My wife was looking to buy flowers recently for someone struck down by a life-threatening illness when she found a friendly face and the right gift, a cactus, in Petals n’ Roots, a concession inside the HiLo supermarket in Ligunea, St Andrew. On the face of it this was an average transaction, but Petals n’ Roots is anything but your average business – as your purchase helps provide employment opportunities to persons suffering mental illness and donates to MENSANA, a non-profit founded to meet the needs of such persons and their families.
Petals n’ Roots is one of a growing number of social enterprises – their purpose being to create profits to meet social or environmental needs – a ‘third sector’ of the economy thriving in no small way thanks to the efforts of the JN Foundation and USAID’s Social Enterprise Boost Initiative. Now expanded into a phase two, SEBI includes a total of 21 social enterprises – ranging from the Montego Bay Marine Park, which offers edu-tours and snorkelling, all with aim of protecting the marine environment; to the Portmore Self-Help Disability Organisation, which repairs disability equipment and consults on disabled accessibility – SEBI since its launch in 2012 has helped its first eight enterprises generate $50 million in revenue and employ 130 community members.
“Social entrepreneurs in Jamaica are part of a global movement using business as a force for good; showing us all how we can all use business to create social change. I believe that Social Enterprises are at the heart of the development of a country’s economy, and that the value they bring to Jamaica is immense. JN’s support of the movement is based on our belief that groups and organisations all over Jamaica understand the needs of society, and need help to be in a better position to meet those needs. That’s what SEBI is about,” explains JN Foundation General Manager Saffrey Brown.
What SEBI has done, ‘uniquely’ say supporters, has been to give the sector and participating social enterprises sufficient structure to survive thanks to expert business mentoring. Two examples of success have been the decision of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to fund SEBI and in the case of Grace Kennedy, owners of Hi-Lo, the recognition of a powerful conglomerate choosing to partner with a SEBI enterprise.
“We are open to the possibility of expanding the partnership with Petals n’ Roots; as it relates to other social enterprises, once we see alignment with our company’s objectives, we are willing to consider other partnerships,” says Hi-Lo General Manager Renee Nathan, adding that personally: “I applaud persons who see the importance of giving back in our communities. I am also very happy that her business has been well received by the public.”
A key SEBI partner, The Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ), discloses that the Ministry of Industry has agreed to include social enterprises within the upcoming review of the MSME Policy. This is viewed as critical to the sector as dedicated legislation in other countries has provided a more supportive environment for social enterprises to thrive. The PIOJ itself has agreed to include social enterprises in its surveys to measure their contribution to gross domestic product (GDP).
“SEBI has led the way in reintroducing this concept to Jamaica in a way that is more systematic and streamlined. In fact because of SEBI, the country now has several clear demonstrations on how a social enterprise should be setup; the value of SEs in creating community dynamics that has been sustainable and has shown how profitable (dollar value) social enterprises can be,” says Charmaine Brimm, PIOJ expert for social enterprises within its Community Renewal Programme.
If there remains skepticism about the role of social enterprises then the results and resulting awareness created by SEBI provide some answer. Social enterprises are occupying a unique space, or indeed gap in the economy, between the private and public sectors
“When people are mentally unstable, not having an occupation is one of the most serious problems,” says Carol Narcisse, founder of Petals n’ Roots and also co-founder of mental health charity MENSANA. “Many of these persons are highly skilled and just happen to get ill; or when they were at school and their whole educational and career trajectory gets derailed – so people really need meaningful occupations within their capabilities and which bring a sense of accomplishment.”
The balanced books of many social enterprises are also noteworthy. The recent Survey of Jamaica’s Social Enterprise Landscape, commissioned by SEBI, was conducted by the Mona School of Business’ Dr. K’adamawe K’nife, a leading authority in the field, found that of 70 social enterprises surveyed, 36 per cent were breaking even and 34 per cent in profit. The survey also revealed that many new social enterprises are being established with 54 per cent overall younger than five years-old. Meanwhile within SEBI the Mustard Seed Communities were able to raise their yearly revenue from J$4million to J$16 million thanks to business strategies they learned during phase one of the initiative.
While the private sector is sometimes criticised as being risk averse – the opposite of entrepreneurial spirit – social enterprises can inject drive and dynamism into the economy. The sector as a whole is buoyant: in the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce (JCC) business confidence survey for the third quarter of 2015, social enterprises, at 72 per cent, responded as being more optimistic than their private sector counterparts about prospects for 2016.
“The third sector is increasingly becoming an important part of the Jamaican economy: the private sector is contracting and the public sector rationalising. Within this third sector, opportunities for the social enterprises abound,” wrote Dr. K’nife.
SEBI project manager Opal Whyte has a similarly optimistic conclusion: “This is about ordinary Jamaicans addressing challenges using their own resources, talents and communities so it’s a truly internal problem-solving model.”
As for recipient of that social enterprise cactus? Discharged from hospital and on the road to recovery.
JN Foundation commissioned me to write this article, which appears in the latest issue of Nex Generation magazine.