Solving problems through social enterprise

Using the five whys to break things down

If you start thinking about all the global issues out there, you’re likely to get pretty depressed. They’re so big that you sometimes feel unable to change anything, and even if you try to change things it’s on such a small scale that it’s hard to see the impact.

Instead, take a step back from that and look at your local issues — either in your country, city or street. Now things should be looking a bit more manageable and hopefully more rewarding when it comes to getting out what you put in.

Whichever problem you end up choosing to tackle, it’s how you break it down that makes sure you are able to change it and have a wider effect, or even, a ripple effect.

Activism in action

Recently in the British news we’ve heard a lot about Greta Thunberg, an activist who started by simply refusing to go to school every Friday. This was all in protest against how corporates and governments were not safeguarding her future due to their environmental policies. Fast forward six months, and over a million students worldwide have joined in with her protest.

Sure, she is the exception to the rule, but she broke things down and looked at how she could make in impact. Instead of writing letters to large companies or the EU, or her Prime Minister, or the local Mayor, she thought about where she could make a bigger impact — at her school and in her community. She turned a problem where so many people feel helpless into one where she feels empowered. Now she’s having those talks with decision-makers, and we’ll see whether she can have any impact at that level.

Tackling your own problems

Before thinking about potential social enterprise ideas, we need to think about a few problems happening locally, as many feed into global problems. I recently asked students at my former school to name a global, national and local problem.

Here is what they came up with:

  • plastic waste
  • Brexit social divide
  • growing knife crime

Three problems that international bodies, governments, and whole civil sectors are trying to solve on a daily basis. The only way we, as individuals, can really have an impact on these is to dig further. For this we can use the 5 why method, a technique originally used by Toyota to help with rooting out faults and errors in their production and manufacturing.

Problem: Growing knife crime
Why 1: More young people carrying knives
Why 2: To protect themselves
Why 3: Scared of being mugged
Why 4: Don’t be feel safe on the streets
Why 5: Lack of police presence

Creating solutions

Now the bigger problem has been broken down into five reasons, some of which are easier to try to resolve than others as us as individuals.

For example, in order to feel safer on the streets, there could be some self-defense and conflict management training. To reduce the number of those carrying knives, there could be knife amnesty days and awareness building around the dangers of carrying your own knife. To protest or counteract the lack of police presence, there could be petitions, research on hotspots, community action to create safe routes or walking groups.

There are many ways to answer the ‘whys’ for this question, and we can do this exercise a few times to come up with different reasons.

How about social enterprise

You could argue that most of the solutions above are things that should get government funding or be delivered by the civil sector, and therefore turning them into a business idea is a lot harder.

This said, with the three models of social enterprise, there are many ways in which the above solutions could be funded.

Self-defence or similar training could be run on a profit-basis, which could then fund free training for the target audience of this problem. Kapap Academy from Singapore do just this.

The knives handed in as part of the amnesty could be upcycled into other products or resold appropriately, and the profits could go towards further amnesties or awareness days. One charity doing something similar is Steel Warriors, turning these knives into outdoor gyms.


Think about the problems that you and your community facing. Break them down individually by asking five whys, and see what solutions you can put to those smaller causes. Once you have some ideas, you can start thinking about completing your business model canvas — could it make money from trading on the market? Then you’re onto something social enterprise. If not, then you still might have a good idea for a nonprofit or charity.

Types of Social Enterprise — Embedded Models

A seamless model of impact and profit

Having previously looked at the external and integrated models, we move to the third model of social enterprise — the embedded model.

Impact and profit sources are the same

This model rarely exists unless the organisation was born as a social enterprise, as advanced planning and strategical thinking is required.

Put simply — it’s when the product or service you are offering, directly solves one of the social or environmental needs you set out to solve. Each unit or hour that you sell, has a direct positive impact which goes towards achieving your mission and vision.

It goes a lot further than the integrated model with this direct approach, as everything done is intentionally. A product design phase may have taken place to adapt or improve an existing product or service on the market to make it social enterprise appropriate.


Example 1 — Sanergy

One of my favourite social enterprises to talk about, Sanergy not only provided a simple solution to a growing problem, they went further and ensured there was a circular economy within what they do.

First off, they build what are effectively toilets in a portable style for slums and communities without toilets. These are franchised out to local entrepreneurs that can then make money in maintaining and offering them. Straight away, the toilet provides an income for an individual, whilst providing everyone else a safer, cleaner place to do their business.

Next up, the waste is collected from all of the Sanergy toilets. This means there isn’t illegal dumping or the need to build complex infrastructure that requires a large amount of time and funds, and can lead to the upheaval of communities. Once again, this provides further jobs.

Finally, with that waste, they treat it and turn it into further products such as fertilizer that local farmers can then use instead of potentially harmful chemicals.

It goes without saying, the amount of impact Sanergy must have on the community is mind-blowing, all through leasing of toilets!

Example 2 — Grameen Bank

Grameen Bank was founded by perhaps the most well-known social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus. They started off by offering microloans to people needing money to start or expand their business.

A fairly common service in developing countries right? Grameen Bank went many steps further to ensure it had an embedded business model.

The loans mainly target female entrepreneurs across Bangladesh, a country where in some parts women are shunned when it comes to owning or running a businesses.

Furthermore, it is a co-operative, and anyone borrowing money from GB is a member, meaning trust and participation is needed in order to successfully apply for a loan.

Finally, the interest charged on the loan is reinvested in other individuals applying for a loan. It is in this way that the simple offering of a loan, has turned into a sustainable social business where strategical decisions are influenced by those borrowing. The funds available to others across Bangladesh has grown exponentially, since there isn’t a group of stakeholders who are paying themselves bonuses.

Just like with Sanergy, the value comes directly from the ‘product’ itself — promoting equality, encouraging entrepreneurship, independence, financial literacy and economic growth.


This is social enterprise at its purest, where a problem was identified and a solution directly developed to solve the problem. Through the problem solving process, stakeholders, sustainability and impact were taken into consideration to produce a cycle that keeps giving.

Perhaps you have a social or environmental problem that you think you could solve? We would love to help you make it viable and sustainable.