Anyone with any knowledge of Lebanon knows that the country is perpetually described as teetering on a cliff’s edge, frequently stuck in political stalemate, and with infrastructure that leaves much to be desired. And yet, amid all this insecurity is the trope of the entrepreneurial Lebanese. Because, despite the difficult living standards, rampant corruption, and resignedness of citizens who must deal with the country’s various problems, there are a fraction who find themselves inspired by the situation around them into creating solutions for societal problems—and making some cash at the same time. And there is nothing wrong with that. Social enterprise is described in Forbes Magazine as for-profit businesses with “a mission to tackle global issues, such as alleviating hunger, improving education, and combating climate change.” In order to achieve these goals, these businesses “might fund specific programs, partner with governments or existing philanthropic entities, or follow a one-for-one donation model, and work on either the local or international level.” This is what we are seeing in Lebanon today.
In the past few years, Lebanon has witnessed a wave of startup ecosystem actors—including venture capital funds, investors, accelerator programs, and other financial and advisory entities—seeking to help Lebanese entrepreneurs go from ideation to a financially sustainable and profitable enterprise. These entities have focused on startups’ early-stage ideas and later stages of growth. Groups such as makesense, as well as Berytech and Fondation Diane, were established to equip citizens with the necessary innovation tools and design-thinking expertise to help social entrepreneurs achieve their mission.
The social entrepreneurship movement was born of a need to sustainably power changemakers, who would in turn would pass down their expertise, creating an expanding network of people using business to enact social change. It is a way to introduce a revenue-generating engine to social initiatives and make them self-sustainable. What differentiates social entrepreneurship from nonprofits and NGOs that are actively working on solving world challenges is that the latter model is one based on constant fundraising—and this, more often that not, is unsustainable. In other words, if the money runs out, the work stops and its impact with it. This is not to say that nonprofits and NGOs are not important—they are vital part of efforts to alleviate poverty, stall climate change, and solve other challenges. Social entrepreneurs would argue, however, that these groups need to be supported by similar yet self-sustaining initiatives like social entreprises. As they are less well-known than NGOs, it may not be clear to some what a social enterprise encompasses. Put simply, revenue plus impact equals social entrepreneurship.
Social entreprise initiatives drive impact and are based on a business model designed to spread that impact and make it more sustainable. In Lebanon, as elsewhere, this means using a business approach and utilizing the resources available for startups to creatively solve various societal issues, ranging from lack of transportation to gaps in the medical field. Having a financial engine behind it allows a social enterprise to scale up, grow, and spread across different regions. Meanwhile, an allocated budget permits the social enterprise to sustain its impact and gives the team behind it the chance to solve new challenges and adapt their business model based on the community’s needs.
People across the world are facing similar problems. Local changemakers are working on plans that would help solve challenges their communities are facing, and what they require is communication links with like-minded individuals elsewhere. Such contact would allow ideas and solutions to travel across borders. Global platforms, such as change.org and onebillionrising.org, help create these links by sharing content that brings attention to critical civic issues and sheds light on successful social enterprises around the world. The fact that many challenges are simultaneously global and local makes such platforms imperative for inspiring change in far-flung communities.
Establishing a social enterprise
In order to set up a social business, you need two things: a sustainable business model, and a challenge to be solved. A good starting point is the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs), a blueprint to address comprehensive local and global issues by bringing multiple stakeholders together to take action. These 17 SDGs address universal challenges. However, assessing how best to tackle them is difficult. This is why makesense and other community-based actors were formed, in order to create the networks needed to tackle these global challenges by using social entrepreneurship to equip citizens with a platform, creative design thinking tools, and inspiration to take action. This civic movement has allowed entrepreneurs to connect to an extensive network of citizens for multiple purpose collaboration and customer reach. By creating this interconnected world under the umbrella of social entrepreneurship, many successful, sustainable ideas are traveling across borders. Changemakers do not need to be based in their country’s capital or tech hubs, they just need to be trying to create a solution to local issues. Most successful ideas were assessed based on impact, trial and error, and community support.
An opportunity for Lebanon
The list of challenges faced by the Lebanese is overwhelming. In Beirut, complaints over water shortages and the daily electricity cuts are frequent—yet those living outside the capital have it much worse. Traffic congestions, slow internet speeds, and poor infrastructure are just some of challenges that the Lebanese must navigate on a daily basis.
While the concept of social entrepreneurship might appear new to some, many are in fact practicing it within the scope of their work, without realizing they are doing so. In Lebanon there are different social entrepreneurial support systems scattered across the country, from the Tripoli Entrepreneurs Club (TEC), in the north, to the Jubaili Workhub, powered by Antwork, in the south. Such networks are well aware of the many problems that exist in Lebanon and are looking into impact-driven ideas backed by business models. Now is the chance for Lebanese citizens who are fed up with the way issues are being handled in the country to confront the status quo, while making a living from it. In the past eight years or so, financial support from different international and local funders has been given to ideas bringing change, at least enough to establish themselves in order to proceed. The financial sources are available in Lebanon, the challenges are very much in evidence, the motivating anger felt by citizens is intense, and the ideas are here. So why not go for it?
Lebanon has witnessed the rise of many social enterprises: FabricAid, the first second-hand clothes collector and distributor in Lebanon, which collects donated clothes, cleans and fixes them, then sells them at a lower price through pop-up stores around the country; Caesar Cider, an apple cider beverage sold around the country that emerged from the apple crisis in Lebanon, in which 40 percent of farmer’s apple crops were rotting due to the inaccessability of land export routes via Syria; and CIVVIES, a Lebanese eco-friendly brand that works with vulnerable communities to produce uniquely designed sustainable fabrics from recycled polyester and natural linens. All three social enterprises have won multiple awards and competitions since their inception, and have been supported by my organization, makesense Lebanon, mainly through tailored brainstorming workshops. They are sustainably assisting Lebanese communities and benefiting the environment by recycling products, among other methods.
Meeting the social entrepreneurs behind these ideas and listening to their stories and the impact they are making, motivates others to at least ask how to take the first step and make a difference. An observation that has been made by makesense over the years is that people around the world do want to make a change, but they do not know how to start. This is where a community plays an important role—its power lies in the knowledge shared during discussions. Lebanon, given its small size and tight-knit communities, has an advantage. People residing in Lebanon are more often than not connected to someone who could offer useful advice to someone else. Bringing these social dynamics into a local community of social entrepreneurs and citizens would empower and support the community. People all over the world want to make an impact on their societies, all while ensuring financial sustainability in order to survive. As risky as it might sound, there are many success stories out there that deserve to be heard. If social enterprise booms, the idea of a better Lebanon wouldn’t only exist in dreams and in ‘what if’ conversations, but would start appearing in our everyday lives. Many challenges are yet to be met with ideas, and many great ideas are yet to be heard. Social entrepreneurship in Lebanon has room to embrace numerous solutions and has developed enough to support ideas along the way. Perhaps teaching this notion in schools and emphasizing it in universities could create a new generation of social entrepreneurs. One can only highlight the importance of raising the next generation of citizens to become not just job seekers, but job creators and solution makers.