Social enterprises aim to bring about social change

A new wave of social enterprises is enabling Taiwan’s people to develop a greater understanding of those who are marginalized in society, while at the same time helping to improve the quality of life for these people. These entrepreneurs are not solely motivated by profit, but are focused on educating consumers about the ills in society and about ways to resolve these problems.

These enterprises have re-defined entrepreneurship from “inventing technology” to “reinventing society.” These business owners are not overly concerned about the scale of their enterprises, so they can start with a modest amount of capital. According to a report by Taiwan Panorama, there are five major trends in social enterprises which are in line with Taiwan’s small and medium-sized business tradition.

Social awareness shapes consumer habits

The goal of fair trade is to keep farmers and workers in developing countries from being exploited as a result of globalization, and to ensure they receive a fair wage and decent working conditions. Social enterprises with this focus in mind are developing rapidly in Taiwan.

Fairtrade International (FLO), a non-profit organization based in Bonn, Germany, develops and reviews fair trade standards, assisting producers to gain and maintain fair trade certification and capitalizing on market opportunities. The World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) is another global organization centered on fair trade producer cooperatives and traders, offers fair trade certification. In Taiwan, the major products certified by FLO are coffee beans and designer crafts branded by WFTO.

When Okogreen, Taiwan’s first fair trade coffee house, was established in 2007, it was Taiwan’s first fair trade venture. Thus far, the two most popular concepts have been “brewing coffee at home” and “using fair trade coffee for the office coffeepot”. For home brewers, their social awareness can shape their consumer habits. And the office coffeepots are a standard expense for most offices, representing an excellent first step for fair-trade coffee dealers to establish a foothold. Twenty-two companies have already committed to using fair-trade coffee, with a potentially enormous untapped market.

Organic farmers take active steps

Agricultural co-operatives helped to provide a sturdy foundation for Taiwan’s postwar economic miracle. They combine many things including, labor, cooperative farming, production, sales and distribution. The practice has allowed Taiwan to keep the culture and practice of small-scale farming alive, which is the most influential element in organic farming today.

Founded in 2008, O-power Social Enterprise Company, took advantage of a small business loan to cooperate with organic farmers in Ali Mountain (central Taiwan), successfully increasing its yield year after year. Breaking even in just four years, the demand for its tea, fruit and vegetables has exceeded supply, making O-power a model of Taiwan’s traditional co-ops. Kaohsiung’s Xiaolin and Jiaxian villages in southern Taiwan, which were devastated by Typhoon Morakat in 2009, are now seeing the formation of many production and sales co-ops. They are taking active steps to rise from the ruins of natural disaster using this type of co-operative pooling.

Public-interest media on the rise

Despite the decline of print media, Taiwan’s public-interest media has been on the rise. Since 2006 the monthly Bao Bon Phuong has released Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesia, Tagalog and Cambodian editions one after another. These serve immigrants and guest workers from Southeast Asia, with a combined press run of 50,000. Although the target audiences are minority groups that are small in number, there is enough demand to stock the papers in convenience stores, which demands a high stocking fee. Readership has steadily increased every time Bao Bon Phuong has released a new language edition, quickly reaching break-even point. This has allowed the company to start more new language editions.

Services provided by disabled people

There are over 100 public interest groups in Taiwan working hard for financial self-sufficiency. Chou Wen-chen, executive director of the Bjorgaas Social Welfare Foundation, said that public interest organizations can use the revenue they receive from their employment facilities to help cover their operating costs. What’s more, they create employment opportunities for mentally and physically disabled groups, and their products may even be more competitive than products made by mainstream workers.

The most successful example is the Victory Potential Development Center for the Disabled. The center prepares the disadvantaged, in accordance with their job capabilities, to work at various job sites, including data entry centers, gas stations, digital printing centers, bakeries and other professions. The services they provide are competitive and need no special marketing. For instance, the caramel puddings disabled bakers make for Mr. Nordic, are hugely popular. Many customers do not even realize Mr. Nordic is from a shelter employment bakery.

Social movement products convey message

In recent years, citizen activism has given rise to special opportunities for “cultural and creative products” focused on social and political movements. For instance, towels and T-shirts with anti-nuclear slogans have been sold online and at demonstrations. Items sold have easily reached the tens of thousands, with impressive profits.

Wu Chung-shen, chair of the sociology department at Fu Jen Catholic University, explained that “movement products” have symbolic meaning for its members, and their price can be set at various multiples of the manufacturing cost, thus giving the organization a greater profit margin. This is very much a social enterprise model.

Taiwan Panorama noted that it is wise for businesses to keep things small since even a small organization can generate big energy. The goal of social enterprises is to help resolve social problems by meeting various needs. It is not necessary that entrepreneurs aim to build up a large corporate structure, but one with social care in mind and in practice.

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