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Is the Congo Ready for Social Entrepreneurship?

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DRC course students.jpgBY FRED ROSE

Emerging economies are hotbeds of innovation for social entrepreneurship. They have business infrastructure to help young entrepreneurs, the general atmosphere encourages and rewards risk taking, and there is usually no shortage of social and environmental challenges to address. India is a great example of this, with a rapidly growing economy over the last decade and also a large number of successful and growing social ventures. In the past few years, a number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa seem to be going down the same path. According to the World Bank, in 2012, Rwanda's GDP growth was 8 percent, Ghana's was 7.9, and Nigeria was 6.8. Those aren't the double digit numbers of the go-go years in India and China, but these countries are clearly moving in the right direction.
GDP growth doesn't tell the whole story, however. Nor does it say anything about health, environment, social conflict or other issues. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a good example. In 2012 its GDP was 7.2 percent, but that was primarily driven by extraction of natural resources, which doesn't help the local population much. Other numbers tell the real story: Average life expectancy (49 years), Human Development Indicators (186 out of 187 countries ranked) and Ease of Doing Business (185 out of 189 countries ranked). Also, there has been a series of conflicts in eastern DRC since the late 1990s, when the conflict from the genocide in Rwanda essentially migrated to the Congo.

Given the poor business climate and a society worn out from conflict but yet with high needs, does social entrepreneurship even make sense as a possible way to address some of these needs? Well, there is only one way to find out. The University of Minnesota is a partner with USAID in the RESPOND project, part of the larger Emerging Pandemic Threats program. Specifically, we are helping to develop One Health capacity in universities in certain countries in central and east Africa. One Health is an approach to improve health and well-being through the prevention and mitigation of risks at the interface between humans, animals and their environments. My colleague Cheryl Robertson, a professor of nursing, and I were at the University of Kinshasa teaching a workshop on qualitative research methods and social entrepreneurship to faculty. The social entrepreneurship angle fits with developing new, innovative and practical ways to address One Health issues.

Thumbnail image for Kinshasa.jpgOn the surface, Kinshasa, the capital of DRC, looks like most any other African city. The traffic was predictably bad. There were some nice big new roads recently built by the Chinese, but the rest were in rough shape. Despite the few good roads, I saw a $120,000 Audi R8 sports car in downtown Kinshasa.  Like other countries in conflict, a few can profit greatly.

However, there were telltale signs things are different. The markets were not bustling like you see in a city like Kampala or Accra. There weren't the meat shops on the side of the road. Most of the street food sellers were just selling bread. Many people were walking because there was no other means of transport they could afford.

The marvelous book Reinventing Order in the Congo describes how Kinshasa has constantly reinvented itself and survives in spite of horrendous governance. Though the book is almost 10 years old, the few improvements since are mostly cosmetic. Even now, an article in the New York Times describes "a Kinshasa family ritual almost as common here as corrugated metal roofs and dirt streets: the 'power cut,' as residents in this capital of some 10 million have ironically christened it. On some days, some children eat, others do not. On other days, all the children eat, and the adults do not. Or vice versa."

Is social entrepreneurship possible in this environment? Can it increase the likelihood One Health students (veterinarians, nurses, public health professionals) can create meaningful jobs that help address the health challenges in DRC? It's important to recognize what we mean by entrepreneurship here. The streets in Kinshasa are full of entrepreneurs, but most have no other choice for work and their jobs are not intended to "scale." We are interested in the entrepreneurism people more typically associate with Silicon Valley.

On one hand, Kinshasa is full of opportunities for social entrepreneurs. Indeed, the Minnesota-based American Refugee Committee has co-created a successful social venture in eastern DRC. The challenges, however, are many. There is not much of an ecosystem for entrepreneurs, who need funders, mentors, other entrepreneurs and business services. DRC is an expensive place to operate; even Doctors Without Borders has struggled here.

The faculty in our class did get the spirit of what we were discussing and had some great ideas. However, while there is a culture of gritty survival in Kinshasa, there is also a fear of failure. Entrepreneurship is all about embracing failure, learning from it, and going forward. In the past, failure has not been a good thing to embrace in the Congo and it takes a while to change that view. As Doctors Without Borders indicates, years of conflict simply reduce community resiliency.

But the missions of IonE, Acara and RESPOND are all about addressing tough problems. That means you have to go where they are, you can't sit in a conference room in St. Paul. On this trip we barely stuck a toe in the water in DRC, with respect to social entrepreneurship.

My past work with social entrepreneurship in other countries has taken a while to establish. It took years to establish meaningful and productive relationships with universities and other partners in India. Acara started in Uganda last year with a course to Makerere students and is now following up this year with a collaborative course between the University of Minnesota and Makerere, with likely follow-up of a few University students going to Uganda this summer to pilot ideas and, in another year, long-term stays of students developing social ventures. That process could work in DRC - but I think that the social ventures will need, more than in the case of Uganda or India, to be initiated and operated by residents of DRC. There are too many complexities that are simply not understandable by an outsider. But co-creation of ventures is the best approach anyway, so I'm cautiously optimistic.

The people of DRC have a great inventiveness and survival instinct, and make a life for themselves every day, in difficult circumstances. How can that not lead to social innovation?

Fred Rose is director of Acara, a program of the Institute on the Environment. He manages the Acara Challenge and its associated summer institute. Photos of University of Kinshasa workshop participants and Kinshasa street scene courtesy of the author. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the University of Minnesota or the Institute on the Environment.

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