Business activism: yes, we can be the change we wish to see in the world TODAY
February 3, 2009 Leave a comment
Having reported on the National Youth Convention, we had actually intended on following up with a posting on the position (if any) business had in the change movement. Unfortunately having gotten caught up in the business of running our business, this topic slid under the carpet. However, meeting a young entrepreneur who is also a member of the Partnership for Change (P4C) at a training session last week served as a reminder of the importance of business activism. As much as entrepreneurs are the engine of growth for the economy, in their own way their actions can also create positive social change.
Patrick* is a young entrepreneur in his mid 30’s who has a posho mill (maize flour grinding mill) outside Nairobi. Having grown up in hard circumstances, he had to leave school at a young age. However, through sheer hard work, determination and belief in himself, he has managed to start a small and successful enterprise, which he also runs with his wife Mary*. But Patrick also has another side. Having been left at a young age to fend for his younger siblings, this has cultivated a sense of social responsibility in him and his wife. They have both been involved in advocacy initiatives on human rights, civic education as well as health.
The couple have also used their business as an informal meeting place in which to create awareness of pressing social issues and mobilise their customers and neighbours when the need arises. During the recently ended teachers strike, Mary in particular managed to rouse up local support for the teachers. It didn’t cost a cent, but using her communication skills learnt from many years in business, she managed to make the customers (who are also parents) see that the teachers being paid a decent wage meant sense in the long run. The husband and wife team in their own way have made their local community more aware of their rights using their business as a venue. It’s a prime example of for-profit activism. It has cost the couple nothing, but the social impact is much more than if they just sold the maize flour alone.
The relationship between activism and enterprise has been widely discussed. An article by Shubhra Tandon titled the “New face of social activists” described entrepreneurs as being the new face of activism, using their business acumen to create social impact. In it she writes that entrepreneurs “step in to provide solutions and resources for the issues and problems identified by activists.”
Where before social responsibility ended with one’s employees in terms of ensuring workplace health and safety, the responsibility has taken on an outward dimension to society at large.
Indeed business activism is not a new phenomenon. The National Negro Business League created in 1900 by Booker T. Washington is an early case in point. The league was formed to advocate for a level playing field amongst the races and was a progenitor of the black civil rights movement.
A more recent success story has been the PAD protests in Thailand last year. The PAD movement was highly funded and supported by local business people who ensured that the protestors were well equipped with food, communication and other basic requirements during the long sit-in’s and occupation of the national airport.
Doing well by doing good
Not every entrepreneur can be like Bill Gates, who through his philanthropy has tackled global issues such as health and education. Our individual actions may not bring about a change in government such as what happened in Thailand. However, as Patrick and Mary’s story shows, there is no excuse for doing nothing. The couple have used their business as a platform to create change. The late actor and food entrepreneur Paul Newman who used his business to campaign for the environment called this “shameless exploitation in pursuit of the common good”.
To paraphrase Barack Obama and Mahatma Gandhi: yes we can be the change we wish to see in the world.
At Yipe.org we say: TODAY!
* name changed to protect privacy.