Q&A: Think 'openness, abundance,' Dalberg chief advises aspiring social entrepreneurs

Women farmers watch a myAgro precision planter demonstration in Bougouni, Mali. myAgro is a microfinance and savings initiative, and Skoll Awardee 2018. Photo by: Gabriel Diamond / Skoll Foundation

What distinguishes the best social entrepreneurs from the rest of the pack? A mindset of openness and abundance that embraces a continuous flow of learning, which in turn gives them the perspective to recognize failure and invite collaboration.

That's expert advice from James Irungu Mwangi, executive director at the Dalberg Group, a collection of impact-driven businesses that seek to champion inclusive and sustainable growth around the world.

Mwangi sat down with Devex for a candid conversation on the role of social entrepreneurship in Africa, how to get more funding for long-term projects, the effect of technology on the business of social good, and what's next for social good innovators.

“Looking at where I live in Kenya, social enterprises tend to be home-grown or at scale, but very rarely both, and I think that’s a market failure of some kind that needs to be resolved.”

— James Irungu Mwangi, executive director, Dalberg Group

Edited for length and clarity, below are some highlights from the conversation on the sidelines of the Skoll World Forum in Oxford, United Kingdom.

Where do we stand today on rewriting the rules for an economic system that works for everyone?

In certain places, we’ve managed to banish some aspects of material scarcity, but the elephant in the room is really, how do we get the wealth that’s been generated to be fairly distributed?

It’s not working, because our systems are still geared — even in those places where we’ve managed to banish scarcity — towards more accumulation and more and more concentration of wealth ... The flip side of this is that in places where material scarcity is very much a feature of everyday life, how do you get that massive portion of the population residing in parts of Asia, most of Africa, and parts of Latin America to a level of safety and security, just moving up that basic pyramid without tipping the entire planet over into ecological collapse?

And what is the role of social entrepreneurship here, particularly in the African context?

When we say social entrepreneur, we’re really saying, “Let's harness activity in the world of social impact through a very channeled approach.” What we don’t do is empower agents as close as possible to the problem that they are facing and allow those that are succeeding and delivering results to receive more resources ...

South Asia is a model for homegrown social entrepreneurship being transformative. Looking at where I live in Kenya, social enterprises tend to be home-grown or at scale, but very rarely both, and I think that’s a market failure of some kind that needs to be resolved.

Given this uncertainty, how do you encourage investors to take financial risks on potentially long-term projects that could generate social impact in low-resource settings?

The language of risk might be the answer. There’s risk in the early days of saying, “Does a certain model work.” If I put in four units of investment here, do I get 10 units of impact on the other side?

And once you know that, I think you should do two things: one is say “How many units of this impact do I want?” and plow in adequate resources. If you have them, then why make it complicated? You’ve proven it, so it’s not a question of risk; it’s a question of execution.

“Any social enterprise that’s not thinking about how to structure and organize their data, or build off the data of others, and how to integrate that data smartly, is doomed, frankly.”

As you scan the African continent, what are you seeing emerge at the intersection of technology, business, and social good?

Any social enterprise that’s not thinking about how to structure and organize their data, or build off the data of others, and how to integrate that data smartly, is doomed, frankly. It's all about thinking smartly about all of the streams of data that can inform what you are doing ...

Africa is the difficult challenge right now. You’re in a race with automation, where we’re either going to need to figure out very quickly how to equip an entire generation with “Fourth Industrial Revolution” skills, having skipped the first, second, and third. The factories of China are not going to move to Africa necessarily, they’re going to become entirely robot-run, and stay exactly where they are.

What is the role of the social entrepreneur in the larger ecosystem of traditional development donors, doers, charities, and NGOs?

Their ability to experiment, to follow an intuition, because what the traditional model does not allow for is intuitions around a specific opportunity, where you don’t really know why you think something might be a good idea, but you think it might be, and you try it, and it starts to work, and suddenly you understand “this is exactly why this was a brilliant idea” ...

At Dalberg, we thought we were building a business that would help the U.N. be better at a few things, but 17 years later, we’re doing nothing like what we thought we would be doing at the beginning — but we stayed true to the underlying, animating impulse.

A few words of advice to potential entrepreneurs looking to perhaps get into the sector, to launch their innovation or to roll out, or to scale: What should they be keeping front of mind?

A mindset of openness and abundance where you’re helping an ecosystem of organizations to complement you or learn from you, and replicate you in a series of settings.

This kind of recognition can either make you someone miserly, you know — “this is my space, this is what I’ve done and you can’t copy it, this is my thing,” or it can give you the safety and security to be a generous sharer of perspective, particularly around failure, particularly around what isn’t working, and an inviter of collaboration.

Finally, on the next frontier for social entrepreneurship: What should our readers at Devex be looking out for in the years to come, particularly with an eye on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and accelerating progress toward those global goals?

This feels like a little bit of an inflection point here, because you’re seeing a lot of what we would think of as big development, or big philanthropy, now putting social enterprise at the center of their agendas. This has stopped being the edgy, quirky aspect of the development agenda.

To watch James Irungu Mwangi in conversation with Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics, Roger Martin, author and director of the Martin Prosperity Institute, and Shamika Ravi, director of research at Brookings India, sign up for the Skoll World Forum Digital Pass.

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