Some people find the concept of a social enterprise quirky so to help clarify what it is that we do, here is how a typical conversation around our business model might go.
What line of business are you in?
We help food producers from developing countries sell their products in Europe and elsewhere.
Oh so you’re like a charity right?
No not at all, we’re a for-profit trading company that also wants to have a positive social impact.
So how does that work then?
Well, we start by identifying product opportunities and then we look for producers who can potentially supply these products.
And how’s that done? The finding producers part I mean.
As you can imagine, its a lot easier if we can get hold of the product in a market where we’re currently sourcing. If not, we have to do quite a bit more research to try and identify possible suppliers. We also draw on our network of associates to see if they can help to create links.
What kind of associates?
Mostly individuals working in the development sector, NGOs, and government agencies like the South African DTI and Pro Chile. We also try to cover the major trade shows where a number of developing countries tend to have pavilions.
Sure, it can be.
So what’s the social aspect of the business then?
You mean other than the income that’s generated for those communities?
We’ll if a relationship develops and we’re able to source the product, we then try to get as much support for the supplier as we can. Our supplier profile is typically small to medium sized, rural-based and making a positive impact on their local economy. The support is to help them to successfully export to us.
What kind of support?
We’ve helped some of our suppliers get funding for equipment that they needed from organisations such as the UNDP. We’ve also had a number of our suppliers included as beneficiaries in various NGO projects. Some have been sponsored to exhibit at international food shows which is an opportunity for them to get exposure to the European and U.S markets. We’ve also helped them to link up with micro-finance providers and to obtain organic certification, technical support, and training to develop their business skills. You know things like that.
Sounds great, and do all your suppliers end up doing well?
Some of our products have done much better than others. Unfortunately this is the norm in the highly saturated and competitive retail food sector. Some suppliers have responded better to the challenges of keeping their product on retailers’ shelves, and by and large these are the ones who have better prospects for long term success. Irrespective, we hope that all of our producers profit from the experience of working with us.
So you don’t guarantee sustainability then?
Passing on the entrepreneurial spirit to our suppliers, and working on getting those needed skills or resources to them is our focus. This is because everybody loses out if they cannot adequately respond to a significant growth in demand for their products. It is precisely at this point that weaknesses become apparent, and where opportunities are lost.
So to answer the question, we work to create or exploit market opportunities and to prepare our suppliers for those opportunities. In this respect, our own long term sustainability is intimately tied to the extent that we succeed in both of these activities.
Can you give examples of each? Failures and successes.
Sure, we’ll have that conversation in the post ASAP 🙂