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Social Entrepreneurs

'Umsebenzi unqabile'. It was one of the first phrases I learnt in Xhosa. A commiseration. An attempt to show empathy… 'work is scarce'. How many times I heard the soft knock at the door and the words 'I'm looking for a job'. And all I could say was: I am sorry, I cannot help; I understand things are hard, 'Umsebenzi unqabile'.

Advert appealing for old tools for the MSR projectThis week I was privileged to guide a couple that wanted to meet South African 'social entrepreneurs'; people that stop and think about the army of unemployed people in South Africa - and do something about it. The government say unemployment is at 28%, many NGOs put the figure at 40 - 45% (over 8 million people) and certainly in some townships and rural areas the figure climbs to two-thirds. There are no grants for the unemployed, although extended family networks effectively share wages, pensions and disability grants to ensure that remarkably few people in South Africa starve, although many live on less than $1 a day; 'absolute poverty' as the UN would term it.

We had an inspiring few days. We met Charles Mezell, winner of international prizes and awards. Charles described one of his projects 'Men By the Side the Road': every day hundreds of thousands of men across the country stand at intersections hoping that a builder or contractor will stop and pick them up as labourers, reminiscent of how men used to stand at the gates of shipyards during the depression. They are always there, from early in the morning, in all weathers. They demonstrate that South African men are determined to go out and seek work - but too seldom does work come to them. So Charles has developed a network whereby these men are given access to training, tools, qualifications and placements. The project is self-funded through a scheme fixing and re-selling donated tools. The project is now active at over 500 intersections: an astonishingly successful project that is expanding very fast, nationwide.

'The Business Place' takes training further. Over lunch, Denise Dookoo described to us the centre she has established where micro-entrepreneurs (they may simply be selling fruit by the road) are offered training and access to micro-finance. They quite Making Beaded Creations at Monkeybizliterally work their way through the building, starting with elementary business principles on the ground floor. As the business expands so they are coached and learn how to manage their finances, register a company and employ others. By the top floor they are taking courses with titles like 'How to Export' and 'Business Process Re-engineering'. The Business Place is supported by companies, pro-bono, and a government-funded scheme providing vouchers for training. In the last few months they have helped hundreds of businesses become established.

Many people have heard of 'Carol Boyes', who produces very popular pewter 'functional art'. On the top floor of her design centre in Cape Town, we visited ceramicist Barbara Jackson, who runs a non-profit company called 'Monkeybiz'. Five years ago Jackson began to provide beads, free of charge, to women in the townships, promising to buy the designs they made. These extraordinary works of beading have become known internationally, and Monkeybiz has not only pioneered a new genre of beaded art but has become an important exporter. The project now supports over 450 township artists. Other new design companies, such as Streetwires, have developed wire-based functional art and focused on innovative office and home products: wire business card holders, wire magazine racks, radios. They employ 70 formerly jobless people as 'wiremasters'.

Products of MonkeybizSouth Africa is enjoying its longest period of sustained growth since the Second World War. Inflation and interest rates are at record lows. For thirty years the economy has not been so strong, nor optimism as high, as they are now. But all this means little to the mass of people that are outside the formal economy. Big business and government have shed jobs over the last ten years and these sectors will not be the solution to South Africa's massive rate of unemployment. It is the programmes that develop skills; the mentorship and training behind new entrepreneurs, and the wild ideas that create new industries: these are the pioneering schemes that hold out a branch of hope to the unemployed of South Africa.



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