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Op-ed: Dr. John Schouten

Sustaining N.L.: A social enterprise perspective

Part of a special feature showcasing Memorial’s leadership and expertise in a more sustainable Newfoundland and Labrador, with a particular focus on economic and social sustainability.

By Dr. John Schouten

Social enterprise is a catalyst for healthy local economies in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Businesses need customers. Communities need access to goods, services and meaningful employment. Local markets matter, and social enterprise builds local markets.

Systemic needs

A social enterprise is a business that prioritizes pro-social outcomes.

Social entrepreneurs are motivated by issues that matter to them personally, but because the issues are social or environmental in nature, they represent needs that are widespread or systemic.

When students in Memorial University’s Enactus program decided to tackle the systemic need in Northern Canada for quality, affordable produce, they turned to social enterprise.

With a simple idea for a cheap, yet robust, hydroponic garden, and with collaborators across campus, the student team developed a product and formed a business, Project Sucseed.

Project Sucseed provides meaningful employment for youth that need it. The product enables people in remote, northern communities to grow fresh produce year-round. The abundance of the produce has enabled the formation of food co-ops.

In short, a social enterprise with minimal startup funding is contributing to the health and economic vitality of northern communities.

Community over profits

By prioritizing community over profits for investors, social enterprise can rebuild the basis for a local economy.

The collapse of the cod fishery around Fogo Island in the 1960s put all the island’s communities in economic jeopardy.

In recent years, the social enterprise the Shorefast Foundation, has helped Fogo Islanders learn new ways to think, work and access markets beyond their rocky coastline.

Fogo Island
Photo: Dr. Mark Stoddart

The Fogo Island Inn has made the island a desirable tourist destination. Local carpenters and boat builders hand-make highly coveted furniture.

Fogo Island Fish, caught by traditional hand-line methods and processed locally, is prized by Canada’s top chefs and commands top market price. Excess profits are reinvested in the community, which is thriving again.

Economical backbone

The social enterprise Rising Tide Theatre has formed the backbone of a tourism economy in the outport community of Trinity.

The theatre began as a political gadfly in 1978, added an outdoor pageant in 1993, expanded into a summer theatre festival in 1994, and then added a fall festival in 2002.

The theatre showcases actors, writers and musicians, and it attracts tourists, who support local businesses, including art galleries, artisans, restaurants, lodgings, historic sites, and eco-tours.

Sustainability champions

Social enterprises in Newfoundland and Labrador are champions of environmental, social, cultural, and economic sustainability.

Fishing for Success, a social enterprise in Petty Harbour, is the passion project of a former science teacher and an economically displaced fisherman. From their fishing stage at Island Rooms, they use their dories to provide tourists with quintessential Newfoundland experiences.

“[Social enterprises] build human capacities, leading to a healthier, happier, and more self-sufficient citizenry.”

Guests jig for cod, view wildlife, experience icebergs and bergy bits, and learn about the cultural heritage of a fishing people.

Fishing for Success uses the proceeds from their business to teach young people with difficult lives how to fish, cut cod tongues, make traditional crafts, and in many other ways connect with nature and their fishing heritage.

Together, these social enterprises, and many others in the province, epitomize the best in sustainable development. They do it in unique ways, but they share many commonalities:

They build human capacities, leading to a healthier, happier, and more self-sufficient citizenry.

They respect and sustain the natural environment that is the basis of life and identity in the province.

They honour their cultural heritage and they leverage it in new ways to create new opportunities.

Cumulative acts

Throughout Newfoundland and Labrador, cumulative acts of individual entrepreneurship are creating markets and injecting new vitality into local economies.

Through collaborations with other businesses and non-profits, the effects of social enterprise reach well beyond the activities of the organizations themselves.

Moreover, the income they generate stays in their communities, rather than being siphoned off to deep pockets in far-off places.

Powerful forces

It is in Newfoundland and Labrador’s best interest to support social enterprise.

All the benefits of sustainable development that flow to the province from social enterprise have one other commonality: They are an incredible bargain.

Most social enterprises are started with no more than the imagination, the passion for change and the personal resources of a handful of individuals.

“We need enlightened legislation to remove barriers to success.”

How, then, can we accelerate these powerfully catalytic forces among us?

First, we need enlightened legislation to remove barriers to success.

For example, in order to fulfil its mission for Newfoundland and Labrador youth, Fishing for Success needs access to cod. The cod are there. The fishing is sustainable. But regulations tightly restrict when programs can happen.

Second, we can build capacity in emerging social entrepreneurs.

Memorial University offers the country’s first MBA in social enterprise and entrepreneurship for that very purpose.

Also at Memorial, the Centre for Social Enterprise nurtures social entrepreneurs with a variety of innovative programs.

Finally, we need to support social enterprises of all stripe with our pocketbooks. They provide excellent goods and services, and they deliver value far beyond the minimum marketplace standard of customer satisfaction.

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