World Creativity and Innovation Day: How social startups can help communities in crisis find solutions to challenges around them

April 21, 2019

By Selene Biffi, UNDP RE-INTEG Project Manager

With over 16 year’s experience in setting up social ventures, I have seen the power of social entrepreneurship to effect change, and to do so in innovative and creative ways.

Social startups can help communities to rebuild their social and economic fabric by building the ecosystems and businesses they need, and to find their own creative and innovative solutions to the development challenges they see around them. Such startups can cut across sectors, and be multi-effective, allowing communities to create the futures they want to see.

 This is especially important in Somalia, which is emerging from protracted conflict and crisis, and is still building a full private sector ecosystem. It is doubly important for people in displaced communities, who may not have access to a range of services or find it difficult to access ecosystems that could assist them.

To support communities in building social startups, in December 2018, UNDP, together with the EU and the Benadir Regional Administration, launched the first course on social entrepreneurship for people in displaced communities in Somalia. Five hundred IDPs (internally displaced persons) in Mogadishu took part in the course and learned the basics of social startups, how to build a product from scratch, and also basic accounting. The course focused on using social business to address challenges such as water and sanitation, food production and agriculture, public health, waste management and renewable energy, among others.

The social entrepreneurship course is part of a joint ‘RE-INTEG’ project which is working to find long term, durable and sustainable ways to help communities come out of protracted displacement in Mogadishu.

When we asked students about their experience with the course, several replied: “We thought it was going to be just like any other business course, but it is not… it took us some time to understand that social entrepreneurship is different, and that the products we are building must make money but also be useful to our communities”. Another student pointed out that “We really must think a lot about possible business ideas in this course; I have already presented a lot of ideas but I am still not there yet… I may look into the possibility of recycling metal scraps into something new”. A third one, working on a business model canvas about shoes made from recycled materials, added: “we know our communities, and we strive to build products that are high quality and low price”.

Many of the men and women taking part in the course have now started testing their prototypes with family, neighbors and in the market, to collect feedback, using real examples of their product. Their ideas are innovative and wide ranging -  mattresses made of coconut fibers and cutlery from recycled metal, not to mention cleaning products, baskets, bags and all sorts of sauces and chutneys, among others. In all products, we saw creativity, dignity and hope.

The students with the best ideas from the course will go into a UNDP supported incubator, as part of the RE-INTEG project, to develop their ideas further.  There is much more to do, but I cannot help thinking about how far social entrepreneurship can go in Somalia, as communities use their talent and creativity to drive their own solutions to the challenges they face.