Five tips for social entrepreneurship in developing countries - RSA

Five tips for social entrepreneurship in developing countries


  • Picture of Thomas Schuurmans FRSA
    Thomas Schuurmans FRSA
    Founder Director ProPortion
  • Social enterprise
  • Fellowship
  • Global

My own journey into entrepreneurship had a classic beginning: a period of six months travelling through many developing countries where I experienced a revelation of opportunities and new challenges. I have a degree in Applied Physics and experience in business development at a research institute and a design agency, so it seemed natural that my passion and skills came together to form ProPortion.

ProPortion’s mission is to enrich the lives of people who earn an average of only 2 euros a day, with valuable products and services. We do this by setting up social enterprises such as LegBank in Colombia, Vijana Reloaded in Kenya and Uday in Bangladesh, and by offering our creativity and experience to other entrepreneurs, NGOs, investment funds and multinationals. We’ve realised that creativity is key in designing, prototyping and scaling social business strategies successfully.  It is also great to see that design-thinking is more and more considered as a must-have mentality and method within organisations. I know that many RSA fellows embrace and practice this, and I am proud to be part of a community of forward thinkers. The more we share, the more we improve. Here are my top 5 tips for growing social entrepreneurship in developing countries: 


ProPortion trains lots of young entrepreneurs through a programme called Vijana Reloaded in Kenya. Yet, we often see these micro-entrepreneurs with copy cat ideas, or ideas that do not differentiate them. We’ve found that integrating intrinsic values with external opportunities enable entrepreneurs to become unique. We guide them through integrating the 5 Ps. 

  1. What makes you wanna jump out of bed each day? Passion. Become aware of your passion.
  2. Determine your ambition for societal impact and formulate this in a clear company purpose.
  3. Be aware of your own strength: your power.
  4. Work in the field to deeply understand the problem that you want to solve.
  5. Integrate these p’s when formulating your proposition.

From Vijana Reloaded we’ve already seen the effect of this 5P model; it converts talented young entrepreneurs in rural Kenya into authentic, motivated and customer-oriented social entrepreneurs.


Traditionally, the aid sector has focused on approaching low-income communities purely as ‘victims of poverty.' But try to take people serious as a customer and everything changes. What is their problem and more importantly, their desire? And what is behind it? How can you be of value to them? How do you wrap your proposition into a product and/or service? How can you design it to be affordable and scalable? As a spin-off from a design agency, we have experienced that Human-Centered Design is a powerful creative methodology to better understand problems in communities and create solutions together that are beautiful, technically feasible and financially sustainable.


It is in our nature as consumers to own stuff. But this approach limits customers as well as entrepreneurs. A one-off purchase might be costly. As an entrepreneur you lose track of your customer, hoping he will return to you when the product needs to be replaced. What if you offer the use of your product as a service instead? Could, for example, a subscription model be more affordable? Could that also lead to more frequent customer interaction? Can you save money on materials by recovering and recycling your products? Despite the complexity and risks like lack of collateral, the principles of the circular economy are very inspiring for creating and testing new business models, while having a positive impact on the environment. 


Think big and set ambitious goals that go beyond your current abilities. This inspires and challenges your team, and it forces you to design a scalable strategy. A powerful approach is Lean Start-up: you develop a prototype with minimal resources. Feedback from the first customers will directly help you to improve it. If they don’t like it at all, you go back to your drawing board. Sooner rather than later - it will save you time and money. 


Social entrepreneurship has no competition when it comes to achieving societal impact. Have a collaborative mindset. A social entrepreneur targeting low-income customers with a similar innovative product will only be beneficial to your business: the more enterprises raising awareness among communities, the better. You share the marketing investments among ‘competitors’, but even better; consumers get a choice, which allows you to better explain your unique product advantages. Without ‘competitors’ there is no market. So embrace them. A peer enterpreneur will simply inspire you to develop an even better product, service and smarter business model.

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