Dr. Amanda Kiessel

The International Conference on Social Enterprises and SMEs for sustainable development and poverty reduction concluded successfully last week.

Eminent speakers including foreign and local social entrepreneurs, industry experts and government stakeholders participated in the two-day event.

Making the keynote speech on the first day of the forum, Dr. Amanda Kiessel who is the founder of Good Market termed a Social Enterprise as a combination of a non-profit and a profit-driven entity in a sense that they’re both  mission-driven like the former and self-sustainable like the latter.

She said that it is hard to define exactly what makes venture a Social Enterprise. According to her all SEs fall somewhere on the spectrum between non-profits and for-profit businesses depending on several factors.

Dr. Kiessel however said the current economy in Sri Lanka isn’t conducive for Social Enterprises to thrive in because the system is ‘closed’ and infinite growth is not possible within this existing system. She emphasized the importance of changing into a better system by learning to adapt to changes better.

“Humans make the rules because companies and markets are social institutions and can change. Everything operates on rules. These rules reflect our values and these are changeable according to changing values,” she said.

She was however optimistic that the country was well on its way to establishing itself as home for successful SEs.

She said that the country already has a reputation for being generous; ranking among the top countries in the World Giving Index. The country being small, well connected and diverse were seen as other factors that contributed to making Sri Lanka an ideal destination for Social Enterprises.

Presenting her success story, Dr. Kiessel sad that it was important to understand that markets are social institutions and on that note creating a marketplace with specific rules is what worked out for them. Their rule was: ‘good for the people, good for the planet’.
Good Market started off with 30 vendors and has about 300 plus participants at present.
Even though the term SE is new to Sri Lanka she observed that it has in fact been a growing concept for many years.

Peter Holbrook, CEO of Social Enterprise UK making his presentation said that in his country Social Enterprises make up a significant part of the economy employing over one million people. He said that the growth in the SE sector over the last 10 years has surpassed the growth of SMEs and large businesses in the UK.

“SEs are everywhere. More and more people, particularly young people, buy from SEs because they share the same values that these businesses embody,” Holbrook said.
High level support from Parliament and private sector collaborations were seen as the key factors to have contributed to the success of the SE sector in the UK which currently counts about 78,000 ventures in total.

“It is possible to do a business in a very different way and be successful, with the help and support of governments and interested customers who are socially and environmentally conscious,” he said.

In his closing remarks, Holbrook said Sri Lanka has the potential to go far where Social Enterprises are concerned. In order for that to happen, he said the necessary policies will have to come into place and the environment will have to be fostered accordingly by encouraging consumers to be both socially and ethically conscious.

In mainstreaming the SE sector, Asoka Handagama, Assistant Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka said that the regulator is already involved in regional activities and in the development of a national SME Policy Framework. He said that currently the biggest challenge in mainstreaming SEs is the lack of a clear definition within a legal frame as to what a Social Enterprise is.

In its capacity as the regulator, Handagama said the Central Bank has certain limitations in terms of how much it can get involved in SE development. That said, the Central Bank can get involved on a policy level and also work with international financial institutions such as ADB and WB as a facilitator.

Deputy Minister of Public Enterprise Development Eran Wickremaratne who was the Chief Guest at the conference said: “Social Enterprises must become more than tinkering of the existing capitalist system and emerge as a truly transformative movement.”

In this regard, he emphasized the importance of businesses embracing a culture of suitability and operating on the collective good of the future of the planet and the human race.