I introduced social entrepreneurship to my trainee teachers – why it’ll make them better at their jobs


The daily headlines from South Africa are largely gloomy. The country’s government seems unable to address a years-long electricity crisis that is steadily worsening. Unemployment is high. Food prices are climbing.

But there are pockets of excellence – like stories of social entrepreneurship, an approach that uses business principles to create positive social and environmental impact. It involves identifying social problems using entrepreneurial principles to develop, fund, and implement solutions.

Though entrepreneurship of any kind is not easy, it can instil incredible tenacity in the face of adversity. There are lessons here. For the past seven years I’ve sought to help trainee teachers harness those lessons by introducing them to the concept of social entrepreneurship.

To do so, I start with “Who Cares?”, a documentary by Brazilian filmmaker Mara Mourão. It’s about social entrepreneurs from seven countries who discover new and innovative ways to solve some of society’s most pressing matters. They do so while working with few resources and catering to fundamental human needs that governments, particularly in the global south, cannot provide.

I use this film in my classes to assist future teachers in understanding how global problems influence countries and to encourage students to think critically and imaginatively about ways to help lessen inequality in their communities.

This is critical for teachers. Many of the students who graduate from our programme will go on to work in disadvantaged communities where social entrepreneurship could create real change. It could also give pupils a chance to explore how they might pursue social entrepreneurship as a career.

How it started

The major aim of existing school and university curricula is to prepare students for higher education and to acquire a degree and subsequently work for a company. The emphasis is on improving people’s own lives rather than thinking about how to assist the communities in which they reside. By teaching my students about social entrepreneurship, I offer them a practical way to enact social justice. This is the notion that everyone should have equal rights and opportunities in society’s social, economic, and political spheres.

In 2016, I set out to study whether a group of 43 future teachers could grasp and apply the concept of social entrepreneurship.

I was drawn to social entrepreneurship education because it often incorporates hands-on, experiential learning, which may be more interesting and beneficial for students than traditional classroom instruction. This was appealing: it would allow me to see the effect of my teaching on real-world issues.

Mourão’s 2013 documentary delves into the lives of social entrepreneurs such as Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh, as well as others from Brazil, Peru, Tanzania, Canada, Germany, Switzerland and the United States, whose socially beneficial ventures have significantly and positively affected certain communities.

Prior to seeing the documentary, hardly any of the students understood what social entrepreneurship was. Some students saw a clear connection between it and corporate social responsibility. The latter, though, is more concerned with the financial and social aims of increasing a company’s competitiveness than with improving people’s lives.

Subsequent cohorts of trainee teachers have also not initially grasped the concept of social entrepreneurship. The rigid South African school curriculum appears to be the root cause of this conceptual gap. Most young people are not given the chance at school to think critically and creatively, and the curriculum doesn’t offer enough opportunities for students to learn about or implement social entrepreneurship.

Towards establishing a community

The film, both for the initial cohort whose reactions I documented in a research paper, and for those who have followed, seemed to spark the students’ curiosity. It also showed them that seemingly small projects can count as entrepreneurship. Creating a vegetable garden at school is a way to teach learners the necessary skills and knowledge to be self-sufficient and aware of economic and environmental sustainability.

But what would this look like in practice?

To find out, the 2016 cohort and I identified a historically underprivileged high school in Cape Town where we hoped to help develop various sorts of social innovation and entrepreneurship. Then we discovered that the school was already involved in a community engagement project through an annual market day. The proceeds were used to host an annual awareness campaign aimed at recognising, appreciating, and honouring the contributions of elderly South African citizens in the community.

Rather than starting something new, the trainee teachers worked with pupils taking part in the market day to help build their social ventures. This involved applying what they learned from “Who Cares?” to develop business plans.

And they learned about another important aspect of social entrepreneurship: listening to communities rather than assuming they know how to solve existing problems. Communities can enlighten universities about what needs to happen, what is already being done, and what collaboration might look like, as seen in the example of the school above.

Author Bio: Zayd Waghid is an Associate Professor at Cape Peninsula University of Technology