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Article II: Social Ventures in Africa: What Can Go Wrong? By Brian Ray Dinning, JD, LLM

Article 2:  Social Ventures in Africa:  What can go Wrong?

By:  Brian Ray Dinning, JD, LLM and Social Venture Lawyer

June 29, 2012

Sometimes committing your life to a worthy cause like social ventures comes with many challenges and obstacles such as:  differing world views, different goals and objectives (especially from banks and investors who have financial goals rather than the founders and social venture partners who generally have charitable and social goals as well as financial goals), the unpredictable nature of people and a limitless host of other complications and factors.  Business and social ventures are hard work – let alone business and social ventures in Africa, where resources, personnel and supplies can be scarce and corruption, violence and theft are rampant.

 

The US Government published that over 50% of all businesses started in the US fail within the first five years.[1]  New Venture Lab – Equipping Christian Entrepreneurs, quotes interesting statistics from Harvard Business School noting that the failure rate of businesses can be as high as 95% (depending on how you define failure).  Their website, quoting a Harvard Business professor, provides:

 

“Most companies fail. It’s an unsettling fact for bright-eyed entrepreneurs, but old news to start-up veterans. 

 

But here’s the good news: Experienced entrepreneurs know that running a company that eventually fails can actually help a career, but only if the executives are willing to view failure as a potential for improvement.

 

The statistics are disheartening no matter how an entrepreneur defines failure. If failure means liquidating all assets, with investors losing most or all the money they put into the company, then the failure rate for start-ups is 30 to 40 percent, according to Shikhar Ghosh, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School who has held top executive positions at some eight technology-based start-ups. If failure refers to failing to see the projected return on investment, then the failure rate is 70 to 80 percent. And if failure is defined as declaring a projection and then falling short of meeting it, then the failure rate is a whopping 90 to 95 percent.

 

“Very few companies achieve their initial projections,” says Ghosh. “Failure is the norm.”[2]

 

 

While this is the reality for businesses in the United States, a University of South Africa study indicates that the rate of small business failure in South Africa can be as high as 80%.[3]  MIT and other business schools note that the failure rate of social ventures will likely follow that of other for-profit businesses.

 

The challenge is to continue working to improve the lives of the 400 million people living on less than $1.25 per day in Africa regardless of past failures or challenges.  As Nelson Mandela states, “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”  Quoting Vinod Khosla, billionaire venture capitalist and co-founder of Sun Microsystems: “There needs to be more experiments in building sustainable businesses going after the market for the poor. It has to be done in a sustainable way. There is not enough money to be given away in the world to make the poor well off.”[4] Researchers on social ventures at Duke note that: “We live in an age in which the boundaries between the government, nonprofit, and business sectors are blurring. This blurring results from a search for more innovative, cost-effective, and sustainable ways to address social problems and deliver socially important goods, such as basic education and health care.”[5]

 

Furthermore, Dees and Anderson realize that social venture projects and social entrepreneurs focus on the social impact of social venture projects and business-minded people focus on the financial returns thereby creating complexity.  “It is extremely hard to make strategic decisions about resource allocation or practical cost/quality tradeoffs when the social impact of these decisions is nearly impossible to measure in an efficient, timely, and reliable fashion.  It can become all too easy to focus too heavily on the more familiar, tangible and straightforward economic measures of success.”[6]

 

Businesses including social ventures fail for many reasons.  A New York Times columnist notes the top 10 reasons for small business failure:

 

“1. The math just doesn’t work. There is not enough demand for the product or service at a price that will produce a profit for the company.

 

2. Owners who cannot get out of their own way. They may be stubborn, risk averse, conflict averse — meaning they need to be liked by everyone (even employees and vendors who can’t do their jobs). They may be perfectionist, greedy, self-righteous, paranoid, indignant or insecure. You get the idea. Sometimes, you can even tell these owners the problem, and they will recognize that you are right — but continue to make the same mistakes over and over.

 

3. Out-of-control growth. This one might be the saddest of all reasons for failure — a successful business that is ruined by over-expansion. This would include moving into markets that are not as profitable, experiencing growing pains that damage the business, or borrowing too much money in an attempt to keep growth at a particular rate. Sometimes less is more.

 

4. Poor accounting. You cannot be in control of a business if you don’t know what is going on. With bad numbers, or no numbers, a company is flying blind, and it happens all of the time. Why? For one thing, it is a common — and disastrous — misconception that an outside accounting firm hired primarily to do the taxes will keep watch over the business. In reality, that is the job of the chief financial officer, one of the many hats an entrepreneur has to wear until a real one is hired.

