They are capable of making you optimistic about even the toughest problem as they drive their innovative companies towards world-changing results
No matter how arduous the daily grind has been (and it's been pretty grinding lately), there is nothing for lifting your mood like meeting an Ashoka Fellow. These social entrepreneurs, whom the Ashoka association provide with mentors, support and contacts, are capable of making you optimistic about even the toughest problem as they drive their innovative companies towards world-changing results.
That's why last night's Ashoka Changemakers' dinner at the Under-Globe at Shakespeare's Globe, the climax to a two-day conference in London, was such an uplifting experience: it was filled with these Fellows and their fantastical (yet practical) schemes. I'll give you an idea of how serious Ashoka is taken: Bill Clinton sent a video message.
At the reception, I met Alex Eaton and Madison Ayer, two American social entrepreneurs who are working with small farmers across the world. Alex's idea is shit – literally. With his Sistema Biobolsa, farmers put animal dung into a bacteria-rich converter; the methane given off is captured and used as normal gas (for heating, cooking etc) and the dung is useable as fertilising manure. The system is spreading across Latin America.
As good an idea as this is – cheap gas from waste material, saving money and the environment, breaking one link the poverty chain – most farmers can't afford the system, so Alex had to diversify into microfinance too: he makes small loans not repayable until after the first year's work, so the farmer can get on their feet.
Watch below: The Sistema Biobolsa in action (with excellent Latin American music to accompany)
Talking to Alex, it became clear quite how multivalent, innovative and flexible social entrepreneurs need to be – there's never one simple problem to solve.
Madison's idea, Farm Shop, is effecting change for African farmers through retail. Figuring that a lack of access to the right seeds, equipment and information was holding back farmers, he has franchised the Farm Shop idea in thirteen places across rural Kenya so far. This way two levels of Kenyans are helped: those who secure the Farm Shop franchise get a business with needy customers, and the customers can be better farmers.
Having never met before the conference, Madison and Alex were planning on collaborating to bring each other's ideas to their respective markets. That's another key thing about Ashoka Fellows: it's a powerful network for idea transmission.
Ideas do not just come horizontally, from one Fellow to another, with Ashoka: established entrepreneurs – often those recently cashed-out of businesses they founded and looking for a way to do good with their funds and experience – mentor the Fellows.
For they're jolly good Fellows!
Also there was Faisel Rahman, an Ashoka fellow and friend and hero of mine, whose social enterprise Fair Finance, which provides microfinancing in poor areas of London, has been growing significantly of late. If you want to read more about Fair Finance and see how it's transforming thousands of lives (while making a good return on investment), Spear's covered it a while ago – you'll find it fascinating, I guarantee. (Faisel also won Spear's Entrepreneur of the Year in 2011.)
I met another particularly interesting Fellow last night – indeed, was lucky enough to sit next to her at dinner. Shauneen Lambe founded Just for Kids Law, a charity that helps children in trouble with the law, ensuring they know their rights, as troubled kids often don't, and trying to keep them on the straight and narrow. Just for Law won a significant victory against the Home secretary (pictured below outside the High Court) because 17-year olds were being treated as adults in police stations.
The stories Shauneen told me of the law taking advantage of children – whether harsh questioning in coroner's court or sending them to jail for 30 years for what amounts to stubbornness – were shocking, injustice after injustice, which is why you'll be hearing more from Shauneen and Just for Kids Law in Spear's in the near future.
Indeed, you won't just be hearing in Spear's about these social entrepreneurs – or changemakers, as Ashoka calls them. If even a few of these businesses and charities advance as hope, planning and experience suggest, they'll be all over the papers.