Social entrepreneurship - a growing movement in Asia Pacific

By Yvonne Li

As a response to Social Edge’s provocative piece entitled Are the only innovations in social entrepreneurship Anglo-Saxon?, Avantage Ventures would like to present eight case studies of sustainable social enterprises in the Asia Pacific region. These case studies provide evidence of innovative and progressive social enterprises in Asia and will present valuable opportunities for evaluating the state of social entrepreneurship in the East. The eight case studies will be presented over a period of four months to encourage dialogue and discussion.

As I attended the Skoll World Forum and other conferences on social entrepreneurship around the world over the past year, I noticed that Asians, with the exception of Indian entrepreneurs, were always a minority among those present. Even with the various SE networks, including that of Social Edge, there appeared to be few bloggers or comments coming from the Asian SE community.

So kudos to Rod Schwartz for starting the discussion, for his observation that there appears to be little participation in the social entrepreneurship community from the East is not unfounded. However, as a Chinese person and an integral part of the Asian SE community, I feel that I can offer some insight into why Asians are underrepresented – and therefore mistaken to be passive – in the social entrepreneurship scene. The key reasons are:

1.     Language

English is the lingua franca of the global SE community; for many Asians, this presents a barrier to participation.

The Asia Pacific region is home to more than 3,500 spoken languages, about half the world’s total (UNESCO 2004). There are few common languages amongst the different Asian countries, with the exceptions of Mandarin Putonghua (spoken in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia), Malay (spoken in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore) and Hindi (spoken among 40% of the Indian population).

In India, especially, we see further proof of the importance of language: due to the relative abundance of proficient English speakers amongst the Indian population, we see many Indian entrepreneurs contributing to the field and the discussions led by the West. Even the Asian SE summits that I have previously attended used English as the primary language of communication. Given that English is most likely a second or third language for most Asians, attending conferences such as the Skoll forum or participating in dialogue like those initiated on Social Edge is taxing and difficult.

2.     Culture

Generally, Asians tend to be more reserved than Anglo-Saxons, which further poses a barrier to their connecting with the global SE community. The Asian mentality towards philanthropy and doing social good, while strong, is very much geared towards doing it quietly and less towards being vocal about one’s efforts and support.

3.     Shorter history of social entrepreneurship in Asia

There is no doubt that the UK and the US are the thought leaders and innovators in the space of social enterprise and finance. Both countries have at least 20 years of experience in developing models specific to the social sector, and enough momentum within the wider community to propel social entrepreneurship into the mainstream.

In Asia, on the other hand, social entrepreneurship has had a much shorter history, most notably in the developing countries of South East Asia. The SE field mostly starts only after the collapse of wars and the toppling of ineffective political regimes, after relative stability is restored to the country.

Many Asian regions remains turbulent, and social entrepreneurship from the ground up can only prosper when citizens are no longer caught up in internecine conflict and have their basic needs accounted for.

These three factors, I believe, explain the seeming lack of activity in the SE industry from the East. Innovations in social entrepreneurship exist and flourish in Asia, as well as in the Anglo-Saxon world, as the following eight case studies will show; but less is known about them, for Asians face barriers to participation in the global SE community. Given this, I ask:  


-       Are there differences in the nature of innovations in social enterprise between the Anglo-Saxon world and the Asian world?

-       How should we encourage fairer representation in the global social entrepreneurship community?

 Yvonne Li is founder of Avantage Ventures in Beijing and Hong Kong.