Chronicles of Africa’s social entrepreneurs

2011-07-10 10:00
Jonny Newton
Books that document the iconic Cape-to-Cairo route have become tired. Researching a book that uncovers and profiles social entrepreneurs along the way – written by a dynamic young couple with a bag load of charitable experience and insight – is a fresh twist.

UK-based Rob and Nikki Wilson are doing just that, and with a rich pedigree in book-focused non-profit organisations, they certainly have the right background to do so. In 2004 the Wilsons established READ International, an innovative charity that collects used schoolbooks in the UK and redistributes them for free to learners in East Africa.

READ International has become so successful that in seven short years, more than one million books have been sent to the region.

Esteemed accolades have followed, culminating in the 2010 Best International Aid and Development Charity.

Having left this first social project in capable hands, Rob and Nikki have moved on to a new challenge coined On the Up.

Beyond the intimidating task of traversing the east coast of Africa by land, they have to navigate the intellectual potholes surrounding the development world, and un-earth suitable social entrepreneurs along the way to feature in their upcoming book.

Academic viewpoints crystallised on paper on development and international aid to Africa have been polarised by economic heavyweights.

The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs advises an increase in developmental aid in order to lift Africa out of poverty, while Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo argues the opposite in her seminal work, Dead Aid, believing that foreign aid has helped to create a culture of dependence and kleptocracy.

But Rob and Nikki’s search for social entrepreneurs refuses to be pigeonholed into either category. The difficulty of pinning down what social entrepreneurship actually means also raises questions.

Rob explains: “Social entrepreneurs are individuals who bring innovative solutions to pressing issues, both local and global. Free from the bureaucracy of larger players like governments or international charities, they monopolise on their freedoms and mix unfaltering passion with natural business nous and oodles of charm.”

Any clearer? I didn’t think so! But neither are the Wilsons. The reason is that this world is populated by a thick wedge of grey between the clearer black and white. As Rob explains: “Solutions can be multifaceted, diverse and unique, ranging from social business to registered charities to mass movements.”

The easiest way to understand this concept is to witness the myriad different projects, innovators, ideas and motivations behind On the Up’s chosen enterprises in South Africa.

On one hand you have Charles Maisel, an out-and-out profit-seeking capitalist who has become a guru of social innovation. A serial entrepreneur, he was the brains and catalyst behind the hugely successful Men on the Side of the Road website, providing a Web recruitment portal for casual labourers and artisans.

Maisel has moved onwards and upwards, but still collects a monthly royalty fee from this project and others.

He seems to be an oxymoron, a development worker who is shamelessly obsessed with self-enrichment through his creativity. Some may find this morally tenuous, but the 200 000 workers employed each year by his recruitment project certainly don’t mind. Maisel is a social entrepreneur.

Another featured South African is Shona McDonald. Initially motivated to enable her disabled daughter to take control of her life, McDonald started developing bespoke wheelchairs designed to tackle the African terrain. Over the years, this evolved into several reincarnations of social trusts and charities aimed at empowering disabled South Africans.

Nearly 30 years on, with 70 staff, her garage charity has bloomed into Shonaquip, a thriving business that has become the service provider of choice for the Department of Health.

The decision to move into a for-profit model was born out of McDonald’s desire to address, on a much bigger scale, the injustices created by poor provision of seating for people living with disabilities.

Shona McDonald is a social entrepreneur too.

Along the route from South Africa to Egypt, Rob and Nikki have lined up subjects in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and Sudan. They express the wide range that encompasses social entrepreneurship, including an exiled Zimbabwean founder of a network supporting abused girls and a Zambian initiative that piggybacks Coca-Cola’s extensive distribution network to deliver much-needed medicine deep into the bush.

The book format of On the Up will amalgamate the best stories and projects that Rob and Nikki visit on their African odyssey. As Rob says: “It will cover a deeper critique of the social entrepreneurs who really struck us and will focus on how the readers can get involved.”

Crucially, the book itself will become a social venture. Instead of pocketing any profit, any money made will be ploughed back into the projects profiled.

Despite publishers showing interest, the Wilsons are also open to the new phenomenon of “crowd publishing”. If their online community of followers like the On the Up blogs and want to read the full?book,?they?can order in advance and pay for the first print run.

The finished product should be available by Christmas 2012, so keep an eye out for it – or better still, follow the Wilsons’ adventure and become a stakeholder yourself.

In practising what they preach, and by unpicking the ingredients for how passion has been converted into action, Rob and Nikki Wilson are social entrepreneurs.

» To follow the On the Up journey, visit or sign up to the Facebook page at by selecting the “like” button.