A non-profit alliance co-founded by organizations including the Agha Khan Foundation, USAID and Ashoka, is aiming to promote social entrepreneurship in Central Asia.
On February 11, the Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship presented its initial report, “Mapping Social Entrepreneurship in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan,” in New York. A second presentation, featuring the report’s author, Myrza Karimov, will take place February 12 in Washington, DC.
“There is no incentive from the government [to promote social entrepreneurship], that’s our biggest problem,” stated Karimov in New York, a pair of felt dolls made by women in Kyrgyzstan's Naryn province resting in front of him. “There is a lack of legislation. If you want to do this kind of work, you pay the same taxes as a for-profit company.”
The project defines “social entrepreneurship” as any venture, whether it is for- or non-profit, that prioritizes social change above earnings. One problem with adopting the model in Central Asia, Karimov said, is the region's lack of experience and understanding of this kind of hybrid thinking.
“People say they are an NGO, or they say they are in small business, even if part of what they are doing is social entrepreneurship,” said George Khalaf, director of Synergos, an organization coordinating the initiative.
As a first step, the alliance is focusing on Kyrgystan and Tajikistan, examining practices and problems in what are Central Asia’s two poorest states. In Kyrgyzstan’s case, the country’s dependence on foreign aid constitutes a hurdle for social entrepreneurship, said Karimov, a former employee of USAID. He cited 15,000 NGO's registered in his home country, with only some 150 still operating, and only a dozen or so operating in a self-sustainable manner.
“The first question is ‘how much money do you have?’” Karimov stated. “I say, ‘No, sit down. Then we can see: if you have really good ideas, maybe we can replicate this idea.' [...] We talk to the people. We are trying to identify their needs. Not just pushing: ‘let’s give more money.’”
For potential investors, as well as potential founders, in Central Asia, the word “social” in “social entrepreneurship” evokes projects aimed at marginalized groups – the disabled, for instance. Ideally, though, social entrepreneurial projects can involve entire communities and extend beyond engaging a particular group. Karimov referred to Altyn-kol, the makers of the felt dolls on display at the talk, who have drawn on women in rural communities to sell their products online. Some of the company’s profits go to support local orphanage schools.
Setting up social entrepreneurial ventures in Tajikistan is more of a challenge, Karimov admitted, particularly since students have been forbidden by law from attending meetings sponsored by foreign organizations. Interest is high among business students in Kyrgyzstan, he reported, saying that most who attends the classes he teaches at the Agha Khan-funded University of Central Asia in Bishkek have businesses they are trying to run on the side, some of which could be considered, or be developed, into social entrepreneurial ventures with support and training.