The power of social entrepreneurship to create a sustainable world

November 23rd, 2011 | 

by Dr Nawal Hosany

The concept of sustainable development stemmed from environmental movements in earlier decades. International forums, such as the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, brought sustainable development to the mainstream.  Today, the concept is often over-used and it may mean different things to different people, but it clearly goes to the heart of tackling a number of inter-related global issues such as poverty, food and water resources, energy security, and environmental preservation.

The Global Sustainability Panel, a high-level panel on climate change and development launched in August last year by the UN, has already started to address the broader context of development, encompassing the interconnected global issues and the socio-economic objectives in the world.

It is clear that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has recognised the categorical importance of climate change and environmental sustainability as the underlying issues that affect everything else the UN is doing, and that includes achieving the Millennium Development Goals and the need to address collectively the challenges that these issues pose to the world.

How can we successfully rise to these challenges? In theory, development that is sustainable and not damaging to the planet is doable. In reality, there are challenges at every step, and so far our record on moving towards sustainability in a collective manner, with a common framework, appears to have been quite feeble.

Around the world, a large part of population still lives without access to basic necessities, and in the most fragile environmental conditions, with typically limited financial means and the least adequate resources to address these challenges.

Environmental crises, including those induced by changing weather patterns, have the greatest impact on the poor. In the rural areas, land fragmentation, eroded slopes and degraded soils cause poverty, hunger and migration. Decrease water quantity in arid regions impact negatively agricultural productivity, increase the incidence of malaria and other diseases, and harm the biodiversity of ecological systems. In addition, the sea level rise could displace millions of people living in the Ganges and the Nile deltas, and threatens the existence of small island states.

Many countries facing water scarcity are low-income societies with rapidly growing populations that are usually unable to make costly investments in water-saving and irrigation technologies, food storage and energy generation.

Integrating these societies into the economic and development programmes can speed up the pace of sustainable development and contribute to improving their quality of life, because it builds an entrepreneurial platform that has tremendous positive impact and yields long-term benefits for the communities engaged.

In many of these communities, women have started to play a critical role in the spreading and adoption of social entrepreneurship schemes. Women are not only the principal caretakers of their families, but they also safeguard the natural resources around them, making vital contributions to resource management and conservation. Development policies and programmes that empower women in rural areas are key to a sustainable future.

The Zayed Future Energy Prize, a catalyst for the global renewable energy and sustainability community, has acknowledged over the years companies and individuals who have demonstrated the importance of social entrepreneurship and committed to improving and transforming the quality of life of their communities.

The 2009 Prize winner, Dipal Barua, brought solar energy to around 2.2 million people through the construction of almost 250,000 solar electricity systems throughout Bangladesh. He then went to set-up the Bright Green Energy Foundation and a scholarship programme comprising 45 technology centres for women entrepreneurs, training 5,000 women in rural area, with the goal to provide every household in Bangladesh access to affordable and environmentally friendly energy.

The International Development Enterprises India (IDEI), a runner up in the 2010 Prize, developed technologies for water access and irrigation that benefited over one million farmers throughout India and generated an income of over $1.2 billion, while also saving over 5.2 billion cubic meters of water, 602.8 million litters of diesel fuel, 700 million kWh electricity, and cutting the community’s carbon footprint by 2.23 million tons of CO2.

This year as Vice-Chair of the Selection Committee for the Prize, I was pleased to come across several other social entrepreneurship champions – small enterprises committed to improving and transforming the quality of life in impoverished rural communities, by setting up sustainable businesses run by local communities. Nuru Energy is such a champion. Sameer Hajee, the co-founder of Nuru Energy wanted to find a way to get technology into the hands of the people who needed it the most. He went on to arrange microloans so that the local community could afford to buy the LED lamps and the pedal-based electric chargers that would power their homes. Today 7,000 households in Rwanda have clean and affordable off-grid lighting.

There’s hope in social entrepreneurship examples like these. There’s hope that humanity has the ability to make devel­opment sustainable, and meet the needs of all 7 billion of us, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. There’s also plenty of inspiration for all of us, which points to the importance of initiatives such as the Zayed Future Energy Prize in fostering innovation and in facilitating the sharing of best practices and solutions among all players in the sustainability sector.

Dr Nawal Al Hosany is Associate Director of Sustainability at Masdar, and served as Vice-Chair of the Selection Committee for the 2012 Zayed Future Energy Prize

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