“Burkina Faso, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Burkina Faso!” These words—rallying citizens to join other countries in revolt against the established government—rang loud and clear in the streets of Burkina’s third largest city, Koudougou, during the 2011 uprising that followed the Arab Spring. While that protest and mutiny movement did not immediately accomplish its objective of electing a new leader that would help lift the country from the bottom of most international development and well-being indicators, the demonstrators came closer to their goal on October 31: The fury of Burkina’s “Black Spring” successfully removed the country’s president, Blaise Compaoré, who had held the position for 27 years.
The continued discontent in Burkina Faso and across the continent goes beyond transference of power. The underlying causes are poor governance and woefully few employment opportunities for a large and growing youth cohort. This is partly due to a stagnant private sector and an overreliance on civil service employment, where thousands of youth apply for only a handful of vacancies year after year. The country needs a new approach to succeed where government and traditional business have failed, and social enterprise offers just that.
While institutions such as rule of law and land tenure rights remain important, countries like Burkina Faso need private businesses that are intent on creating positive social impact to correct and overcome market failures perpetuated by poor governance and policies. In creating both social and commercial value, these enterprises encourage economic stability while giving a greater voice to those who are marginalized by strongmen like Blaise Campaoré. Throughout the region, social enterprises are providing electricity and clean drinking water to ignored rural areas, educating overflow students from strained public schools, and improving agricultural yields and processing capabilities for smallholder farmers. The social enterprise model holds great opportunity for addressing the economic malaise threatening Burkina Faso and others in the region.
I am already seeing the potential of this model in my own social enterprise Clair de Lune, which sells solar lamps to urban and rural customers through mobile phone ordering, mobile money payments, and bus delivery. We are creating a new marketplace and distribution system for high-impact goods to reach mostly rural populations isolated by decades of underinvestment in critical infrastructure like electrical grids, water sanitation, and roads. Access to solar lamps typically increases study times by 1-2 hours a night for students, keeps family businesses open beyond sundown, and decreases household expenditures on dangerous and expensive kerosene for lamps. Because Burkina Faso is decades away from government-run infrastructure programs to extend a grid that only serves 1 percent of rural inhabitants, these lamps are helping people make educational and economic gains.
We also hire employees locally, providing them with an alternative to public employment and the opportunity to personally contribute in creative ways to something meaningful. All of our employees take charge of a specific task, such as developing rural radio marketing campaigns, improving smartphone inventory management systems, or using dynamic SMS messaging to communicate with customers. We believe that through the sale of lamps to people living in the last mile, and by providing an outlet for local people to grow their skills and constructively engage with their own society, our social enterprise is addressing some of the root causes of the justified discontent in Burkina.
Other social enterprises like Bridge International Academies in Kenya—which has enrolled more than 100,000 pupils, and led to improvements in math and reading relative to neighboring schools—are independent from donor campaign cycles or government cuts to foreign aid. By being operationally sustainable after one year, individual academies contribute to greater institutional stability for communities. This social enterprise, by investing in children’s’ education today, is contributing to improving adult outcomes, including creating a quality labor force for new businesses to utilize. Given Kenya’s struggle against the terrorist group al-Shabaab (which means “youth” in Arabic), I cannot think of a better way to combat an underlying cause for instability and extremism than by providing more opportunities for youth through greater access to education using a financially sustainable model that is more insulated from foreign trends and aid cycles.
NGOs and the private sector can certainly support the growth of social enterprises through strategic partnerships to help scale or by providing needed capital, but so can government aid agencies. USAID's DIV program, for example, shows signs of promise in promoting social enterprise. Under this program, social enterprises compete to receive staged financing from seed to scale while consistently testing and proving the model is effective and creates meaningful impact. Social enterprises can help Burkina Faso and other countries in the region overcome decades of underdevelopment, provide social and economic stability, and create constructive ways for citizens to help their country outside of the voting booth.