Social enterprise is more than just business

Social enterprises have a dual-purpose mission: to generate profits and help society tackle specific challenges. For an NGO, founding such an enterprise is therefore an obvious step.

‘I never would have thought I’d be setting up a business someday.’ Belgiyzare Muharremi, the director of Open Doors, a Kosovan NGO, pauses briefly. ‘But if you consider that part of our mission has always been to help women gain financial independence, it’s an obvious and logical thing to do.’ Established in 1999, Open Doors is a Kosovan aid organisation that cares for women traumatised by war. Over and above providing help in emergency settings, it offers psycho-social support and advocates for women’s rights. At its heart, its work has therefore always been about protecting women’s lives and improving their situation – a mission that Open Doors hopes its catering business eShpis can now contribute to. Setting up the business, Ms Muharremi says, was merely an obvious step forward. ‘If we can’t also help women become financially independent, we might just as well stop doing our work.’

Over the past few weeks, eShpis has set out to provide its catering services across Pristina with a staff of eight employees – all of whom are formerly unemployed women. In terms of work, prospects in Pristina are dire; women seeking employment will only rarely find a job. Only a marginal fraction of those belonging to Kosovo’s ‘vulnerable groups’ – the Roma minority, war refugees, returnees and women – are able to secure regular employment.

How a good idea evolved into an enterprise

‘The idea behind eShpis grew from the workshops for women that we offer on a regular basis,’ says Ms Muharremi. The participants – many of whom have left their Kosovan villages and settled in Pristina – would spend their breaks in the NGO’s kitchen cooking meals together, and at one point realised they were quite good at it, and that they were enjoying themselves. ‘At that stage, it wasn’t an established project,’ Ms Muharremi adds. ‘That is, until the GIZ became aware of what we were doing.’

At the time, the GIZ was active in Pristina with its regional project Social Rights for Vulnerable Groups. Its aim is to improve the living conditions of people from socially disadvantaged groups across the countries of the Western Balkans. The project brought Open Doors together with FIQ, a foundation that specialises in building social enterprises – pioneering work that it is now introducing to Kosovo.

‘We wanted to create a successful model that is easy to adapt – a useful model that people can learn from,’ says Kushtrim Puka, who works with FIQ. His team sat down together and fleshed out ideas. But, more importantly, FIQ took the time to explore these ideas in depth and think them through from various entrepreneurial perspectives. It then went on to substantiate them with market analyses and feasibility studies, and finally added a marketing strategy and a business plan.

This is Mr Puka’s area of expertise; he used to work in the private sector. ‘I’ve founded businesses in that sector, too.’ But the fact that he can now use his business skills to deliver social change with FIQ is something that he himself considers to be ‘perfect’. ‘I found this aspect very important,’ Belgiyzare Muharremi says in agreement. ‘I’m an economist. I wanted FIQ to support us in moving forward, and I wanted a sound business plan to avoid any mistakes. At the end of the day, I’m responsible to the women, our organisation and our supporters.’ In this way, the cooperation between Open Doors, the GIZ regional project Social Rights for Vulnerable Groups and FIQ fostered the emergence of the social enterprise eShpis.

Social enterprises can create change

The idea at the heart of a social enterprise is to plough some of the profits back into the venture and encourage further investment. The remaining funds are used by Open Doors to extend the NGO’s reach and empower more women. Other social enterprises follow similar models, but essentially, it’s about much more. ‘Take a look at the women we’re employing,’ says Mr Puka, his voice brimming with enthusiasm. ‘We’ve not only built a promising enterprise. These women here, they used to be shy, all of them. None of them wanted to be in the spotlight. And today?’

Today, eShpis has a staff of eight self-confident women. ‘I can pay for my children’s schoolbooks,’ one worker reports happily. ‘I earn enough to buy all our clothes and can even afford our medicine when we need it. And, to be honest, since I’ve been bringing home my own income, my husband has become much more respectful. Since then, he’s started asking me for my opinion whenever there are decisions that need to be taken.’

Promoting local economic development, alternative funding models for civil society institutions and empowering disadvantaged people – these activities highlight how valuable the GIZ regional project Social Rights for Vulnerable Groups is, not just in Kosovo, but in the other Balkan countries where it also supports social enterprises. In the Albanian city of Kukës, for instance, there are plans to establish a potato processing plant to produce chips and crisps. And some 200 kilometres south, in Elbasan, an initiative intends to recycle used vegetable oil from restaurants and produce biodiesel. Each of these projects immediately generates a profit for the organisations carrying them out, but primarily it is the people who find work there that benefit the most: a job in a social enterprise can be a first step towards regular employment.

In Serbia’s capital Belgrade, for instance, an NGO opened a Bagel shop in 2015 in order to fund its fight against human trafficking and its support programmes for female victims of domestic violence. Since then, 25 women have found work there – all of them were previously victims of domestic violence, and almost all of the women who were trained there moved on to find regular employment.

In order to allow the project in Pristina to benefit from the insights gathered in Belgrade, the GIZ regional project Social Rights for Vulnerable Groups not only supports the social enterprises themselves, but also organises events that provide the projects and their participants with opportunities to meet and share experiences. ‘We’ve really learned a lot from our colleagues in Belgrade,’ Ms Muharremi says. Without support from the GIZ and its regional project, Open Doors would not have been able to fund the exchange, let alone build its catering business.