Social entrepreneurship (SE) has gained significant interest and recognition in the past few years. Social entrepreneurs are tackling social and environmental challenges with innovative sustainable solutions, thus combining business with social impact. Social entrepreneurship in the southern Mediterranean region has the potential to invigorate local economies as well as to promote regional stability by activating positive synergies among economic sectors and promising actors.
Social Enterprises (SEs) are highly influenced by the surrounding actors and services enabling, or hindering, their development. Recent researches under the Oxfam-led MedUp! project studied the social entrepreneurship ecosystems in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan and revealed some common trends and challenges.
1) The awareness and knowledge challenge
Firstly, knowledge, support and tools around SE are not being decentralised to reach more rural regions. This prevents the emergence of social enterprises outside of the main urban centres and beyond middle class, educated youth. Universities, education institutions, media and Arabic content websites have limited access to SE resources, although some new university programmes and hubs focusing specifically on social entrepreneurship are emerging.
At the same time, there is a lack of awareness at the community level of the potential of SEs in addressing social and economic challenges. In fact, people and communities often don’t know what it means to be a social entrepreneur or how to become one.
Marketing and public relations are often a weak area within Social enterprises. SEs do not always have the adequate communication and language skills to promote their products to gain the trust of their communities. This has a broader impact as well, since policy makers at the national and local levels are not fully aware of the potential of SE and policy development is limited or ineffective.
To tackle this, awareness campaigns could come a long way to inform the public and institutions about social entrepreneurship, encourage consumers to purchase SEs’ products and build marketing networks both locally and internationally. Additionally, SE should be supported in conceiving and implementing effective campaigns by enhancing their technical skills in marketing and communication.
2) The policy and legal challenge
Across the MENA Region (Middle East and North Africa) we rarely find legal frameworks specific to social entrepreneurship. However recent policy debates supported by the MedUp! project are a testament to the multiple approaches adopted in the region to advocate for stronger SE frameworks.
In Lebanon several meetings attended by a wide group of INGOs, NGOs, local actors, academics, Members of Parliament and representatives of SEs ensured a sustained effort to keep a SE law high in the government’s agenda.
In Palestine, after roundtables with local stakeholders to brainstorm about initiatives to strengthen cooperatives in the country, an initiative with DIESIS Network was developed to raise awareness about the concept of social entrepreneurship through case studies on best practices that could inspire Palestinian actors. In Tunisia close dialogues with the Ministry for Vocational Training and Employment helped reinforce collaboration with the Ministry’s strategy to establish a social entrepreneurship ecosystem.
Some regional developments are quite promising. In June 2020, Tunisia adopted a national Law on Social and Solidarity Economy, the Moroccan Government is in the process of drafting a bill on the same topics and in Lebanon, after consultations started by the Prime Minister’s Office, a draft law on Social Entrepreneurship is currently waiting for its finalization.
3) The connection and network challenge
One of the most challenging aspects of the sector is the fact that multiple stakeholders have become involved with no unified framework for SE to fit the local context. This creates different understandings of what social entrepreneurship could mean or how it is applied.
However, forming a coalition of different private and public stakeholders is crucial to collect the voice of key financial, institutional and community actors as well as social entrepreneurs and organizations supporting them, and build on it to lobby for a conducive SE ecosystem. This would facilitate the explanation of the concepts to different community groups and sectors as well as contribute to the development of national plans, programs and projects, including for the preparation of appropriate laws and programs for community awareness.
4) The access to finance challenge
The lack of both private and public financing is considered a major challenge for SEs, which currently have few to no dedicated funding channels. In particular, at the ideation and start-up phases funds are not usually available (except for grants), and when they are they come as credits with high-interest rates – something that new start-ups, which need the most funding, cannot afford. It becomes vital to strengthen the role of the private sector in supporting social projects, whether by providing technical and economic expertise or by contributing to solving financial problems within their corporate social responsibility strategies.
5) The social inclusion challenge
Social entrepreneurship, due to its capacity to build human and social capital within communities, could be the innovative solution that Mediterranean countries need, in order to fight high rates of unemployment and tackle social challenges. SEs can generate direct and indirect employment, especially among youth, building on a general trend in countries where we can already observe young people’s strong involvement in solving social problems through innovation and technology.
Moreover, there is a huge potential and expectation around increasing female participation in the economy if social enterprises can reach significant scale in MENA countries. In spite of global discourses supporting women’s access to social entrepreneurship as an effective solution to labour market inequalities, to be impactful policies must be accounting for the multiple obstacles hindering women’s entrepreneurial activities, tackling the existing vulnerabilities and exclusion from social protection and decent work policies.
To further explore challenges and opportunities linked to the development of Social Entrepreneurship Ecosystems in the MENA Region read the MedUp! briefing based on a cross-country analysis of national ecosystems in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan conducted between 2019 and 2020.