I think one of the assumptions I have held is that business is evil, greedy, out for profit and not helpful for people or the environment. This is not to say that some of the ways in which big businesses act are completely unethical and immoral. However, one doesn’t have to look far to see instances of some businesses acting in the most egregious fashion. The Bhopal disaster in India, tax avoidance deals with governments and oil spills come to mind.
Having being part of a start-up business that’s also acting as a social enterprise, my views have changed over the last two months. To begin with, it’s really difficult for businesses to get a good go of things here because of inflation (9.4% on average over the past five years), high fixed costs, the uncertainty of electricity and water supply and asset depreciation.
At times I realise, some of the business decisions I have been a part of could seem cold and calculated for the people affected. For instance some of the wages that have been decided on are low by international standards. I have felt uncomfortable at times when talking about some of the other decisions that have been made with regards to the budget keeping wages in mind.
The minimum monthly wage for an apprentice here is 7800 rupees (currently about 78 USD), however the business has had to invest heavily in certain items to get a kitchen built, to have a beauty parlour ready, and products ready to sell. The wages have been justified in terms of investing in the training of these women in readiness for the workforce. And yet, is a person valued less than some of the assets purchased? Hardly likely, although it would be difficult to run a coffee shop without a coffee machine! I found it difficult then to justify spending 37 times the amount on the coffee machine than the monthly wage of the apprentice operating it. I guess it comes down to the purpose of running the business…
The business that we have been part of has been an exception to the norms associated with the business examples cited at the start. What has driven this project is the idea of “business as mission.” This is a new way of doing business which seeks to place people above profit. Furthermore, any profits that are made are reinvested in the social capital of the business.
The aim of this social enterprise is to train apprentices in job readiness so as to stem the tide of human trafficking so prevalent here in Nepal. It’s no small task however, given the high levels of unemployment, low standards in working conditions and the slow growth of business.
Is it pie in the sky? I certainly hope not. Sales have been slow to start with, what’s needed now for this little startup is some decent publicity and some savvy marketing.