Can Social Business create jobs and help meet SDGs?

India has the second-largest labour force in the world – over 516 million people. Though our economic growth has been steady over the past few decades, over 350 million people continue to live below the poverty line. For most, access to basics such as healthcare, nutrition, and water and sanitation continues to be a challenge. 

There has been a lot of excitement about social businesses in recent years. In his book The World of Three Zeros, Nobel Laureate Prof Muhammad Yunus makes a case for social business as a solution to solve the three pressing problems in the world—inequality, unemployment and climate change. Some social business startups are already contributing to social issues while innovating sound business models. Numerous universities around the world now offer courses in social business. Investment funds dedicated to double bottom line investing are attracting interest not only from the socially-conscious investors but also from mainstream commercial investors.

At the Jobs Conference 2019 organized by Grameen Foundation India, a panel of social business experts and social entrepreneurs debated how social businesses address the problems of unemployment and contribute to social goals. 

Naveen Krishna, Managing Director of SMV Green Solutions, a Varanasi-based social enterprise that offers affordable, clean and safe mobility for last-mile connectivity, outlines four priorities that they are trying to address: 

  • Create sustainable livelihoods,
  • Foster digital literacy,
  • Empower women and
  • Reduce carbon emissions.

SMV upgrades manual cycle-rickshaws to electric ones, which reduces the operator’s physical labour and helps him earn more. Replacing regular auto-rickshaws with electric vehicles ones also reduces carbon emission. SMV’s ‘Vahini’ project promotes women entrepreneurship in last-mile transportation, while also offering a safe, affordable and eco-friendly transport to female passengers. The e-rickshaws have a camera and smartphone linked to cloud servers, to ensure the safety of the female driver and female passengers. SMV helps low-income women with loans and vocational support (license, insurance, driving training and financial literacy) to earn their livelihood.

Women continue to find it hard to get loans. Patriarchal notions see women as the primary care giver at home and pose a challenge when they seek loans to become entrepreneurs.

Suresh Krishna, founder and CEO of Yunus Social Business Fund and moderator for this panel, drew attention to the problem of ‘wealth concentration’ in the hands of a few. We have created this problem and we can solve it. 

Sumita Ghose, Managing Director of Rangsutra, gave an example of how she addresses this wealth concentration problem. Rangasutra is a social enterprise owned by 2,500 rural artisans, mostly women. She emphasizes the importance of employment for rural women. Traditionally, female artisans are employed as ancillary staff. When they become an entrepreneur, they not only earn a living, but their self-image and confidence gets a boost.

When Sumita saw female artisans in rural areas making handicraft and handloom products for their own households or for weddings and social occasions, she sensed an opportunity to help them become business owners. Rangasutra created a centralized village production centre where women could work together, learn about design and market dynamics, develop new products and grow. Sumita argues that models like Rangasutra can also arrest migration by creating rural employment.

Komal Meshram recounted her transformational journey from being an ordinary housewife to becoming an extraordinary social entrepreneur, breaking barriers of poverty, gender and digital divide.  Working as a Grameen Mittra, Komal helps women, old people and low-income people in her village get financial and non-financial services at their doorstep using digital channels. She has enabled the people to become resilient through better financial planning, reducing the opportunity costs in availing services and be better informed and empowered citizens. Komal is also working on improving menstrual hygiene by facilitating convenient access to sanitary pads. Komal enthralled the audience with her confidence, grit and determination and created the hope that agents of change like Komal can bridge the digital and gender divide. Grameen Foundation India is creating a scalable and sustainable business model to support more such agents of change.

The panel agreed that social businesses with viable business models can successfully address social and environmental challenges at scale.