Running a Social Enterprise in the Days of COVID
Here in Kenya, as usual we are behind the times. We are late to the COVID and the government is doing its best trying to contain the spread of the virus. However, our Kenyan culture is a hardworking, creative and hustling one and this is clashing with the world’s need to slow us all down. Most Kenyan artist need to make at least $5 a day to eat and board. Our informal work and living situations mandate that Kenyans get up and hustle every day. So, life must go on mask or no mask.
As the CEO of Ocean Sole Africa, a Kenyan social enterprise that transforms flip flop pollution found in our oceans and waterways into beautiful art, the recent economic challenges are hard hitting to our project. Unlike businesses that can make very clear financial decisions for their business, profitability, employees and shareholders, when you are a social enterprise there is also need to understand the negative impacts on our social, conservation and employment promises. The knock-on effect of slowing down our business is devastating to other small informal workforces, refugees, women in abusive relationships and the basic needs of food, water and shelter for our employees.
Besides cleaning up over a ton a year of flip flop pollution, our little company provides income support to over 1,000 Kenyans that are near the poverty line. So, when I lay awake at night fretting over the decision to furlough people—I know I am ruining the livelihoods of people that will never get support from their government or other institutions—only me. We rely on our income from trade and not grant aid or donations.
Sadly, last Friday, we have had to furlough some of our staff for a month or two, whilst management and the sales team hustle to bring in more income. Due to the global impact of COVID, many of our masterpiece (the big beautiful life-size art) orders were cancelled. Thankfully, we opened our online shop in America and have plenty of stock there to fulfill orders and that is keeping us a float these days. But without new cool art to make, unfortunately there is no need for so many artists. We are optimistic and know that businesses, organizations and individuals will need bright art to cheer them up soon. We are tools down now--but not forever.
Beyond this economic and health challenge we are constantly being copied as well. Another challenge is trying not to let other companies, that use our story, images, impact facts buy stolen products from our ex-employees that copy and steal—all whilst know this is happening. When you are small and not flush with cash, taking on such hypocrites that claim Fair Trade is not worth our pennies. But the threat remains and their financial for profit gains are our employees and benefactor’s losses. So always make sure you are buying from us directly or a legitimate re-seller.
We are all living in tough times. My commitment to my team and all the Kenyan Artist is everlasting and passionate. I am selling personal assets in hopes to get the team back in place asap, even if I end up with all the art! For me, after a 30-year corporate executive career, running a small social enterprise is a joy in wonder, education and fulfillment. Looking directly into the eyes of your employees and knowing you can help them and their families is something we should all experience in life. The challenges are different but the goals the same—add value to your customers that are willing to pay for that uniqueness and treat your employees the best you possibly can. We are proud to live up to our promises.
We will back stronger very soon!!!