, and a seemingly unbridgeable racial divide, and pioneered a new way of political and social reconciliation away from violence and toward justice through radical forgiveness and truth-telling by creating such systems as the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. In so doing he created a new blue-print for nations.

Where most people see a broken system and lament "why?" some of the best social entrepreneurs explore the answer to “why” by listening to different voices through the lens of various disciplines, and conceive novel solutions that are more effective, efficient, sustainable. With existing solutions, they see how value accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than to select individuals.

Where most people see problems, social entrepreneurs see possibilities and ask “what if." Dr. François Bonnici, the Director of The Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship in South Africa, calls this “full color thinking.” He led our GOOD Pioneers in Health Fellows through some generative thinking around inclusive health innovation during our time together.

Applying their framework to my organization, ZanaAfrica: we look at the roots of some deep problems that create a triple whammy for girls:

  • Families think that the education system is best able to deliver health education to their children, resulting in villages ceasing health education. But schools are failing to step up, such that boys and girls lack basic and critical health knowledge and a sense of the freedoms and responsibilities they step into as they become young women and young men.
  • In East Africa, there is a rapidly growing population (43 percent under 15), a cash-based economy (82 percent living on less than $2/day), a reliance on imports, and a British school system that demands five days of school out of seven. This leads to girls being unable to afford products needed to manage their periods comfortably and hygienically – causing them to stay home those days of the month rather than risk embarrassment and therefore drop farther behind in their academics
  • The Ministry of Education collects aggregated attendance data manually each month, and there are two official, overlapping school databases including opendatakenya. They don’t know what’s going in their schools, and are therefore unable to make the most effective policy and budgetary decisions to enhance school retention or performance, much less to ensure education has a better chance of leading to gainful employment
  • A society that undervalues women and girls escalates girls dropping out of school at twice the rate of boys, starting at puberty and getting married and/or pregnant while still children.
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Girls fall through the cracks into a continued spiral of poverty, to everyone’s detriment.

But we see possibility. What if cultures could be empowered to raise their daughters into womanhood? What if sanitary pads were made locally and could be radically more affordable? What if technology could provide Big Data for the education system and help stakeholders serving the same population to work better together? What if sanitary pads were a vehicle for income generation of poor women and their packaging a vehicle in which to provide vital health education delivered in a fun format that girls would want to read?

Social enterprise is also about leveraging strengths, notes Dr. Bonnici. In Kenya, for instance, we have both the agricultural waste materials and strong infrastructure that could allow for product innovation and industrial manufacturing as well as savings in distribution. We have mothers who want to sell products in their communities and provide for their families (and fathers too) and who can be empowered to reclaim the best of their community’s rites of passage for youth transitioning into adulthood. We have an excellent mobile coverage – in fact, I can have a conference call in the Mara but in Connecticut have to resort to a land line! So we could get smart phones into every school and have attendance collected in real time. Plus, we have an enormous population of girls who will be getting their periods and who want to stay in school and determine their future.

We launched our first product in November, and have 100 salesmoms who are now better able to provide for their families. Last year we served over 8,000 girls with pads and underwear through local NGOs and CBOs. Throughout, we have fostered what Dr. Bonnici underscores – co-creation with communities and partners; designing pads and packaging with girls and women, making health education fun through the use of comics (even creating and naming our “health hero” comic characters); working with NGOs and CBOs in a collaborative way by fostering a network of mutual support and sustainability; partnering with local pad manufacturers to accelerate our impact, and engaging with the Ministry of Education to support their goals.

I have to note, all this takes time, patience, and perseverance as well as a steady march against the countless voices that say it's impossible. Social enterprise is not for those who want immediate results, but who are committed to lasting transformation. To paraphrase Mandela, “They always say it is impossible until it’s done.”

If you're a social entrepreneur, what challenges are you tackling? What is the world you imagine is possible?

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