Social enterprise is top of the league

- Leadership - Nov 08, 2012

Former investment banker and venture capitalist Pieter Wesselink is among a growing number of worldwide entrepreneurs who are using setting up businesses to solve social issues.

He is director of the Cape Town-based African Brothers Football Academy, a social enterprise which has helped a school rejuvenate its run-down facilities, so it can use them along with other schools in the area, the local community and the academy.

The self-financing project helps both disadvantaged and advantaged youngsters come together to play football while creating jobs for locals and providing a facility which fee-paying adults can also use for sport.

In fact, it has been so successful since its inception four years ago, that Wesselink is now looking to roll out this social enterprise model to other areas of Cape Town and eventually across South Africa.

Making an impact

Social entrepreneurship is gaining momentum and last year prompted Forbes Magazine for the first time in its 94-year history to assemble Impact 30 – a list of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs. It included innovators such as Jordan Kassalow, an optometrist by training who now runs an organisation that sells ready-made reading glasses to people in the developing world.

People like Sam Goldman and Ned Tozun of D.Light Design, which manufacture inexpensive lamps and sell them in communities that don’t have reliable electricity and Tom Skazy who dropped out of Princeton to create Terracycle which sells fertilizer and more than 250 products made from 60 waste streams.

Wesselink is certainly not alone in his desire to use business skills for the good of the people. There are many others combining innovation, resourcefulness and opportunity to address critical and environmental challenges.

Social entrepreneurs focus on transferring systems and practices that are the root cause of poverty, marginalisation, environmental deterioration and the accompanying loss of human dignity. They set up profit or not for profit organisations which create sustainable systems for change.

Bridging cultural divides

The African Brothers Football Academy was established 15 years ago by Wesselink’s two friends Craig Hepburn and Siphiwe Cele, who both come from radically different backgrounds.

They founded the African Brothers football team with the objective of harnessing South Africa’s love of soccer to bridge cultural divides and effect change in Cape Town’s invisible suburb.

About four years ago they found a sports campus beautifully located in the centre of Cape Town, but it was completely derelict as the school had no budget to maintain it. Enter Wesselink who after a night in the pub chatting with his friend Hepburn, agreed to invest in transforming the campus at Gardens Commercial High School.

Wesselink said: “We leased the field from the school for a zero rental and set about transforming it and letting the school have primary access to the refurbished facility. It has become the base for the football academy which now has upwards of 200 members from both advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. Meanwhile, the facility is available for adults to use for a fee in the evenings, which makes the project self-financing.”

Pitching idea

The scheme has been so successful some 20 other local schools also use the facilities on an occasional basis and now Wesselink is keen to repeat the idea at other run-down school pitches.

Wesselink said: “We have two other schools in the pipeline at the moment, but we hope to have another 10 in the next year. We need to test our model, but we think demand will be huge in the outlying areas of Cape Town and the scheme will be well supported by parents and families.”

The project has created full-time employment for seven people and during the works to renovate the school’s facilities about 30 people were employed and this will be replicated in future schemes.

Wesselink admits he is a “do-gooder” who was spurred into doing something because he wants to help rectify South Africa’s great social divide.

He said: “I don’t think the government is doing enough. Very little is spent on facilities and infrastructure for the black schools and we have an enormous gulf between the affluent kids and the poor ones. Somehow we need to bridge the gap.

“There are a lot of us who can’t turn a blind eye to the inequalities because it feels a bit like we are dancing on the volcano. The football academy is split 50-50 between kids from really impoverished backgrounds and those from affluent ones and it is good to see how they play and interact with each other.”

A worthwhile risk

However, Wesselink understands that often it is hard for a corporate to get involved in projects like ABFA because of the risk involved. He said: “I would love to see a power league in the UK say thanks very much we will come and sponsor one of your projects in South Africa, but joking aside, I realise it is difficult for a corporate to get involved.

“But if people do have the funds to risk investing in a scheme like ours then I would say put it at risk for something that can make a huge difference. I think the same principles apply to any venture capitalist looking for a great idea that can be made into something global.

“I believe our project is something that can be taken nationally across South Africa and make an enormous difference. If you can pay your initial investment and watch the social returns, then you have done well, haven’t you?”

Social entrepreneurs create solutions that are efficient, sustainable, transparent, and have a measurable impact. There is no doubt that Wesselink and his team at the academy are doing just that.

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