MANILA, Philippines — When we hear the word “innovation”, our thoughts immediately go to new technologies or silver bullet solutions like finding The One Cure for all forms of cancer.

It’s a natural inclination, because breakthroughs do come in handy for a society’s progress. Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, for one, led to the fast rise of social media, and we all know how much that has changed and influenced the way we communicate and do business.

But sometimes the greatest advances can also come from taking old ideas or technologies, and making them accessible to millions of the underserved. Such is the goal of the British Council, in partnership with Starbucks Coffee International, on its third “I Am A Changemaker” business plan competition, which awards seed money to youth organizations with the best social enterprise idea.

A deeply developed industry in the United Kingdom, the concept of social enterprise is still at its infancy stage in the Philippines where it is actually needed the most. “The beauty of the social enterprise is that it’s such a broad concept that can cover any kind of business,” says Ana Tan, Programme and Public Relations Manager of the British Council. “In a developing country like the Philippines, social enterprises help address the needs of the marginalized segment of the population,” she adds.

The Business of Social Change

It can be as simple a concept as that of last year’s NCR winner, The Good Food Company, whose idea was to help small organic farmers earn a sustainable income by bringing healthy and organic food to city dwellers. “They believed that the most sustainable way of doing this was through the concept of Community Shared Agriculture, which is a system that helps build relationships between farmers and consumers that mutually empower both parties,” shares Tan.

Another group that won, this time from Mindanao, was the ERSS (Entrepreneurs Responding Through Social Services). A group of Management students from Xavier University, the ERSS chose to address two of the major problems faced by Cagayan De Oro: garbage caused by rapid urbanization, and unemployment. “We submitted a feasibility study for tarpaulin bags when we saw that a lot of the used tarpaulins in our school end up going to waste,” shares Jibrel Gomez, a member of the group. “This also helped provide income opportunities to the unemployed women in Balulang (a nearby town),” he adds.

Both youth-driven enterprises (and two more from Visayas and Luzon) received P100,000 grants from the British Council to help start their business. “Basically we’re giving money for the idea,” shares Tan, “you don’t necessarily need to have a business already in place. What’s important is that it’s sustainable, scalable, and that it focuses on helping a community—because social enterprise is a big industry in the UK and that’s what we want to promote here in the Philippines.”

Social Change At Work
While most social enterprises in the country are primarily driven by small and medium entrepreneurs, international companies like Starbucks are also incorporating social change into their agenda. By way of its Global Responsibility Program, Starbucks makes a relevant difference with its involvement in the coffee farming community of Miarayon, Bukidnon.

In a recent coffee caravan tour with the British Council, Starbucks Global Responsibility Manager Zarah Perez took members of the press to the small community of Miarayon, Bukidnon where they have been working with coffee farmers in upgrading the quality of coffee production. “What we do is come back several times to check on their harvesting and post-harvesting practices, and then we’ll roast the beans ourselves and let them taste coffee at that quality,” shares Perez, adding that “the thing with coffee farmers is that they do not really experience what is quality coffee. He sells his coffee raw, and the next time he sees it, it’s instant (coffee) na lang. We want to reinforce the idea of quality to them, which can be as simple as sorting the bad beans from the good ones because this can spell a lot of difference for their income.”

The Miarayon community is a popular source for coffee beans that isn’t just exclusive to Starbucks. “It’s not just us,” says Perez, “but we also work with other coffee roasters because our approach is not just for the farmers to reach the quality standard of coffee we like. It has to be a multi-stakeholder and multi-industry player approach.”

It’s a take that’s similar to the British Council’s I Am A Changemaker program. “When we decided to partner with Starbucks, we had the opportunity to further expand the competition,” shares Tan. “With more funds, we were able to give more grants and reach more people using both networks,” she adds, “and we also realized that the more partners involved, the more you get the message across and the more you’re able to run a social program successfully.”

Published in the June 6, 2011 issue of the Manila Bulletin Business Agenda section.