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Improving lives sustainably?

January 21, 2020

Social entrepreneurship can have a huge impact, whether providing access to health care, clean energy solutions or improving education. DW's Manuela Kasper-Claridge met some outstanding founders in Davos.

Woman use a screwdriver at a workbench
Image: DW

Maryam Uwais realized very quickly that her jacket was too thin and her shoes too slippery for the snow when she arrived at the airport in Zurich. After that, the Nigerian bought the bare minimum of winter clothing at the airport and then went by train through the snowy mountains to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos.

Uwais is a lawyer and human rights activist. She is currently advising the vice president of Nigeria on the introduction of measures to combat poverty. "There are still huge disparities in our society," she says. "We have a huge number of poor people."

She wants to change that and on behalf of the government she has set up a social fund from which a kind of social assistance for the poor is financed. But getting payments is complicated because the poor often live in areas without internet and have no access to mobile phones or there is simply no electricity.

Now with the support of the World Bank, she is building a secure system that registers the poor and ensures that the money reaches those affected. So far 900,000 people have been supported. For each person, the system records exactly how many people belong to the household — how many women, men and children live in each household — whether there is access to water and much more. Nonetheless, Uwais says, "there is still a lot to do."

Read more: Davos braces for Trump-Greta showdown as climate change tops agenda

A sign advertising the World Economic Forum
The world's weathly and influential are holding their annual summit in Davos, Switzerland, until January 24Image: Reuters/D. Balibouse

Exemplary work for the disadvantaged

The Nigerian was recently recognized by the Schwab Foundation as a "Public Social Intrapreneur" — a corporate executive who behaves like an entrepreneur — for her innovative engagement within public structures. Over 20 social entrepreneurs have been invited to this year's World Economic Forum in Switzerland. They speak for the disadvantaged in this world and do work that is considered a model for many. One example is Megan Fallone, an Australian who manages the "Barefoot College," which was founded in India in 1971.

One of its projects is the training of women to become solar engineers in Tilonia, India. They learn to build, install, operate and if necessary to repair solar lamps — and thus have a job opportunity.

"My organization has, in its 47 years of existence, educated and brought learning to 4.5 million people. We have brought clean light to more than a million people across 93 countries through our rural access to energy program which is done by women who have never been formally educated," Fallone says, full of energy, at the meeting above the village of Davos.

Read more: India's water woes: Could special ATMs solve the lack of clean drinking water?

Oxfam study highlights inequality

Social entrepreneurs with impact

The Schwab Foundation has been supporting social entrepreneurs with know-how and its own network for 20 years. Recently, it has been investigating the impact that social entrepreneurs can have. Today, this includes 384 social entrepreneurs around the world.

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship was founded by Hilde Schwab and her husband Klaus, who was also the founder of the World Economic Forum. The report shows that social entrepreneurs have sustainably improved the lives of 622 million people in 190 countries.

"This report challenges the notion that models of social innovation can be dismissed as small, isolated islands of success amidst our overwhelming global challenges," emphasizes Hilde Schwab, co-founder and chairperson of the Schwab Foundation.

Hilde Schwab from the Schwab Foundation stands at a pulpit
The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship was founded by Hilde Schwab and her husband Klaus, who organize the WEFImage: DW/M. Kasper-Claridge

A small group at the WEF

Read more: Women work for free while billionaires accumulate wealth

This year the World Economic Forum expects 3,000 participants from all over the world, which means that social entrepreneurs only make up a small group. But they are participating in big discussion forums, and meeting with government officials and company bosses. Their model of entrepreneurial action with social impact is considered trendsetting.

"It is incredible that in the year 2020 we still have poverty in the way we have it in Latin America. Also, we have governments who don't know what people need. So you have uprisings in Colombia, in Chile and other countries," says Martin Burt, who founded his first social enterprise in Paraguay and now advises the Schwab Foundation.

Read more: South America's protests fueled by 'extreme' social inequality

Using blockchain to fight poverty

Solutions are needed that use modern technologies to combat poverty and inequality. Here, too, social entrepreneurs are developing pioneering projects. Irishman Joseph Thompson is a blockchain pioneer. His company AID:Tech wants to make money transfers transparent, safer and cheaper for everyone. "Blockchain for the social good," is what he calls his work, in conversation with DW.

The World Bank estimates that this year alone $550 billion (€496 billion) will flow back to developing countries from people who work outside their home country. That is more than all investments by multinational companies in developing countries combined. The problem is that such transfers are charged an average fee of 7%.

Joseph Thompson wants to massively reduce money transfer fees and has already set up successful blockchain projects in Tanzania, Serbia and many other countries. He and his company have already received 33 awards, including as a blockchain pioneer for the implementation of the United Nations' sustainable development goals — and now as a social entrepreneur from the Schwab Foundation.

"Improving people's lives" is his goal. To achieve this, he uses networks and wants to further market himself at the 50th World Economic Forum in Davos.