Social Intrapreneurship: Making a Change


A social intrapreneur is someone who works inside major corporations or organizations to develop and promote practical solutions to social or environmental challenges where progress is currently stalled by market failures. The intrapreneur is also someone who applies the principles of social entrepreneurship inside a major organization. “More and more people inside big companies are identifying with the label, and now there are companies who want to roll out internal strategy programs to cultivate it,” said Alexa Clay, Ashoka’s Director of Social Intrapreneurship.

According to Robert Tomasko, who directs American University’s Social Enterprise Program, “Starting a new venture or being a solo entrepreneur is great, but when you go into an existing organization and change it from inside, you can have a much bigger impact. If everyone goes out and starts something new, we end up with a plethora of under-capitalized ventures overwhelmed by the scale of the problems they are trying to solve.”

One of the best-known examples of successful social intrapreneurship is Vodafone’s M-Pesa program, originally dreamt-up by two employees. The M-Pesa money transfer system serves about 14 million registered mobile money users in Kenya. In addition, Safaricom, the Kenyan telecom provider, has around 28,000 registered agents for money conversions. People use the cell phones as a form of currency by transferring cell phone minutes instead of money because the sender and recipient usually don’t have bank accounts. The lack of strong financial systems also make it difficult for monthly cell phone plans to work in developing countries, so prepaid cards are popular.

For example, when someone sends money to someone else in a rural village, they purchase a prepaid card with the desired amount, call the village phone operator, and read the card’s number to her. The operator then hands the equivalent money to the intended recipient after taking a small commission and uses the minutes from the original card to sell phone service to others in the village.

It is estimated that M-Pesa conducts about US$650 million a month in transactions. Safaricom and World Bank projections have estimated that M-Pesa could generate transactions of up to $10 billion in 2011, up from $7 billion in 2010. Following the M-Pesa example, there are now over 124 formal mobile money systems in the world in countries like Cambodia, Haiti, Philippines, Pakistan, Brazil, Uganda, and China. Millions that were previously excluded from these financial conveniences are now included. And, of course, the hosting business benefits tremendously as well.

Luis Sota is another example of a social intrapreneur. He convinced building materials-maker CEMEX to build low-income housing in Mexico through a program called Patrimonio Hoy. At first, CEMEX tried to sell smaller (and thus less expensive) bags of cement to lower income neighborhoods. In spite of the good intentions, sales never took off. The company then realized that their customers were not interested in buying cement, but in building a room for their growing families.

Focusing on their customers’ needs, CEMEX turned the cement bags into a comprehensive package: architect advice to avoid weak construction design, fixed material price during the scheme to eliminate the risk of price increase, flexible delivery to avoid waste, theft or damage to building materials, and – probably most critically – fixed weekly payments. The program has experienced great success with more than 350,000 families served, and what’s more Patrimonio Hoy is today one of the most profitable sales channels of CEMEX, with sales tripled compared to selling cement alone.

– Maria Caluag

Sources: Devex, Hystra, UNDP
Photo: Write change grow


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