“How do we find a way to reconnect communities with local businesses, local resources, but more importantly, with each other?” This question, posed byKen Banks at Pop!Tech, is being echoed by an innovative generation of problem-solvers who are looking to strengthen local economies while simultaneously tackling community issues.
Banks is perhaps most well known as the founder of Frontline SMS , a text-message-based communications platform that is driving solutions ranging from health to microfinance in over 150 countries today. His current initiative, Means of Exchange, is exploring ways that technology can unlock the potential of local economic systems, especially through strengthening sharing economies.
For example, during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Means of Exchange used social media to deploy its first “cash mob,” a group of people who agree to each spend a small amount of money at a local business on a given day.
In less than two hours, a bookshop in Hackney, London sold 100 books—whereas in that last two days, it had sold only two. “The buzz created by social media drove people to attend, partly out of excitement, partly out of curiosity, partly out of a desire to see something positive happen on their main shopping street,“ Banks wrote on the Means of Exchange blog.
Image credit: Ken Banks
Cash mobs have a multiplier effect. By tapping into people’s desire to commune socially and participate in a larger movement, tools like cash mobs boost local businesses, connect people to local resources, create a culture of cooperation, and strengthen the community fabric.
Like Banks, more social entrepreneurs around the world are creating hybrid solutions that turn around struggling local economies while taking aim at social issues. Solutions that help communities generate more income can be leveraged for addressing deeply entrenched social problems.
For example, a social entrepreneur named Masnu’ah, working in Indonesia, is increasing economic opportunities in fishing communities while tackling gender issues like domestic violence. Fishing is one of Indonesia’s largest industries, with 95% of the activities performed by artisanal fisherfolk, who often struggle to earn a living. Women perform a significant portion of the duties involved in fishing, but their contributions often remain unrecognized, due to patriarchal gender beliefs. With few resources, women often experience domestic violence and are unable to seek help.
In an effort to both empower fisherwomen and engage men as part of the solution, Masnu’ah launched Puspita Bahari, a cooperative that teaches men and women to generate additional family income through fish processing. Men are allowed to manage a donated fishing boat only if they agree to attend gender equality workshops and let their wives join the cooperative. And as women fisherfolk increase their earning power, they also become more socially empowered and able to speak out for their own rights.
As many experts have noted, economic empowerment and social empowerment are intertwined. Other social entrepreneurs like Majid El Jarroudi are tapping into this principle by helping marginalized communities build economic connections to mainstream markets, thus laying the foundation for more inclusive and accepting societies.
For El Jarroudi, the 2005 French riots underscored the multifaceted discrimination experienced by low-income, diverse communities. The son of a Moroccan immigrant who became one of France’s first professional boxers, El Jarroudi helps local entrepreneurs from marginalized communities in France access mainstream business opportunities and is working to make large companies more welcoming of diversity.
El Jarroudi created an online platform, Agency for Diversity in Entrepreneurship, that transforms the purchasing practices of large companies so that they do business with suppliers in underserved neighborhoods. The platform identifies and vets promising local entrepreneurs and helps them build the capacity to meet the needs of mainstream companies. At the same time, companies often save money by working with local businesses and a larger cultural shift towards inclusiveness is created.
As these initiatives are demonstrating, energizing community economies can also open doors to solving serious social problems. Similarly, giving communities the tools to nurture strong cultures of cooperation and support can make all the difference for local businesses to thrive.
A key next step for social entrepreneurs like Ken Banks, Masnu’ah, and Majid El Jourroudi will be to grow local solutions into movements and to accelerate change at the level of decision makers and policy makers.