 

5. Lack of a cash cushion. If we have learned anything from this recession (I know it’s “over” but my customers don’t seem to have gotten the memo), it’s that business is cyclical and that bad things can and will happen over time — the loss of an important customer or critical employee, the arrival of a new competitor, the filing of a lawsuit. These things can all stress the finances of a company. If that company is already out of cash (and borrowing potential), it may not be able to recover.

 

6. Operational mediocrity. I have never met a business owner who described his or her operation as mediocre. But we can’t all be above average. Repeat and referral business is critical for most businesses, as is some degree of marketing (depending on the business).

 

7. Operational inefficiencies. Paying too much for rent, labor, and materials. Now more than ever, the lean companies are at an advantage. Not having the tenacity or stomach to negotiate terms that are reflective of today’s economy may leave a company uncompetitive.

 

8. Dysfunctional management. Lack of focus, vision, planning, standards and everything else that goes into good management. Throw fighting partners or unhappy relatives into the mix and you have a disaster.

 

9. The lack of a succession plan. We’re talking nepotism, power struggles, significant players being replaced by people who are in over their heads — all reasons many family businesses do not make it to the next generation.

 

10. A declining market. Book stores, music stores, printing businesses and many others are dealing with changes in technology, consumer demand, and competition from huge companies with more buying power and advertising dollars.

 

In life, you may have forgiving friends and relatives, but entrepreneurship is rarely forgiving. Eventually, everything shows up in the soup. If people don’t like the soup, employees stop working for you, and customers stop doing business with you.  And that is why businesses fail.”[7]

 

 

Aside from the ten reasons noted above, in my experience with social ventures in Africa, the ventures did not work out as planned because of differences in goals and objectives between the partners, tension between the profit-making side and the social aspect of helping people and outlandish, intentional and unprofessional (and sometimes criminal) behavior and actions of others which interfered with, delayed or handicapped the social ventures.

 

Of all the reasons for small business and social venture failure noted above, it would be the outlandish, intentional and unprofessional (and sometimes criminal) behavior and actions of others, which caused our social ventures in Africa to either fail, be delayed or become handicapped.  In order to fully illustrate this point and to tell my side of the story, I will publish this seven part series complete with documents, video, photos, letters and email.

 

In addition to documents, video, photos, letters and email, there are also witnesses to most or all of this outlandish behavior including from the perpetrators themselves.  While some of these people are looking forward to a day in court against me, they will have to take the witness stand (under penalties of perjury) and answer for their outlandish behavior and actions and, hopefully, they will understand how their actions harmed the social venture projects, other investors and donors and the local people of Africa.

 

 

Article 3 is entitled:  Social Ventures in Africa:  Wextrust Capital – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

 

 

 

 

 


[1] Small Business Administration

[3] Mabaso, NR, University of South Africa (March 2008).

[4] MIT Entrepreneurship Review: From the Lab to the Land: Social Entrepreneurs Explore Appropriate Technology Dissemination (Nov. 26, 2010).

[5] Dees and Anderson, Duke Social Entrepreneurship: “For Profit Social Ventures,” (2003).

[6] Id.

[7] Goltz, J., “Top 10 Reasons Small Businesses Fail,” New York Times (Jan. 5, 2011).

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Forward to Articles: A New Business Model in a Blossoming Continent by Brian Ray Dinning, JD, Social Venture Lawyer

Social Entrepreneurship in Africa: A New Business Model in a Blossoming Continent

 By:  Brian Ray Dinning, JD, LLM and Social Venture Lawyer

 June 21, 2012

“I’m encouraging young people to become social business entrepreneurs and contribute to the world, rather than just making money. Making money is no fun. Contributing to and changing the world is a lot more fun.”
      

                             – Muhammad Yunus, Founder of the Grameen Bank

 

Social entrepreneurship is a partnership – it combines both social objectives such as feeding the poor, creating jobs, promoting education along with traditional business objectives of profit-making. Traditionally, an investor– like a Mega-Corporation—thinks of a project the same way a predator thinks of its prey. The goal is to extract as much capital as possible with little regard for the well being of the environment in which that capital lives. The new social venture model, recognizing that all boats rise with the tide, hopes to profit while making a “satisfied customer” of the environment. In plain speak, it means if we’re going to make money on business projects in Africa, then we must help the local people to create jobs, receive skills training and partner with the local Africans so that when and if we make profits from helping them develop their natural resources then we all share in those profits.  This is the first principle of social entrepreneurship and the first principle by which I guide my business ventures.

