Picture: 123RF/bimdeedee
Picture: 123RF/bimdeedee

I don’t know how many lives Bill and Melinda Gates have saved through their foundation, but it runs into many millions. Gates is one example of successful business people doing good after accumulating a fortune.

Another way to do good is to influence lives directly through one’s business. Mine is one of the many lives Adrian Gore’s Discovery Vitality programme has improved. Its clever nudging took me to Parkrun five years ago, and I have been getting fitter ever since.

But to have a positive effect you don’t have to wait until you’ve made your fortune or built a huge organisation, neither of which might happen. Your small company can make a difference now.

Some entrepreneurs do this intentionally in what are called social enterprises. These companies make a profit but have a mission to improve some aspect of life and are willing to put mission above profit when necessary to provide a service or product that a purely commercial enterprise might not. Some business schools encourage this in their MBAs.

Stacey Brewer used her Gordon Institute of Business Science MBA global elective to visit low-cost schools in India while preparing to found Spark Schools after graduating. Brewer recently opened the 21st affordable school in SA.

Rebecca Harrison, who graduated about the same time as Brewer, cofounded with me the African Management Institute (AMI) to enable ambitious companies to thrive across Africa, pioneering a practical learning method for which conventional training companies might not have had the risk appetite. In its five years so far, AMI has made a difference to the work of more than 27,000 people, many of them entrepreneurs who employ many more.

Africa has a vast number of exciting social enterprises. M-Kopa Solar has driven domestic solar power installations across rural East Africa using an innovative payment system. So far it has installed more than 750,000 systems, providing 3-million people with clean, safe and economical lighting.

EthioChicken uses an innovative model of agents to sell chickens to small farmers in Ethiopia. It supplies chickens that yield up to five times as many eggs and mature in a quarter of the time of domestic strains. By rearing chickens for the first 40 days and training their customers, agents have reduced the mortality rate from 80% to less than 5%. 

Founder David Ellis knew nothing about poultry farming but wanted to address malnutrition, and after a stint in NGOs decided economic transformation needed to come through business. Social enterprises such as this change the way a sector operates.

But you may protest that your business has no claim to a special mission. “What good can I do?” To begin with, you put food on the table of your family and your employees’ families. You meet an important need in your customers. That, in itself, is enough to be proud of. And you pay taxes. But there is more. Even small business owners have influence — for good or ill.

As a business owner, you add social value when you treat your staff with dignity often denied them outside your business; when you grow your staff through training; when you pay a living wage to staff who earn the least and insist that your suppliers do the same; when you innovate; when you donate time and resources to organisations improving the wider community; when you protect the environment through energy saving, recycling, and responsible waste disposal; when you are a daily example of unshakeable probity to staff, suppliers, customers and family; and when you speak out publicly for justice and fairness.

We don’t even have to own a business to have an effect. We can all be responsible ethically, in social involvement and the environment — honest, caring and green.

And if you do not own a business, why not start one? It could be the hardest thing you do, but the most rewarding work imaginable. When we work well, we can also do good.

• Cook, a former director of the Gordon Institute of Business Science, is cofounder and chair of African Management Institute