Monday, April 26, 2010

Innovative Solutions for Addressing Global Poverty on Display at the Global Social Venture Competition

The finals for the 11th Annual Global Social Venture Competition took place in Berkeley on April 22nd and 23rd and what a contrast it was to the conference I attended two days prior and described in my previous post. This was an amazing competition that began with over 500 entrants from more than 30 countries. The 16 finalists presented business plans for social ventures using technology and innovative approaches to solving social and economic problems that give rise to global poverty.

I was able to see almost all of the final presentations and can attest to the extraordinary level creativity, professionalism and passion exhibited by all the teams. Ruma, the Grameen Foundation supported social venture I have been mentoring took second place. This is a micro-franchising operation that has already helped more than 2,000 poor women in Indonesia start their own businesses and lift their families above the poverty line that I have written about in earlier posts.

The first place winner of the competition was a team from Stanford University that has started a company called Re:Motion Designs. They have developed a polymer-based polycentric knee joint that can be manufactured for less than $20. In a very moving and powerful presentation they demonstrated the life-changing nature of this invention for poor amputees living in developing countries.

The winner of the Social Impact Assessment award was a team from UC Berkeley called WE CARE Solar that provides obstetric health facilities with solar power for lighting, mobile communications and essential medical devices. The innovative portable, plug and play solar-electric system they have developed is being distributed, installed and maintained by local market-based capacity and partnerships. Their product is designed to reduce maternal and infant morbidity and mortality in developing countries.

The conference also featured two excellent keynote speakers, Wilford Welch the author of a new book “The Tactics of Hope—How Social Entrepreneurs are Changing our World” and Neal Keny-Guyer, the CEO of Mercy Corps, a leading international humanitarian and development organization with operations in 40 countries. Both stressed the critical role of social entrepreneurs in creating new solutions for addressing the problems of global poverty with new approaches and solutions that bridge the efforts of traditional NGOs and government ODA with market oriented enterprises.

Wilford Welch described the role of social entrepreneurs as being primarily focused on solving social or environmental problems, “riding the boundaries” between waves of change from one paradigm and the next, looking for systemic solutions, seeking replicable and sustainable solutions, open to establishing alliance with disparate and unlikely partners, listening at the local level to the people affected by social problems and engaging in intergenerational collaboration. In fact, to this latter point, I was excited to learn that as a member of the “Encore Generation” I have a role to play in this intergenerational collaboration!

Neal Keny-Guyer also talked about the social entrepreneur reaching out to traditional NGOs with new ideas and bringing the changes that are happing in India, China and Brazil to more fragile states. He outlined the basic principles of social entrepreneurship as: putting people first; practicing the 3 Rs—Relief, Recovery and Reconstruction; doing what’s best for the local economy and seeing crisis as opportunity. He noted that prior to the recent earthquake that devastated Haiti the country had been, on a per capita basis, one of the largest recipients of Official Development Assistance. Nevertheless, the country had a very low level of self-sufficiency. The current relief, recovery and reconstruction efforts in Haiti, he noted, should be seen as an opportunity to re-build the country such that it becomes sustainably self sufficient.

In the final analysis, my take-away from both conferences is that while we need to ensure that we are doing our share in terms of providing official assistance to developing countries, this will not be sufficient to end extreme global poverty. Without the efforts of social entrepreneurs bringing innovative business approaches and developing new technologies that directly address the needs of the poor, we will not create sustainable, scalable solutions that will eradicate poverty. The passion and creativity on display at the Global Social Venture Competition is best evidence I have seen that there is hope for ending global poverty in our time.

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