The world is facing a new set of social and environmental challenges. Though these challenges are more intermingled and faster-moving than ever, they should not scare us. In 2015 the United Nations unveiled seventeen interconnected global goals, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), that serve as a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all". But to achieve them, a whole-of-society approach is needed, including a committed engagement of the private sector in scaling up grassroots solutions.
Why the business sector is important to accelerating progress towards the SDGs
SMEs and startups with their contribution to national economies, particularly in developing countries, have a major role as job creators and accelerators in achieving the SDGs. The World Bank estimates that 40% of the GDP of emerging economies such as North Macedonia will be coming from SMEs and startups by the year 2030. SMEs and startups represent over 90% of the global business population and account for 60-70% of all employment. If the private sector is expected to contribute 70% of the efforts in humankind’s pursuit of achieving the SDGs by 2030, the impact made by startups and SMEs will be crucial. A small subset of these startups and SMEs are impact-driven, meaning that their primary focus is on solving problems and acting in the interest of the greater good, even at the cost of sacrificing a portion of their profits. These startups are crucial for bottom-up approaches to solving global problems and programs such as Accelerate2030 are fundamental in helping such companies rise to the global stage.
Impact-driven startups in North Macedonia
As of writing, there is no law in the Republic of North Macedonia that specifically defines what “social entrepreneurship” or a “social enterprise” is. Despite this, social entrepreneurs or impact entrepreneurs have always been a unique category precisely because they are not driven so much by profit as they are by the change they seek to bring about. A few attempts have been made over the years to define this category of enterprises that are social and impact-oriented but most of the attempts so far have not yielded concrete results in terms of policy or national data collection.
It is therefore difficult to estimate how many companies and startups in the country are operating as social/impact enterprises as the nature of their businesses is not recognized in official statistics. The current policy situation is also disincentivizing entrepreneurs from starting impact-driven startups as they are treated no differently by the law than regular for-profit companies.
In the European Union, registered social enterprises account for 2 million entities and as such represent 10% of all registered businesses. Moreover, 11 million people or 6% of the whole workforce in the EU work in enterprises with some social impact. If North Macedonia aligned its policy framework on social enterprises with that of the EU, we estimate that 5000-8000 enterprises would be operating as social enterprises in the country. Of course, this number should be taken with a pinch of salt as it is extrapolated from current EU trends and not from national data.
How Accelerate2030 is helping startups scale their impact
In 2016, Impact Hub Geneva and UNDP Geneva launched the Accelerate2030 program which, to date, is the largest startup scaling program that connects entrepreneurship with the Sustainable Development Goals. The program is being implemented in 20 countries and this year for the first time it was implemented in North Macedonia by two accelerators, tech accelerator Seavus Accelerator and social impact accelerator Business Impact Lab, with strategic support from UNDP North Macedonia and its Accelerator Lab, as well as support coming from the state Fund for Innovation and Technology Development and SwissEP, a Swiss-funded entrepreneurship program.
Accelerate2030 identifies the most innovative businesses in emerging and developing countries and covers all major topics that are important for the development of early-stage startups, such as access to finance, marketing, sales, business development, public relations and more. What is unique in this program are topics that are related to impact measurement in relation to the SDGs, strategies to scale startup impact, and leadership and wellbeing, known as Sustainable U.
The program consists of two phases, one national and one global. During the national phase, the selected startups go through four months of intensive work with more than 20 national and international mentors. This phase is filled with Q&A sessions and individual sessions where startups work individually with each mentor on their business cases.
Besides the content and support from experts and mentors, a crucial element of the program is the peer exchange happening among the entrepreneurs on the national level. Of course, being part of a global program also created opportunities for Macedonian entrepreneurs to connect with entrepreneurs from other countries, such as Columbia, Nigeria, and China, to learn from each other and to share their entrepreneurial experience.
In the first iteration of the program, seven startups from North Macedonia were selected based on their potential for impact and scalability. The selected startups work in different areas and have unique stories behind their business model.
AirCare is a web and mobile app that aggregates and visualizes open air quality data to help its users understand what they are breathing at any given time. With over 500,000 downloads to date, AirCare has helped increase public awareness of air pollution, has spurred governments to implement greener policies, and has moved businesses to reduce their environmental footprint.
Bintern is an online platform that connects students and unemployed people with companies offering internships and jobs. Their mission is to help companies create the workforce of the future by giving them the tool to find the best hires from a growing pool of talented young people.
Mama Organa is a social enterprise that produces quality organic fertilizers and substrates from food waste, empowering farmers and urban gardeners to minimize their environmental impact. All their packaging and labeling is biodegradable, printed with water-based inks, with a mission to keep the environment clean and to reduce waste.
eBionics is a prosthetics company on a mission to provide affordable bionic arms that can be purchased only directly by the end-users. Their Venus Arm is advertised as the most affordable bionic arm in the world as the company does not charge for shipping, labor, profits for the manufacturer, and the supplier. eBionics achieves this by designing a bionic arm that anyone can order online and assemble within an hour, without any previous experience.
Razgovor.mk is an online psychological counseling platform and mobile app providing affordable access to quality licensed mental health professionals. Their focus is on middle- and low-income countries and regions where 76-85% of those with severe mental disorders do not receive treatment.
Generation Impact is an impact travel mediation platform that empowers socially conscious individuals to provide humanitarian and development aid in destinations around the world. Through their easy-to-use platform, Generation Impact provides individuals and corporations that want to make a difference in the world with information and access to impact trips, projects and experiences.
Photonica is a green and renewable solar energy startup on a mission to solve the intermittency challenge of Concentrated Solar Thermal. Starting fresh from first principles, they are deploying cutting-edge technologies with a roadmap to reinvent and commercialize the next generation of Solar Power Tower technology with storage.