Tim Smit & Social Enterprises

Corporate Social Responsibility seems to be now  a buzz word in Mauritius. The government would like to see the involvement of the private sector in shouldering the burden of the social pains. Is not the responsibility of the government to look into this aspect through the ministry of social affairs? It would appear that by lowering the taxes, the government would be introducing some other types of revenue earning devises through compulsory payment. Is it fair or not? At this stage I would stay on the fence. We have still to evaluate the use of the compulsory tax levied on training and the benefits derived from it. How can we break the ingrained mentality that is prevailing in the public sector that tenure is over riding productivity?

However, this article which was published on the Guardian in January 2009 is enlightening and has some food for thoughts. Is it possible to start Social enterprises in Mauritius?

Think bigger and better

Social enterprise is not just about tiny community projects: it is a model for running big business and public services alike

Have you noticed how everybody talks about us as if the words “charity” and “competence” don’t go together? This indicates to me that the first battle for social enterprise is a psychological one. I would like to think that companies such as Unilever, Shell and BP could be social enterprises – and that anyone running a social enterprise should aspire to be good enough to run organisations like that well.

It is my view that there are a number of private businesses that should be social enterprises: water, energy maybe, and railways?

One of the real big cons about social enterprise is that there is a belief that the private sector is rigorous and professional and dynamic. But many of the best charities are run like very, very fine businesses, and a lot of companies I come across are run like accidents.

Innovation comes from the confidence to trust your instincts, having the bravery not to believe that hidden in the endless array of business management manuals is the secret to being Gordon Gekko. The truth is that they are all bibles, they are all motherhood and apple pie, and they are all bollocks. When you read The Harvard MBA in 10 Days, it does not tell you anything about attitude. But it is attitude and values that should distinguish a social enterprise.

Transformative power

Social enterprise is hugely important, but we need to be more bullish about its potential – to understand its transformative power, not in terms of getting jobs for people who previously found it difficult. That’s kind of a loser’s mentality. What we should be about is talking about how we can transform services in this country to act efficiently and how we can bring wealth back to a wider stakeholder group.

We’ve got to get the news out to the people about social enterprises, but there is no definition of a social enterprise. The soppy one is: it is an organisation with the rigour of the private sector and the citizenship values of the public sector. But the real battle for us is to think of rules of engagement that can actually bring that welding power of private and public together for a greater good.

Last year I spoke at the 40th anniversary of Resurgence magazine, and asked the audience if they believed that everybody on Earth should have access to clean drinking water. They all put their hands up. I asked them who supported WaterAid, a fabulous charity, and almost everybody put their hands up. Then I asked who believed WaterAid could provide clean drinking water to everybody on Earth. Nobody put their hands up. I laid into the audience. I said: “The problem is you’re in love with hippie shit.”

The truth is that the very organisations that make your tummy turn, because your politics suggest you shouldn’t be supporting them, are the only people capable of it. Shell, ExxonMobil: these companies have the project management, the drilling skills to actually do this stuff.

That is our battle ground. It’s to grow up and not take the baggage of the 60s – the radical chic of being pro-business or anti-business – with us into the next phase of our development. We need to understand that there is a new configuration developing, and if we can’t bring business together with the sort of value driven systems that we have, that will be our failure.

So if we are going to talk about innovation, the starting proposition is to leave some of that old baggage behind, and not to demonise any particular sector, but to look at how we can do things better.

Eden is a social enterprise, which we built out of innocence. We were fortunate that it was in a place of great deprivation, which meant there was a predisposition in government officers who were looking after that area to look at anything that might bail us out of a really awkward situation. But it was built completely out of innocence. I went to the local development committee and said I had this great idea to build the eighth wonder of the world [in Cornwall]. I had no business plan, but said they had to believe me that it was going to be absolutely fantastic. They gave me £25,000 to go away. Then I raised a bit more money, and very soon we had a little fighting pot and went to see the Millennium Commission. It, eventually awarded us half of the then project cost of £74m.

We brought the Eden Project in on time and on budget, and have since invested £130m.

If you were to ask me, if you were to put a rusty razorblade to my throat and say, you have one minute to say why you did it, it would be that we wanted to find the most derelict place on Earth and create life in it. We then wanted to show how clever human beings are, by building something totally fit for purpose, which I hope we did.

I wanted to run a place that had the values of sustainability. We do fantastic local sourcing – 90% of everything we consume at Eden is locally sourced, our waste strategy is highly regarded, waste neutral. It is a lot easier than people say. But ultimately, I wanted to see how we could answer the question, what does a great place to work feel like?

Piddling little things

Our social enterprise at Eden cost £130m and has already put £800m back into the Cornish economy – which is more than double the entire money that has come from Europe for the whole of the south-west. So to think of social enterprises as being piddling little things that you have to talk about in hushed library tones is nonsense.

All over the country, as a result of the climate change debate, there is going to be an opportunity for starting new energy companies that will link agricultural production with all sorts of different aspects of the economy. These drivers of energy are fantastic areas for social enterprise. And they’re social because if you set them up regionally then everyone who lives in that region is likely to buy their energy from that company, and if they know that their purchases will create profits that can be used to pay for social benefits in those areas, it is a wonderful virtuous circle that means the revenue is going back to stakeholders, and so on.

I think it’s fantastically exciting, because we can do it and it works. I think social enterprise is the future model for organising our collective state assets.

· Tim Smit is chief executive and co-founder of the Eden Project in Cornwall. This is an edited extract from his speech to the Social Enterprise Coalition Voice 07 conference last week.