What does it take to be a social entrepreneur in South Africa?

By Ken Fullerton

Sarah Soloane is a social entrepreneur, EnerGcare Independent Distributor (sales agent) and promoter of off-grid renewable energy solutions. Entrepreneurship is a challenging industry to enter into in South Africa. According to the most recent Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) Report, entrepreneurs in South Africa face some serious constraints when starting off, ranging from poor access to markets to stagnant demand for consumer goods.

At the same time, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) reports that in South Africa, black women have the lowest level of formal employment rates and the lowest level of earnings amongst all of the different gender and racial groups . The difficulties facing both entrepreneurs and black women motivated Sarah Solane to become a social entrepreneur. She says, “I particularly wish to serve the youth and women in my community and help to uplift their lives so that they can stand for themselves and do something for a better life.” She hopes that as people have limited access to basic services, by becoming entrepreneurs, they can work for themselves and be ambitious.

When asked why she believes she has the ability to succeed as a social entrepreneur, Sarah credits her background and how it has influenced her outlook on life. Raised in a rural village, she experienced first-hand how the lack of electricity had adverse effects on her education – “it was difficult for me to learn and my family had very little money to purchase candles”. Her mother regularly had to walk long distances to collect water and firewood for her family. At a time when load shedding and power cuts are were frequent with Eskom struggling to cater for South Africa’s electricity needs, Sarah first identified an opportunity to market and sell off-grid energy efficient and renewable energy products. These were targeted at to people and families around her who were also struggling to overcome similar challenges in early 2013.

Sarah markets and sells the EnerGcare product range that includes efficient cook stoves, solar lights, solar cell phone chargers and power supplies. Not only are these products affordable and safe to use but they also enable users to overcome many of the energy challenges currently faced by South Africans. These include not having an electricity connection, high electricity, paraffin and oil costs, and regular power cuts (either due to load shedding or having an illegal electricity connection). She has become highly regarded within her township community.

In December 2014, Sarah was recognised for her work as a social entrepreneur helping to improve the livelihoods of others. She was awarded the Renewable Energy Prize at the International Micro Entrepreneurship Awards in Paris, France. Sarah believes that other aspiring social entrepreneurs have the potential to replicate her efforts and she is willing to provide further advice. She doesn’t believe a formal education is necessary but instead credits the desire to “always want to help others” and to be “persistent, as you are likely to have challenges along the way”.

This is an extract of the full interview. To read the full interview visit here.

Sarah Soloane
Sarah with her International Micro Entrepreneurship Award in Paris, France while proudly representing South Africa. Photo credit: PlaNet Finance

Ken Fullerton is a Field Specialist and Consultant at PlaNet Finance and is based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He works in the field of sustainable development. To contact the author email kfullerton@planetfinance.org


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