Lockdowns across the world. Social distancing, isolation and quarantine commonplace. What does that mean for social enterprises that usually work directly with vulnerable people and rely on face-to-face communication? We spoke to social entrepreneurs in the UK, Turkey and South Africa to find out how they’re taking on the challenge.

Over the past few weeks, our priorities have shifted in ways we could barely have imagined before. With more and more people under orders to stay at home, the focus is on the essentials: food, toiletries, medication, vital transport – and demand for these has leapt. Some social enterprises are well-placed to deliver on (and benefit from) this. Amsterdam-based food delivery company FOODLOGICA – which uses electric vehicles to transport goods – says custom has ‘exploded’ and is calling for more drivers. Who Gives a Crap, which donates half its profits to building toilets, says that demand for its toilet paper in the UK is about 20 times higher than usual.

But others –  especially those working directly with vulnerable people – are having to rethink the way they work, at least for the foreseeable future. This, in some cases, involves a total restructure of their organisation, while others are able to use technology to shift their services temporarily. For all, though, getting it right is complex – and urgent, both for those they’re serving and for the sustainability of their own business.

Here’s how social enterprises are rapidly adapting to a new way of working under the coronavirus cloud.

Young people: Harambee, South Africa

There are more than 3 million unemployed 15-24 year olds in South Africa. And with a three-week government lockdown announced late last week, it’s impossible to know what the future of work looks like for young people.

“What are our economies going to look like on the other side of this pandemic? How are young people going to be ready for that? These questions are preoccupying us 24/7,” says Maryana Iskander, CEO at youth employment accelerator and social enterprise Harambee, one of the winners of last year’s prestigious Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship.

The organisation works with 100,000 young people across South Africa annually, providing services including work readiness training, work seekers support, and online learning, with a team in Rwanda too. In one way, the organisation was already prepared for this year’s crisis: recognising that it was costly for many young people to travel to Harambee venues, it established a contact centre two years ago to complement its face-to-face activities. “Phone proved to be one of the most powerful in-between channels – one human talking to another human.” And it’s this basis that they are now building on. “We’re ramping up phone calls, SMS, social media, WhatsApp, voice recordings,” explains Iskander.

But aside from needing to shift the medium through which they interact with young people, Iskander recognises that what they are now communicating also has to change: “it’s not easy to help young, economically disenfranchised work-seekers transition into work when companies are shutting their doors”.

“What you were doing three weeks ago might not be relevant any more.”

And so Harambee’s solution is mass communication. In the spirit of its namesake (Harambee translates as ‘all pull together’), it has just launched an online campaign, ‘3 million 3 weeks’. Partnering with the government and other youth development organisations, they have set a target of reaching 3 million young people “who are excluded from the economy” during the three-week lockdown.

“The idea of the campaign is to enable others,” explains Iskander. This means using Harambee’s extensive channels and ability to create content to help other youth organisations communicate with their networks. By pooling together, there will be an “army of people responding” to young people, making them feel as though “someone is paying attention to [them]”. The campaign will aim to provide accurate, reliable information about the pandemic, guidance on how to stay employable during this period of waiting, and information about opportunities and jobs – now and in the future.

And what does that future hold? Iskander’s immediate answer: “Getting behind government and helping them be an effective answer for society.” Longer term, she’s conscious that adaptability is key; Harambee’s motto of “staying in love with the problem more than staying in love with your solution” is even more poignant nowadays. “What you were doing three weeks ago might not be relevant any more,” she says.


This is an extract from an article was written by Sasha Gallick that appeared online on Pioneers Post (2 April 2020) under the headline “Halting human contact: how social enterprises are rethinking their business models during Covid-19“.

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