Social enterprises attract 'action-oriented, customer-driven' individuals

Farmers at a banana market in the Mount Kenya region. Social enterprise programs like One Acre Fund is sprouting in Kenya, investing in famers to generate a permanent gain in farm income. Photo by: CC BY-SA

If the customers don’t value the products and services a social enterprise offers, the enterprise will either learn and change, or it will fail.

In general, social enterprises respond directly to client needs, not donor ideas or preconceived project plans, so they attract a different breed of development professional. In fact, it takes a certain type of person to thrive in such an entrepreneurial environment, Robin Farnworth, East Africa talent associate for One Acre Fund, told Devex.

Those who are successful at One Acre Fund  an enterprise in Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi that invests in farmers to generate a permanent gain in farm income  are action-oriented and customer driven, as well as strong leaders, problem solvers, and can proactively accomplish work on their own, Farnworth said.

As more social enterprises  for tech, agricultural, education, microfinance and more  sprout up in Kenya and elsewhere to meet development needs, the route becomes a viable option for those who don’t wish to travel the typical development path.

But what does it take to succeed in a social enterprise environment?

The very nature of entrepreneurship means seeking to solve a yet unanswered question and navigating uncertainty along the way, which means finding the right kind of people to take something from idea to implementation with less structure than they might be used to.

Farnworth uses in-person scenario interview questions that require critical analysis, such as where someone would turn in order to find the answer to a certain practical business question, to determine whether people are good candidates for One Acre.

You might be able to tell from a resume, she said, but you have to be careful about making assumptions. Asking questions like the above, Farnworth said, will give you a good idea of how someone’s brain works and whether they’ll be able to thrive in the oft-changing environment of a social enterprise.

Enterprises often attract people who are tired of the traditional development scene and want to take more risks, she said. And most of all  someone who passionately believes that clients should drive decisions. For One Acre, which believes that smallholder farmers are the solution to poverty and works to support them in producing better crop yields, this means showing humility and identifying that the farmers are the clients.

Farnworth herself moved away from the traditional aid sector because the power and decision-making was ultimately with the donors, who didn’t always have the best information on what was needed from the beneficiary perspective, she said.

“I was attracted to social enterprise because the power is with the customers,” Farnworth said. “In the case of One Acre Fund  the farmers. From my perspective, this makes the organizations more effective, nimble, and ultimately better suited to creating social impact.”

But those looking to work in this sector will most likely be willing to take a pay cut, and will need to be open to working outside of major cities. Many exciting opportunities with One Acre Fund, for example, are at their rural western Kenya headquarters.

And if someone is coming from a traditional NGO, especially a large and well-established one, it might be challenging to adapt to an organization that values results over processes, Farnworth said.

There isn’t the same level of bureaucracy to guide the work in the field as someone might see at a traditional NGO, she said. Decisions are made through testing ideas and going with what shows the best results and gets the best feedback from customers.

But it’s also more exciting for those who work there, she said, where employees gain experience and responsibility quickly, and where there is room for new ideas. For One Acre, the vision is that each innovation or idea in each country office operates as its own enterprise.

What do you think it takes to work for a social enterprise? Leave your comments below.

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About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.