 

I have been privileged to work with social ventures in Africa since 1994 and have visited Africa as early as 1983 to visit my uncle and his family, who served as missionaries in Africa for 35 years. Following in the example my family set for me, I’ve been on three mission trips to Africa. These have been astonishing experiences that have left me grateful and happy to be able to help others. In my life, I’ve been blessed to help feed hundreds of children in Africa and to express my love and devotion to a beautiful people. By getting involved, even taking little steps, we can all touch people, helping to change the course of lives forever.  That is the essence of social ventures and social entrepreneurship – creating sustainability for the business, the employees and the local people – hopefully making a profit while doing good.

 

As you will see in my subsequent Series of Seven Articles, sometimes committing your life to a worthy cause like social ventures comes with many challenges such as: differing world views, oppositional goals and objectives (especially from banks and investors), the unpredictable nature of people, and a limitless host of other complications and factors.  Face it – business is hard – let alone social ventures in Africa – with at least half of all businesses in the United States failing within five years (a Harvard professor notes that up to 66% of all businesses fail from differing viewpoints between people in the start-up process).

 

However, helping those in need in Africa or elsewhere around the world is a cause worth fighting for and an opportunity for social ventures and socially-motivated organizations such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Oprah Winfrey or The Grameen Bank to make a tremendous positive impact.  We can all help by getting involved in helping others in your own home, in your neighborhood or city or any other place in the world where people need a helping hand.

 

Africa, once known as “The Dark Continent” is a booming economic giant with abundant natural resources, growing economies and a rapidly expanding middle class. Not surprisingly, the business world is noticing. As Forbes states, “African economies easily rank among the most resilient in the world. In the middle of the 2009 global economic recession, Africa was the only region apart from Asia that grew positively at about 2%.”  And it will get even better in 2012. Africa is favorably positioned to become one of the fastest growing regions in the world, and according to the International Monetary Fund, economic growth across the entire continent of Africa will be an amazing 6% in 2012.

 

Africa remains, however, largely misunderstood.  The media and news networks generally focus their stories on the negative news:  the dictators, conflicts, pirates, health issues and more. This negative bias by the media has led to ignorance on the part of the people of the developed nations of the world to the vast and burgeoning investment climate in much of Africa.  Of course, as noted above, the mega-corporations are all jumping on the bandwagon long before the rest of the world catches up.  This is how the mega-corporations seize their market share and maintain dominance, through recognizing the emerging economies, market opportunities and consumer spending trends before the rest of the of this world, and pouncing.  Currently, much of their attention is focused on the emerging markets of Africa.

 

Africa also has 400 million people living on less than $1.25 per day.  The mega-corporations cannot and should not reap the benefits of the abundant natural resources of Africa without first addressing the heart-felt needs of the local people for nourishing food, clean water, an opportunity for a job and the basic necessities of life. It is this basic principle that separates the social venture and socially-responsible companies from the mega-corporations.  Thankfully, social entrepreneurship is an economic phenomenon that allows the global innovator to recognize an investment opportunity or market trend and capitalize on it utilizing a unique and solidifying arsenal of tools such as social venture capital, new business structures, growing social awareness, social media, non-profit support and grassroots entrepreneurship.  Examining the social entrepreneurship model as it relates to the role of the social entrepreneur in Africa – as an emerging trend in an emerging continent – and discussing the value proposition of the idea of partnering with – or supporting – social entrepreneurs in Africa is the goal of my research and writing.

 

Social venturers or social entrepreneurs see the “greater good” in working on projects that have both a financial and social business purposes.  As stated by some social venture pioneers, social ventures are revolutionary and are here to stay.

 

“Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.”


- Bill Drayton of Ashoka Foundation

 

“Social entrepreneurs have existed throughout history. St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order, would qualify as a social entrepreneur — having built multiple organizations that advanced pattern changes in his “field.” Similarly, Florence Nightingale created the first professional school for nurses and established standards for hygiene and hospital care that have shaped norms worldwide. What is different today is that social entrepreneurship is developing into a mainstream vocation, not only in the United States, Canada, and Europe, but increasingly in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In fact, the rise of social entrepreneurship represents the leading edge of a remarkable development that has occurred across the world over the past three decades: the emergence of millions of new citizen organizations.”


- David Bornstein – How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas

 

“We need to reverse three centuries of walling the for-profit and non-profit sectors off from one another. When you think for-profit and non-profit, you most often think of entities with either zero social return or zero return on capital and zero social return. Clearly, there’s some opportunity in the spectrum between those extremes. What’s missing is the for-profit finance industry coming in to that area. Look at the enormous diversity of the for-profit financial industry as opposed to monolithic nature of the non-profit world; it’s quite astonishing.”


 -Bill Drayton – Ashoka Foundation 

 

Article I in the Series is entitled:  Introduction to my Social Venture Work in Africa.

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