By Shawn Kelly
Special to The Na
Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus recently urged Thailand to push forward with social business and also invited the country's young people to become social entrepreneurs.
He was in Bangkok to rally partners and potential Thai investors to his global cause of social business. He spoke at a networking event organised by the Yunus Centre at the Asian Institute of Technology and the Thai Social Enterprise Office.
The economist gained fame for advancing the micro-financing revolution in his native Bangladesh. For the first time credit was extended to the country’s impoverished masses.
Now he wants to turn popular wisdom on its head again. This time, “the banker for the poor” aims to change the world through the proliferation of social businesses.
Decrying the selfishness and excesses of profit-driven enterprises, Yunus has a new vision for conducting business. According to the website of his Dhaka-based Yunus Centre, “a social business is a cause-driven business. It must be financially sustainable and mission-oriented. The company must achieve its social objective and at the same time cover all costs through a revenue model”.
“The success of the business is not measured by the amount of profit made in a given period, but by the impact of the business on people or the environment. Investments in social businesses purely support the accomplishment of a social objective, and an investor should desire no financial gain.”
In Thailand to promote his monthly “Social Business Design Lab”, Yunus told a small collection of executives, academics, government officials and NGO leaders that he wants to see a social business fund develop in Thailand.
It could be similar to the fund launched in Bangladesh with Norway’s telecom giant Telenor. The initiative allows for the incubation, financing and promotion of social businesses.
Describing a social business as a “non-dividend company created to solve a social problem,” Yunus said the model can provide employment for the planet’s countless young people lacking jobs, which is a growing phenomenon in rich and poor countries.
By hatching an idea for a cause-driven business, a young entrepreneur could leverage a small amount of start-up capital from social business funds to become CEO of his own company, which could even be franchised just like traditional profit-motivated firms.
Young people are capable of driving this movement forward, as they can be enormously powerful once they discover their life passion.
They also find it easier to form a new mind-set, which was necessary to challenge prevailing business norms, he added.
Faiz Shah, director of the Yunus Centre at AIT, said some regional pilot initiatives are being finalised in Thailand with corporate and public sector partners in the fields of mobile healthcare, safe drinking water and knowledge management.
The centre will also introduce Prof Yunus’ Social Business Design Lab to Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia.
Nuttaphong Jaruwannaphong, director of the Thai Social Enterprise Office, said the country is ready to embrace social enterprises. Key players in the private sector want to move beyond spending on corporate social responsibility projects.
“CSR says profit first then social progress, but social business says social purpose comes first,” he said.
Affordable housing is a sector where manufacturers could assist slum dwellers through social business plans. By channelling their R&D into pro-poor technologies, companies can tap into the unserved market of one million low-income consumers who need basic dwellings.
“It’s an example of using capitalism to create a positive social impact,” he said.
The companies would not lose any money and would actually gain customers.
Creating opportunities for socially conscious investors, such as socially responsible mutual funds and financial markets, will hopefully take hold soon in Thailand, he added.
Shawn Kelly is senior media specialist at the Asian Institute of Technology.