Isolation blamed for depressing social entrepreneurs in emerging countries

OXFORD, England (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Social entrepreneurs in emerging countries fear their mission to set up businesses that profit while doing good is being hampered by a lack of support networks, leaving them isolated and lonely.

Increasing numbers of social enterprises have emerged globally in recent years, accompanied by a raft of new networks and organizations - so-called “social enterprise ecosystems” - to run events, mentorship schemes, and give advice on funding.

There are more than 1,000 social entrepreneur accelerator programs globally, according to Conveners, a U.S.-organization that lists events and training programs for the sector that aim to tackle issues ranging from homeless to climate change.

About 180 are in the United States, which has one of the largest social enterprise sectors, according to the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurs, a U.S. training scheme.

But these ecosystems barely exist in poorer countries with fast-growing economies, said experts at the 2019 Skoll World Forum, Britain’s leading conference on social entrepreneurship, which they said was holding back growth.

Carla Grados Villamar said she struggled to run two social enterprises she founded in Peru - a volunteering platform and waste recycling business - without a support network, so in 2014 she co-founded one.

“We realized a lot of people didn’t know what social enterprise was, how to support it locally, or what it actually needed in our country,” she said on a panel at the four-day forum attended by about 1,200 people from about 80 countries.

Her network, Kunan, runs events, shares information and promotes its 164 social enterprise members.

“We set up an online directory for them, but we could see they wanted to meet each other ... We could see they were lonely,” she said on the sidelines of the four-day forum attended by about 1,200 people from about 80 countries.

A 2016 survey of social enterprise experts in 45 countries by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found mixed views on whether social entrepreneurs could get the non-financial support needed such a legal and financial advice, training, and coaching.

Singapore, Sweden and Britain were the countries where people were most confident that these services were available.

Michelle Arevalo-Carpenter, CEO and co-founder of Impaqto in Ecuador, said her organization “fixes loneliness” for social entrepreneurs with a co-working space and network.

She said often social entrepreneurs in emerging markets studied business abroad and when they returned home to start their own ventures they felt unsupported.

“They come back very inspired to do something incredible for their countries and almost as soon as they get off the plane ... they are already being told what they are thinking is crazy and impossible,” she said.


She said without adequate support networks in emerging economies, social entrepreneurs struggled to access the right funding to grow.

Anastasiya Litvinova, a social investment consultant, said social entrepreneurs often lacked financial knowledge.

“So they often seek the wrong type of financing that is not aligned with their mission,” the U.S.-based consultant told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of the event.

Many social enterprise hubs are styled on the tech startup accelerator and incubators in California’s Silicon Valley, said Erika Wiese, head of portfolio management at South Africa-based Innovation Edge, that invests in businesses to help children.

She said Silicon Valley was a hotbed for fast-growing startups fueled by venture capital, but the model would not work for social enterprise ecosystems in emerging countries.

“It is important for ecosystem builders to recognize that environmental challenges faced by the emerging markets are very different to those faced by first world economies,” she said.

Randall Kempner, executive director of the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs that promotes entrepreneurship in developing countries, said the underlying culture of a place was a key driver of social enterprise ecosystems.

“You have to be thoughtful to what the culture is and if you are not paying attention to that, and recognizing that as a challenge, it will hinder your ability to built an ecosystem,” Kempner said.

Reporting by Sarah Shearman @Shearmans. Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and slavery, property rights, social innovation, resilience and climate change. Visit to see more stories