Latin America faces pressing social issues. 22 million youth neither work nor study. And two thirds of them are women who did not complete their secondary education and live in urban households in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution. In addition, 150 million people do not have access to regular healthcare services.
We could continue listing problems. But what if we saw these challenges as opportunities?
Unlike traditional giving in Latin America, where many either focuses in “the social”, or in “the economic”, at Njambre (a social impact holding based in Buenos Aires) we see high potential and resources where others see “excluded” people. And we build business opportunities right there.
Impact companies – but how?
To better understand the needs and leverage the resources of communities that our programs serve, we have developed a methodology based on three pillars that could be useful to bear in mind when designing social programs.
First, don’t consider the communities you serve as “beneficiaries of your aid”, but integrate them as key players. Building peer-to-peer relationships, to eliminate the “otherness”. On the one hand, enable new opportunities of income and wellbeing, and on the other, leverage their own resources in the design and implementation of your impact enterprises.
Second: unlock economic opportunities for groups that are generally excluded. Any approach –be it for or not for profit- that considers them passive “beneficiaries” and fails to address them as full economic participants in society is most probably bound to fail.
Third, tackle social problems with a market-based approach and make sure your team embraces this mind-set. On top of dedication and clear business models, a critical element to develop scalable models requires a team that fully apprehends it. Our experience is that still, many people lack an integrated mind-set and either focuses in “the social”, or in “the economic”. Integrating requires stepping into a new paradigm.
Our lessons from working with underprivileged neighbourhoods for more than two decades, is that bringing long-term social change is not only about believing in the potential of the people you serve. It is about setting concrete practices to unfold their potential. To do that, we have designed our impact companies following the below feuille de route.
1- Find the solution
The solution to a particular social problem usually comes up from an experiential –as opposed to theoretical- knowledge. This requires having a deep understanding on a particular social issue –the communities affected, the system failures causing the problem, the key players-, and a practical vision on how this issue could be addressed with a market-based approach.
One of our impact companies, Umana, was the result of one of its founder’s experience in the field. After working several years as a doctor, he identified gaps on the system and acknowledged low-income families’ interest and capacity to pay for low-cost but high-quality health services. Today, Umana’s has reached 68,000 individuals, offering access to services that were before unavailable. 90% of them are women.
2- Once the idea is set, an iteration phase starts
Here, co-creation with the communities affected by the problem tackled is essential. It is critical to set up, within the implementation process, devices to enable constant feedback on how the solution is effectively changing their daily life.
For Umana, we set up massive surveys. We call this process an “active and empathic listening”. It does not end in mere listening, but challenges the person to commit and be part of the solution, suggesting adjustments to improve the model. Again, this requires a flexible and empathic team to be able to capture subtleties.
3- Definition of the strategy phase
Once the strategy is defined and in place, it is essential to expand concrete roles for the communities involved throughout the entire company´s value chain -as producers, as distributors, as clients, in the management team, and eventually at a decision-making level. This has two objectives (a) continue to empower people and develop their talent, and (b) guarantee the company´s impact. This process needs to be gradual in time.