Social Entrepreneurship in Action: Dispatches from Kenya

For a fascinating glimpse of social entrepreneurs in Africa, including one Haas graduate on the front lines of health care, take a look at this recent photo essay in the Guardian on four path-breaking ventures in Kenya.

The photos are part of an upcoming book by the Gobee Group, a firm founded by three Berkeley alumni that works on systematic approaches to complex social problems.  The group commissioned a photographer to document pioneering social-impact ventures in Kenya, and it came up with a dazzling collection of stories.

The result is a gallery-quality book, Social Enterprise Stories from Urban Kenya, that is set for publication this March.

One particularly vibrant enterprise comes from a Haas alumnus — Nick Pearson, MBA 2008.   Pearson is the founder of Jacaranda Health, which provides badly-need prenatal and post-natal maternal care to low-income mothers on the outskirts of Nairobi.  Its new maternal-care hospital served 4,000 women in its first year, and its network of van-based rolling clinics brings care directly into far-flung neighborhoods.

Here are photos from Jacaranda’s own website of the maternity hospital and of mothers getting post-natal guidance:

Owinga in the postnatal ward

Mothers and Midwives at Jacaranda hospital

Pearson didn’t make all this happen just by raising money from charities.  As he vividly recounts on his blog, he was determined from the outset to establish a self-sustaining and scalable business model.  His five principles make valuable reading for any aspiring social entrepreneur.  Among them: understand your “unit economics,” meaning the costs and revenues of each service; understand what your clients can and cannot afford to pay; hunt for new ways to increase efficiency, whether it’s from better electronic records or novel procedures to reduce breakage and waste.

In many ways, Jacaranda has become a laboratory for health-care innovation, and some of the lessons may have value in the United States.   The group is experimenting with smartphone-based technologies to communicate with patients.  It works with patients and nurses to come up with “patient-centered” designs for hospital spaces and more effective health care services.   In a country where maternal health care can be brusque and unpleasant, it interviewed mothers at length to develop a more empathetic and more effective approach to nursing.  And to stretch the capacity of mid-wives, it trained a cadre of  “patient care assistants” to help counsel patients on family-planning.

As Gobee’s photographic project demonstrates, Jacaranda is just one example from Kenya of fresh thinking at the intersection of social impact, technology and grassroots creativity.  Each of the four ventures described in the new book are remarkable stories in their own right.  Bridge International Academies is developing high-quality primary education for children in families that live on $2 a day.  Sanergy, founded by MIT alumni, is developing affordable sanitation systems that also turn waste into energy.  SunTransfer supplies solar lighting that is cleaner, safer and less expensive to operate than the kerosene lamps used in many rural homes.

Social innovation is thriving, often from the ground up.  Anyone who wants inspiration should take a look at Gobee’s stories from Kenya.

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