An insider’s view: Building socially conscious enterprises of the future

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Luleka Mkuzo has perhaps some of the simplest yet wisest words to offer any aspiring entrepreneur or small business owner when she says: “Our backgrounds don’t determine our tomorrow, our dreams are within reach if we stay focused, work hard and believe in something greater than ourselves.”

A community engagement strategist and social entrepreneur focused on facilitating development for rural communities, Mkuzo founded Urglobal in 2017. The organisation utilises technology as a tool to unearth and cultivate rural potential by offering schools and communities a 4.0 digital lifeline in the form of a Rural Technology Park model. The aim is to ensure that poor communities participate in the digital movement in order to become global competitive citizens. This is achieved through a blended solutions model in the form of a fixed and mobile technology park in order to ensure that all communities are reached, as well as comprehensive-friendly ICT innovations, enabling schools and communities to learn, imagine infinitely, make informed career choices, live healthy lifestyles and contribute to the common good.

“I come from a rural community located more than three hours away from the closest university,” Mkuzo explains “Our location and lack of access to resources results in isolation and exclusion for the majority of my community. I became a social entrepreneur to bring about positive change, and to expose rural communities and schools to new possibilities through access to technology resources.”

She adds that many people living in rural, outlying communities have more often than not been promised change that has never materialised. As a result, they have lost hope. “I want to shine a light through this gloominess,” she explains. “I want to bring about hope, allow people to dream again, and show them firsthand that we don’t have to wait for someone else to bring the change we want – we can initiate it and work towards achieving it ourselves.”

Mkuzo has a Masters degree from the University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN), and is currently completing her PHD at DUT, where she is part of a community engagement research team funded by the National Research Foundation. Prior to starting Urglobal, she was employed by one of the largest mining companies in South Africa where she held various positions over a period of 10 years, but finally made the decision to resign to follow her passion. She obtained a qualification as a social entrepreneur from the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) and credits the programme as having played a pivotal role in pushing her out of her comfort zone to pursue her dream of working with communities. This resulted in her resignation in December 2016 and the official registration of Urglobal as a social enterprise in 2017.

Mkuzo is a 2017 Young African Leaders Initiative (SADC) alumni and a 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow – both initiatives founded by President Barack Obama. She believes that the importance of entrepreneurship lies in its ability to elevate the sustainability of existing businesses by encouraging innovation and continuous improvement, thereby resulting in business longevity.

“In South Africa specifically, entrepreneurship challenges existing systems and the way we do things, and disrupts through creative new ways and thinking,” she says. “With our high unemployment rates and extreme levels of poverty, new innovations by entrepreneurs not only create jobs but birth new markets, adding financial value to individuals, communities and the country at large.”

Mkuzo defines a social entrepreneur as an individual “who recognises a neglectedsocial problem and makes a decision to relentlessly work towards rectifying that problem in an innovative way, ensuring long term social value and sustainability.”

While Urglobal has had more than its fair share of challenges, including the stealing of equipment, the sourcing of adequate funding, and its geographical isolation to big centres and corporate support, the company has achieved a number of milestones. “Seeing rural communities rise to get involved whether through volunteering or walking long distances to attend our training has been a highlight,” says Mkuzo. “Watching women come for training with their babies, breastfeeding on one hand while navigating a laptop with another, the schools and teachers that have opened their doors – and their time – to us, the support and belief via print and social media exposure, and the awards and national recognition of the work and impact we are trying to achieve, have all been more than I could ever have imagined.”

Tips to building socially conscious enterprises

“One of the biggest challenges facing social entrepreneurs is access to resources – whether to capital, business support, infrastructure, assets or people,” believes Mkuzo. “Another challenge is creating long-term sustainable impact. This requires lasting commitment and support from investors and business owners alike, and in a world of instant gratification and ‘quick wins’, can be hard to come by.”

So what factors are essential for the socially conscious enterprise of the future, and how can entrepreneurs practically address economic and societal challenges while building their businesses?

The first requirement is a collaborative environment that encourages partnerships between the public and private sectors conducive to long-term impact, as opposed to a culture of silos.

The second is community engagement. “Solutions or initiatives cannot be imposed, otherwise they will be very short-lived,” states Mkuzo.

By using a community engagement asset-based approach to development in 2015, Urglobal was able to engage community leaders, lay people, entrepreneurs, government, civic and religious organisations and the youth in three rural communities located in the Alfred Nzoand Oliver Tambo Districts in the Eastern Cape, in order to ascertain the type of innovations that could bring change for these communities. After numerous engagements with various stakeholders which lasted for two years, the initiative resulted in a mobile technology class pilot in 2017 for a number of Quintile 1-4 schools in the area.

She says: “Continuous communication with the community that you will be engaging with is essential – they must be part of the solution. This requires authenticity, transparency, honesty, an open mind and a willingness to listen from both parties, every step along the way.”

Growing up, Mkuzo witnessed how her surrounding communities modeled the spirit of Ubuntu, sharing the little they had with each other and ensuring that no one suffered alone. It has become her mission to advance the spirit of Ubuntu and to keep this legacy alive.

“Social entrepreneurship is really about the spirit of Ubuntu – the notion of I am because we are – and the understanding that doing what we do cannot be done in isolation as it requires community participation and support. The win – or the impact – is ultimately not an individual win but a collective community win,” she states.

Mkuzo also believes that it challenges people to stop pointing fingers and instead to take responsibility in finding solutions to their own problems. “It demonstrates that we can achieve impact even with the little we have,” she adds. “In South Africa this is critical because many wait on government or depend on grants. Social entrepreneurship challenges this narrative and encourages people to mobilise and be active contributors to economic and social change.”

Finally, is the need for an enabling and participative environment. “Communities must be willing to embrace change and accept new and innovative ways of doing things,” she concludes. “At the same time, they must be able to express their views, share their resources and provide support to each other wherever possible – after all social entrepreneurship is all about making the most of limited resources in constrained environments.”

For more information please visit www.urglobal.co.za or email Luleka Mkuzo on mku@urglobal.co.za.

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