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[ venture] Business in social business

Next week I have to talk about my life change event, so I was looking for old photos. Before 2003 there were hardly any photos that went digital. At the same time as the birth of my children, the number of photos increased dramatically. Amongst those photos, I was able to find some significant life experiences again.

I only recall it occasionally, but I spent two months in the Philippines about 12 years ago as a pro bono member of a Grameen Foundation program called Bankers Without Borders. I helped them with the analysis of the Philippines office of the Grameen Foundation. However, I think I got more out of it than I gave to them. One of them is that I got to meet social entrepreneurs.

When I enter the world of social entrepreneurship, I meet many people who call themselves "social entrepreneurs". But most social entrepreneurs just use the social thing as a marketing ploy, when, in reality, they are just doing business. But it's imperative to do business properly. Otherwise, if the social enterprise goes bust, the socially meaningful activity will disappear.

Back to my story, about 12 years ago, I met an organisation called Akuma in the Philippines. They borrowed money from the Grameen Foundation to run their microfinance business. They don't just lend money; they teach the poor how to do business so that they can pay back their money. And their primary focus is on market access. No matter how much the poor make good products, they don't have a place to go to sell their fancy little bags. The head of the organisation had worked abroad and said that he had learnt the importance of market access there.

He desperately wanted me to sell their bags in Japan as he was going back to Japan after this pro bono work. At the time, I was a researcher who had only ever done the research, so I didn't know how to sell bags. However, they were so enthusiastic that I told them that I might manage it one day.

After I went back to Japan, I kept in touch with Akuma by e-mail. And they sent me five bags as samples to Japan. The shipping alone must have cost a fortune. I tried to sell them on Rakuten (Japanese EC site), but I didn't sell. This kind of bag is already common and would have been sold for 1,000 or 2,000 yen unless there were exceptional circumstances. The level of manufacture was such that the Japanese market could not handle it. At that time, I did not have a passion for improving the quality of these not-so-high-quality bags. As a result, I did not do business with them. In hindsight, the cost of sending the bags by international mail would have been too much for them and I thought it would be better not to give a half-hearted reply to something that was unlikely to be done. I feel terrible for them about that.

We are now trying to sell our products in Japan through a Japanese partner, just like Akuma did. We are now preparing to send samples for this purpose. Based on that experience, we should have a proper person as a partner, not a lazy person like me 12 years ago. And we have to promise to improve the quality of our products so that our procuts can be sold in developed markets.

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