EcoAlberto is a social business initiated by bottled water company, Bonafont that aims to provide affordable clean bottled water to the El Alberto community in Mexico who currently do not have access to safe drinking water.
During a break-out session at the Young Challengers’ Meeting, each group were given different challenges faced by Bonafont and were asked to propose a solution to these problems. Here are the challenges:
#1: How can we guarantee the governance of the social business after Bonafont’s coaching period ends?
#2: How can we use the EcoAlberto business model to reach more schools and change the hydration habits of children?
#3: How can we accelerate the replication of EcoAlberto?
#4: If necessary conditions for replication cannot be accomplished by certain communities, how can we extend safe water access to the poor?
The Challenge Brief
Fahmi and I were in a group of 6 people who were asked to come up with a solution for the first challenge. Our discussion was facilitated by Ramses. Here’s the brief we received:
“Challenge #1: How can we guarantee the governance of the social business after Bonafont’s coaching period ends?
Governance structure of the EcoAlberto social business relies today heavily on Bonafont’s support. The community started paying the debt to Danone Community last year (2013) and they will finish paying it in 5 years time. Once they pay 100% of the debt, there will not be the same coaching and support from Bonafont Team and the community will have to take 100% accountability of the social project. The community of El Alberto is not ready to take over the operation, the other business they have, Ecotourism Park, is not profitable. So the main challenges are:
1. How can we guarantee that the social purpose prevails once Bonafont leaves the project?
2. And how can we guarantee the governance of the social business when the community leader changes every year?”
There are currently 5 workers from the community who are working in the business with Bonafont overseeing sales, operation and administration.
In summary, we needed to figure out:
1) How the EcoAlberto business could sustain operations after the business is fully passed down from Bonafont to the El Alberto community, and
2) How can the business ensure its values and practices stay true to serving the community with profits channeled back into developing the community as there are risks of community leaders siphoning funds for their own interests.
To tackle the first question, our group collectively agreed on a few key processes:
1. Consultation with the community
Bonafont must first convey their vision and desire to the community to ensure expectations are managed. Bonafont should then make a skills and needs assessment to manage manpower and resources, and to figure out which areas in the business requires training or mentorship in order to effectively pass down responsibilities currently held by Bonafont to the community.
Once a skills and need assessment is done, Bonafont can now design and develop a training programme that suits the needs of the community and the business. Training methodologies can range from manuals and videos to classrooms and hands-on learning. Methodologies chosen should suit the community’s preferred learning methods using their native language.
3. Developing a democratic work system
A system that is democratic will ensure the aspirations of all workers (made out of community members) will be fulfilled. It can be used to elect positions in the business, especially leadership positions. A democratic system will prevent the abuse of top positions and allow equal opportunities for all. They can consider a rotation system for certain positions and conduct regular general assemblies to vote on key decisions that affect the business.
4. Community takes over 1 year before Bonafont leaves
Before Bonafont leaves, the community should be allowed to take over the company fully for 1 year under the supervision of Bonafont. This gives the community a safety net for failure and enough time for Bonafont to reassess the hand-over programme to ensure the community is ready to spearhead the business by themselves.
5. Transparent financing and participatory budgetting
Transparency is crucial in ensuring the key values and practices of the company are continuously in check. This exercise will prove the company’s sincerity as a social business and in return, the community will support a company they trust is channeling profits back to serve the interests of the community.
As for profits made by the company, an annual participatory budgeting can be organised for the community to decide on how to spend these funds to improve the community. (Refer to participatory budgeting case studies here) By allowing the community to decide on how the profits can be spent to improve the community, such as improving infrastructure, the community as a whole will not only have tangible evidence of how EcoAlberto benefits the people but they would also develop a sense of ownership and responsibility towards the social business. The community’s support is the backbone of the social business.