Breaking the mould: Charting a new path for sustainable entrepreneurship

Image credit @Zahara Chetty

Step aside Jeff

As entrepreneurs, we often look to Silicon Valley as the epitome of success, with a focus on creating unicorns and quick exits. Everyone and their grandmother wants to become the next Jeff Bezos. However, this narrow definition of success is no longer sufficient in our changing world. In fact, it’s downright harmful.

The world is facing some of its biggest challenges, especially in developing countries where poverty, hunger, poor health, and environmental degradation persist. Entrepreneurship has the potential to bring about innovative and sustainable solutions that can improve the lives of people and communities in these countries — but not if we continue to see the bottom of the pyramid as just another market to exploit and swoop in on, like colonial-era vultures eating up the very solutions that need time to grow.

No, we don’t need an app for that

While the Silicon Valley model of startup entrepreneurship has made waves in the tech industry, it may not be the answer to solving the complex challenges in previously colonised countries (aka developing world). With its focus on rapid growth and financial returns, it often misses the mark in responding to our local challenges. The pressure to achieve quick results and high returns detracts from the importance of building sustainable and responsible businesses that are locally rooted and address core issues. We often find a myriad of short-lived solutions that start with a technology-first approach — wasting everyone’s time, money and effort.

The surface-level entrepreneurial success marked by adapted business models and sales channels to suit local consumer habits, but is often marred by the consumer cost of social and environmental degradation that the product or service has massively contributed to. These models limit the ability of entrepreneurs to properly engage with the community and understand local conditions and cultural nuances, leading to solutions that are not well-suited to community needs.

Look beyond the financial year

There is a growing need for local and long-term solutions that are rooted in the principles of social and regenerative entrepreneurship. We live in a world facing complex and interrelated problems, from climate change to income inequality. If we’re trying to make a difference, we need a more innovative approach to entrepreneurship, one that is more focused on mid to long term impact and sustainable solutions. We need to create holistic solutions that understand the ecosystems in which they operate — and that is not something you can build in a couple of days.

Taking the long view and focusing on solving local problems in a sustainable manner, regenerative and social entrepreneurs can create more resilient and profitable businesses that benefit the entire ecosystem. They can build strong relationships with their communities, cultivate dedicated and engaged teams, and cultivate long-term customer loyalty.

Local is lekker

Social entrepreneurship is all about creating positive impact in communities by developing solutions that address unmet needs, empower people, and promote sustainability. Regenerative entrepreneurship takes it a step further by creating solutions that restore and rejuvenate the environment and local communities.

Imagine a social entrepreneur in Africa who provides access to clean water and sanitation for rural communities. Or, imagine a regenerative entrepreneur who develops a business that regenerates degraded lands and provides food and income for farmers. These businesses are more likely to be sustainable and have a lasting impact because they are based on local needs and contexts. It’s not just about the quantity of sales we can make from this market or how to manipulate them into affording it — and it shouldn’t be.

Collaboration not exploitation

By working closely with local communities, entrepreneurs can identify unmet needs and develop solutions that are culturally and socially appropriate, leading to a more sustainable impact. It’s not just about businesses creating things that sell. We must consider its impact on the ecosystem — long term. It can create jobs and spur economic growth or it can create unemployment and poverty. It can add to environmental regeneration or its degradation. It can clear up pollution or create it.

The road to success is not always easy, but it is incredibly rewarding. When we take the time to build businesses that are based on values such as empathy, creativity, and collaboration, we have the opportunity to make a real difference in the world. By choosing to focus on creating meaningful impact, we can become a powerful force for change. The time has come for us to create a more contemporary version of entrepreneurial success that transcends the Silicon Valley model and prioritises the well-being of both people and the planet.

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