Social entrepreneurs on building South Africa’s economy

The stories of 14 social entrepreneurs are told in the book The Disruptors. The authors share their journey in the writing of it, and speak about why this book is important.

Kerryn Krige, co-author of The Disruptors, says it’s an important book for South Africans to read. “It shows you that there is a way to build our economy and our society. And that it is not an unreachable goal.” (Image supplied)

Melissa Javan
The stories of 14 South African social entrepreneurs are told in the book The Disruptors: Social entrepreneurs reinventing business and society.

They include Claire Reid, founder and chief impact officer of Reel Gardening. Vegetable and herb seeds are embedded in strips of biodegradable paper, which are then planted. The gardening strips are also water wise. Reid started her business at the age of 16.

Then there’s Gregory Maqoma, the executive director and CEO of the Vuyani Dance Theatre in Johannesburg. It specialises in staging dance productions for mainstream theatre and corporate events. Vuyani Dance Theatre also runs outreach programmes to train young dancers.

Also in the book is Yusuf Randera-Rees, a Rhodes Scholar, and Oxford- and Harvard-graduate. In 2009, the 26-year-old Randera-Rees returned to South Africa and founded the Awethu Project, with R60,000 of his own savings.

More opportunities needed in South Africa

Randera-Rees says: “I knew there were people in South Africa who were more talented than me, smarter, more charismatic, better problem-solvers.

“Everything you would want in an entrepreneur, and they were not getting the opportunities I had been getting. That didn’t make sense to me,” he says in the book.

He came home to make a difference. The Awethu Project currently manages more than R160-million in government and corporate funding, and has helped more than 500 entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground.

Candidates apply or are identified by talent scouts – the same process by which promising sports stars are discovered and nurtured – and the pick of the crop are put through an intensive mentoring and incubation programme: an Awethu Apprenticeship.

Gus Silber, co-author of The Disruptors, says the number of social entrepreneurs in South Africa is increasing. “They solve problems in small ways – they are fixing big crises in a small way.” (Image supplied)

The aim of the book

Gus Silber and Kerryn Krige are the co-authors. Silber is an award-winning journalist, speechwriter and author. Krige heads up the Network for Social Entrepreneurs at the Gordon Institute for Business Science (GIBS) in Johannesburg, which focuses on achieving social and economic change through social enterprise.

In the introduction, Krige writes:

“My colleague, Itumeleng Dhlamini, who has been deeply involved in the book’s production process, came upstairs to our offices, as a student of our social entrepreneurship programme, frustrated that we didn’t have a textbook that captured the diversity and value of today’s social entrepreneurs.

“Without her frustration and foresight, this book would be waiting for someone else’s frustration and foresight to happen.

“I hope it encourages you to see the enormous opportunities that exist on the flipside of profit.”

About her hopes for the book, Krige says the authors would like more people to learn the meaning of social entrepreneurship. “[We want to let people know] that it is a real, viable way of doing business and achieving enormous social change at the same time.

“But the book could not be dull – the aim was a book that you would pick up at the airport because it intrigued you, and the more you read the deeper you got caught up in the stories,” she explains.

“At the same time it had to be academically useful, so that we weren’t just telling stories, and it could be used in the classroom. This was a tricky balance and an unusual one and I really think that the team got this right.”

It took more than two years to get to print, says Krige, and was published in March 2016. “We are a Network for Social Entrepreneurs, so we drew extensively on the people we knew, and ran several calls online for people to tell us their stories on social entrepreneurship.”

The first book on the subject was published by GIBS in 2007. That book, From Dust to Diamonds, profiled social entrepreneurs. “We agreed to follow up with 50% of these, so that we could find out where they were now,” says Krige.

“It was a great mix of our own research, extensive marketing for people to apply and building on the older book.”

Watch some of the social entrepreneurs share lessons they have learned that have enhanced their leadership:

Feedback

Seeing the book on the shelves was the highlight for her, Krige says. “Writing a book is a thing. And people tell you this, but you never appreciate it until you’re in it.”

Writing a book was not about the authors, she realised. “We’re a small part of it – but rather about the team of people you work with, and who you align with creatively.”

On a recent Skype call with a student at Georgetown University, in Washington DC, about his thesis, he brought up The Disruptors. “Half way through he holds up… our book! And says, ‘In my seven months of reading this is the best that I’ve read. It’s descriptive, informative, and very real.’

“The feedback has been extremely positive, and people have enjoyed the blend of academic and storytelling, saying that we have been able to bring both to life.”

Watch several of the social entrepreneurs give lessons in how they got funding:

Every story a highlight

Silber explains that GIBS did the research and interviews with the social entrepreneurs, but the institute wanted a journalist to tell the stories from a different perspective. To do this he also did interviews.

He shares his highlights: “Every story is interesting; has a highlight of its own. Most of the stories I’ve never heard of before, and some of it I had never heard in detail.”

About the writing process, Silber adds: “It’s not easy to condense someone’s story in a few thousand words; it’s never easy to finish a book.”

Entrepreneurs fix things

Silber believes that social entrepreneurs contribute in a special way towards the economy and society. “We as a society tend to be concerned about prices and problems; we’re a crisis-driven society; we tend to worry about a lot.”

Although many of the social entrepreneurs are unknown to the public, he says, they are people providing solutions. “The disruption mostly refers to technology, but people can disrupt – they are refusing to believe that things cannot be done.

“They (the social entrepreneurs) are all disruptors. They are positively disrupting the area around them. What they have in common is that nothing has come easy for them; they’re all restless.”

The follow-up

There are two versions of the book: the printed one has more constraints and contains 14 stories, while the ebook has 18 stories.

The authors are working on a follow up to The Disruptors.

To find out more about the interviews, visit the Leading Change site or GIBS’ YouTube channel.

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