Published on Arab Voices

If it’s not social, it’s bad business

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This interview was originally posted in the Development Marketplace Blog on October 18, 2012. The blog author, Jill Richmond, joined the Development Marketplace in 2011 as a Senior Consultant handling thought leadership campaigns, behavior change and stakeholder engagement programs. She brings 12 years of experience managing campaigns and has worked extensively in the development of cross cultural communication programs.

Here is another entry in a series of articles we are posting to describe the current outlook for social enterprises working on critical issues in Egypt. The series is based on interviews with leading figures in the social entrepreneurship sector in Egypt and the Middle East and North Africa region.

Laila IskandarI spoke with Dr. Laila Iskandar the chairperson of CID Consulting, who was awarded the "Social Entrepreneur of the Year" in 2006 at the World Economic Forum by the Schwab Foundation. She is also member of the foundation’s Global Agenda Council (GAC) on Social Innovation. She has over 20 years of experience in: environmental protection, solid waste management and recycling, education, gender-based empowerment, capacity-building of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), income-generation in the informal sector, and advocating for working children. In this interview, she tells us about her ethos of "learning and earning."

For over 20 years you have been helping disenfranchised people organize pursuit of their livelihoods around a business plan. When advising people, I have heard you say “if it’s not social, then it’s bad business.” Can you elaborate on what this means?

Dr. Iskandar: Decades ago as globalization emerged, structural adjustments were embraced. Structural adjustments include internal changes (notably privatization and deregulation) as well as external ones, such as the reduction of trade barriers. Countries that do not follow these programs are often subject to fiscal discipline, and poor nations have no choice but to comply. I believe we could do more with humility and a social conscience. Greed and capitalism without a social conscience have put the world in a bad place. The fact that capital can fly across borders with the same ease as simply signing an adjustment check is insane to me. This has wreaked havoc on the lives of millions. Let’s be humble and rethink this. I am not against capitalism; I am suggesting that we look to social entrepreneurship as an alternative solution to development problems.

Talk to me about how CID works with non-profit and for-profit sectors to design new business models.

Dr. Iskandar: Our flagship program works with the Zabbaleen, a predominantly Coptic Christian community of formerly landless and unemployed peasants who collect a large part of the Cairo’s daily garbage - up to 14,000 tons/day. We won the Goldman Environmental Prize for this. These are industrious people who create work from waste. There are thousands of low-income residents, who lack resources, political organization and the vision to expand their economic opportunities and protect their interests. CID Consulting focuses on linking productive work with environmental sustainability in poor urban environments, including those inhabited by the Zabbaleen.

Wikipedia ZabbaleenWe designed a school where children learned through curriculum about recycling. We play a role of understanding rules and regulations that facilitate and educate the recyclers to address the institutional and systemic issues of exploitation. We’ve been doing it for the past 15 years. At the time we developed the program, multinational companies were losing a large market share from brand and product counterfeiting. A handful of companies asked CID to undertake a study with them to help them explore how much money they were losing in counterfeit activity. We developed a strategy to prevent counterfeit activity with shampoos by working with garbage collectors, who were re-selling shampoo containers that counterfeiters were buying per piece. The counterfeiters were using the used containers then filling them with non-brand shampoo and selling them for a premium. We were able to work with the garbage collectors to stop this practice. The Spirit of Youth group runs a buy-back center and school for boys, established to recover empty Procter & Gamble shampoo bottles that are fraudulently refilled and resold. Enrolled Zabbaleen students are paid for each recovered container and in exchange are schooled in reading, writing, math, art, drama, and computing skills.

Tell me about the origins of your work with garbage collectors.

Dr. Iskandar: I was a high school teacher in the Bay area in California and reverse immigrated to Egypt. I had a few hours available to me and I wanted to teach, so one day by coincidence someone in my church asked me to teach Arabic in Cairo’s “Garbage City.” What I witnessed was a horror initially, but then fell in love with a group of people with such an incredible work ethic. Over the years, I’ve watched an amazing transformation of their trade. They are ingenious - they work incredibly hard and they have such a strong business spirit.

You have won countless awards for integrating a strategy of "learning and earning" with youth by integrating soft and hard skills in education. What is the prevailing philosophy in your work?

Dr. Iskandar: When I returned from the US, I went back to my native village in Upper Egypt and saw women who were so utterly poor. These were my playmates when we were children. They were toothless from years of poor nutrition and lacking health care and their husbands were in Iraq. I was devastated. So my first development work was in my own village and it became clear from the beginning that the most important need for them was to eat better and to help them learn how to make money; that simple.

I looked around and found that the only thing we could create to make "quick" money was handicrafts. I cannot begin to describe the transformation. The minute the women had money in their hands it was dynamite. The unpredictability of cash flow from their husband’s remittances was deadly to them. From that day on I learned my first lessons in development: an enterprise needs certainty and regularity of income.

 http://www.behance.netThen I learned about product design and how to stock, store, shop and sell. I wanted to teach the women this and ultimately I ended up learning about business within the context of poverty in development. I taught in parallel at the waste management neighborhood at Manshiyet Nasser in Cairo. Teaching in that neighborhood in the early years was around literacy for children, not around entrepreneurial skills. I then joined the Rag Recycling Center at the Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE) as the Volunteer Field Director. There we pioneered many projects in the garbage collector community. In one project, over 200 Zabbaleen households brought organic waste to a neighborhood composting plant. The garbage collectors refined the waste into high grade compost which was then sold to farmers aiming to reclaim Egypt's desert to agriculturally productive land.

Another project was a Rug Weaving Center where girls from the community are weaving with a hand-loom, an ancient Egyptian craft. Made from clean discarded cotton remnants from the textile industry, the colorful rugs are sold at handicraft fairs, and earnings are divided among the weavers. Through the "learning and earning" program, girls are taught basic math and literacy. The center recruited a couple of artisans; we set up 2 looms, recruited 8 girls and began.

Long before recycling was recognized as an industry, you introduced innovative social and environmental projects to garbage collectors. You’ve also been creating non-formal educational models in the context of recycling. In which sectors do you see new opportunities to add value?

Dr. Iskandar: I have always respected the trade of recycling. Recyclers were treated like dirt, but we established an environment of learning so they could organize themselves to earn a proper living. We formalized inventory, stocking, product development, and taking orders. You ask me – “what are the opportunities?” I believe there is every imaginable opportunity, but specifically, I would say a big opportunity is in the handicrafts sector. It teaches the poorest women a skill, generates income and it protects heritage.

As a member of the World Economic Forum and Schwab Global Agenda Council on Social Innovation, what would you say are two or three trends shaping the social enterprise sector globally? Do you see any of these trends resonating in Egypt or do you think it too early in the evolution of the SE sector there?

Dr. Iskandar: Educated youth want to connect to the market but they do not know where to start. We surveyed 79 social entrepreneurs through Brookings, we had findings but the bottom line is that many do not know how to shift from an NGO to making money. Hence there is a long way to go but we remain hopeful that things are moving in the direction of more collaboration and more sustainable approaches to poverty reduction and economic development.

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