Economic Potential: The Wonder Of Social Innovation

When we look at the economic potential of today’s entrepreneurs and CEOs, we need to factor in their potential not only to innovate new ideas but also to address the systemic roots of poverty and social inequality. Why? Because that’s how the new generation of movers and shakers – the world over – sees success, as a holistic, inclusive approach that embraces the free market, but with the caveat: it must be ethical, or help someone in need.

Social innovation, meaning novel ways to meet the needs of civil society, be it in the spheres of education, health or access to resources and security, is a massive global trend, permeating all business sectors from small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to corporates. It is not about corporate social responsibility (CSR), but about sustainable business models born in an increasingly socially aware marketplace.

As the 2014 report titled Redefining Success in a Changing World, a social entrepreneurship survey commissioned by Chivas Regal, found, “many social entrepreneurs have experienced an ‘eye opening’ moment, when an idea to create change through financially sustainable models proved to be not only viable, but potent”.

There are some poignant examples of social innovation in South Africa. Here is one: Young & Rubicam, in collaboration with Blikkiesdorp informal settlement in Cape Town, created Hope Soap, a see-through bar of soap with a toy inside to encourage children from disadvantaged communities to wash their hands more frequently.

And another: In 2014, the first South African “Street Stores” were launched, pop-up shops for the homeless, an initiative of M&C Saatchi Abel in collaboration with the Napier Haven night shelter. The initiative is so successful it has been exported to numerous cities overseas, including Toronto, Venice and Dakar.

Marketing agencies are behind many of these quirky initiatives, in recognition of the fact that people are connected to and support brands that offer more than just the product, but that mean something or stand up for something. They may be relatively small projects that spawn a rash of valuable public relations for clients during their activations, but they poignantly reflect the broader social innovation movement by illustrating in creative relief what social innovation is all about.

SMEs are the natural home of social innovators, of course, given the need for survivalist lateral thinking. In Africa, there are numerous opportunities for SMEs with good ideas in, say, cheaper energy sources and ways to educate people through technology, or generic alternatives to preventative medicine.

Corporations – even the more traditional ones – are also eager to understand how they can adapt their businesses to support social impact ventures, and corporate partnerships with organisations that have social innovation as their core business are a very effective way of doing it.

A good example is the recent partnership between the leading infrastructure management company Bigen Africa and South Africa’s leading corporate social investment (CSI) manager, Tshikululu Social Investments, the idea being to jointly direct infrastructure projects – roads, housing, dams and so on – so the needs of disadvantaged communities are optimally addressed. Who can doubt the social impact potency of this doubling up as new infrastructure contracts roll out on the continent?

The breeding grounds of the social innovation movement, meanwhile, can be found in incubators for start-up entrepreneurs, like Jozi@Work, the City of Joburg’s programme aiming to empower community co-operatives and enterprises (Learn More), or the Standard Bank Incubator programme, which helps entrepreneurs deploy their innovations with personal guidance from the bank’s innovation and enterprise development partners (Learn More).

Another exciting social innovator incubator is Samsung’s Mixed Talents campaign, part of its global “Launching People” drive, which identifies inspiring individuals with good ideas who are seeking to find meaningful solutions, primarily in the IT space, to societal challenges.

One of the primary objectives of these incubators is job creation, because if we had to choose one great social need in South Africa, it must surely be employment. The genius of the Jozi@Work programme is that the entry level entrepreneurs targeted are from the communities most affected by joblessness.

“They will be servicing needs as diverse as desludging chemical toilets, separating and recycling waste as it arrives at our dumps, providing food to our nutrition programmes, resurfacing and maintaining our roads and providing frontline support to our water and power infrastructure,” explained City Mayor Parks Tau.

Social innovation is about finding and tapping the “problem-solver” in as many people as possible, in as many spheres of enterprise as possible. A social innovator can be a brand creative, a CEO, a government policymaker, a small business vendor or simply an individual in a poor community with a good idea.

Harnessing the transformative power of social innovators is critical to our future because they see new patterns and possibilities for innovation, and are willing to pursue and realise their ideas even when bigger, established organisations are unwilling to try them. The result is, everybody wins.

– By The Philanthropic Collection –


The Philanthropic Collection™ is a boutique social enterprise,
where we tailor haute-couture brands for philanthropy.


Our appliqué is made up of global leaders, influencers and forecasters,
all creating conscious capital for humanity.