Students explore social entrepreneurship in post-apartheid South Africa

Cape Town, South Africa— Taking the classroom beyond Boston, forty students from Northeastern University consulted with local entrepreneurs and business students in Cape Town, South Africa on a four week Field Study Program. Led by the College of Business Administration’s Social Enterprise Institute (SEI), the trip provided students the opportunity to see firsthand the emerging economy of South Africa and effective ways for business to end poverty.

The four week trip began with a glimpse into South Africa’s apartheid past through a tour of Robben Island with anti-apartheid activist and former political prisoner, Ahmed Kathrada. On the tiny island, the soft spoken former prisoner led students on a personalized tour around Robben Island where Kathrada was jailed with former South African President Nelson Mandela for almost three decades.

Kathrada was one of the youngest members of the Rivonia 8 who were tried during apartheid South Africa for the freedom efforts on behalf of millions of black and colored citizens. Kathrada began fighting for equality at the age of 12 and spent more than 25 years in prison with Nelson Mandela. He is also credited for writing Mandela’s manuscript “Long Walk to Freedom” by hand while in prison. Kathrada also taught students about the apartheid era and called them to actively participate in the development of post-apartheid South Africa. “Ignorance was one of the biggest problems my country had to suffer from and it remains the most challenging obstacles for South Africa,” said Kathrada as he implored students to educate themselves against injustice, inequality and poverty.

This call to action was met by students who were inspired by Kathrada’s words. “Listening to Mr. Kathrada really gave me perspective on what South Africa has gone through. More importantly, though, it encouraged me to work in a place with so much potential” said student Alyssa Arnold. In conjunction with students from TSiBA, a private provider of business education in Cape Town, Northeastern students explored the growing field of social entrepreneurship.

Social entrepreneurship is an emerging, innovative way to alleviate poverty by applying business practices to solve social problems around the world.  Students joined in lectures by Professor Dennis Shaughnessy, who led the trip, which covered such topics as social enterprise development, micro-finance, and small business management. Classes were supplemented with site visits to social businesses.

Lessons learned from these classes, academic site visits to social businesses and enterprises around Cape Town, and classes at TSiBA culminated into a final consultation project working with local, urban township entrepreneurs. Acting as consultants, students gained field experience by developing business plans and preparing various other deliverables for their entrepreneur. Both TSiBA and Northeastern students were able to critically apply their knowledge and innovativeness in a real world setting where they could make a difference in a person’s life. 

“Our main goal was to meet with local entrepreneurs to offer assistance to help jumpstart their businesses. It’s amazing to see how such simple tasks such as making a proper business card or a costing structure can ensure that these businesses will be successful ones”, recalled Northeastern Entrepreneurship senior Michael Shearer.

These consultation projects gave many of the entrepreneurs a starting point to expand their business. Beyond deliverables, though, students presented their work to their peers and judges from the TSiBA Entrepreneurship Centre, whom later determined whether or not the business is eligible for an equity investment from the NU-TSiBA MicroVenture Fund. The Venture Fund is a privately funded micro-equity fund for small business owners or entrepreneurs from township communities which is ever important in a developing economy like South Africa’s. To date, the Venture Fund has R500,000 made possible by the NU Social Enterprise Fund and Deutshe Bank, and has made several investments in South Africa including an internet café called Silulo Technologies in Khayelitsha. The emerging business started as a single café in Khayelitsha with three employees has now grown to eight locations with 34 employees and over R1,000,000 in revenue.

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