Seeding Happiness: Two Years of Social Business in Albania

I'm excited about ideas for community-based rural tourism, mobile services for smallholder farmers, and turning waste materials into furniture and jewelry, amongst others.
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A few months ago I wrote about young people setting up small businesses in Bangladesh, and how we are helping them. We have learned a lot so far and we have planted many exciting seeds. Today, I would like to tell you more about the same efforts of planting seeds in Albania, where we are helping entrepreneurs develop their social businesses.

Albania is a small country on the Mediterranean Sea, across from Italy and north of Greece. After a long period of isolation and Communist regime, it has opened up to new ideas and it hopes to soon become part of the European Union. But there are still plenty of problems, including rural poverty, youth unemployment and old-age isolation. For example, a quarter of young people are unemployed -- and since more than a third of the population is under 25, that's a big problem. Also, as young people are forced to leave home (and in many cases, to go abroad) to find work, the countryside is left without young, inspired minds that could help drive change. Older people are being left stranded, with no one to care for them.

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Photo: The beginning of a journey: The next cycle of the Yunus Social Business Accelerator program in Albania was kicked off during the Social Business Week Albania

Traditional businesses in Albania do not address these issues and people as they are not profitable enough or just too difficult to tackle. But the government and NGOs can't solve all these problems either. Their financial means are very limited and the great projects they are running very much depend on donations, which are decreasing as international donors pull out. That's why a new generation of entrepreneurs is turning towards the idea of social business. Social businesses are companies created with the sole purpose of solving a social problem. They do that in a business way and once the business is making a profit, it can continue to create social impact. All profits that it generates are reinvested into the same or other social businesses. In the past I have created plenty of these in Bangladesh, and the idea has been catching on in many other countries -- including now in Albania.

Two years ago I visited Albania for the first time, and I met many of the entrepreneurs who were planting the seeds of new social businesses. There was a café providing employment to disabled people (my colleague from Yunus Social Business -- Global Initiatives, Saskia, wrote about it on the Huffington Post), an old people's home (which is a new concept in Albania), a company packaging and marketing home-made delicacies from rural areas, and an organic farm, amongst others. Our team helped them on the ground to develop their business models, and then financed them with loans and equity, not donations, because these should be businesses, not charities.

But did it work? That's what I wanted to find out. So earlier this month I returned to Albania, to see if and how these seeds had sprouted. I also wanted to give encouragement and advice to the next batch of social business entrepreneurs that my team is helping.

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Photo: The seeds that have been planted: Visiting a social business that uses scrap wood to manufacture furniture and employs people from marginalized groups

Well, the good news is that most of the social businesses have made it through the past two years, and are working their way towards success. As many of you may already be suspecting, it hasn't been easy for any of them -- I don't think entrepreneurship ever is! -- and we have also lost a few along the way. But the old people's home has been built and opened; its serving its clients and their families well. When I visited, I talked to families that were in tears out of thankfulness for the great offers that the home provides. Even better, it will be earning more money than it spends in the next few months and can reinvest the profits to further increase day care and home care services. A new café for disabled integration is loved by its regulars. It faced a few challenges in the first months and the team in Albania helped the entrepreneurs to bring it back on track. Now, it is doing well and on track to become break-even as well. The delicacies company is scaling up from pilot phase to full operation. We did not manage to find a business model for the organic farm, unfortunately, and did not proceed with financing. The team did, however, find and finance another entrepreneur who now grows and harvests organic medicinal and aromatic herbs and already employs 50 people after only few months of operations.

What really struck me during this second visit to Albania was how many more people now know about social business and want to get involved. Two years ago, it was a real struggle to find enough good entrepreneurs to join our program. Last year, we had 100 applicants. This time around, we have received more than 250 applications. I'm excited about ideas for community-based rural tourism, mobile services for smallholder farmers, and turning waste materials into furniture and jewelry, amongst others. Institutions and local leaders also have a much better understanding of social business and are now inspired by the great work on the ground. The media attention has definitely helped as well -- one TV channel even did a TV competition with us for social business entrepreneurs (the disabled-integration café was the winner) and there have been five TV appearances by social businesses this year alone.

Fundamentally, I think it's because people are seeing these new social businesses starting to make real differences in their communities. It's very early still, and of course all of these projects are still very small. But people are getting inspired and we have heard about 10 more social businesses that have been started this year with or even without our help -- which is great!

Now, Yunus Social Business Albania is excited to turn the small seeds of social businesses into large trees -- it is just a question of support and patience. I'm already looking forward to seeing the growth the next time I visit Albania. Meanwhile, other countries in the region want to join in too. Already two social entrepreneurs from Kosovo are joining their Albanian peers for the next entrepreneurship program. So the seeds are spreading and so is the excitement of using creativity and business to address the greatest challenges we face.

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