A Journey Back to the Origin: My SEWF 2019 Experience

After 8 hours of flight and 6 hours of transfer, I finally arrived back home from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It felt like I just woke up from an unbelievable dream. Although tired and unacclimated from the intense travel and meeting, my mind was activated with so many new ideas and inspirations from three days of experiences at the Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF) 2019. Throughout the forum, I had the chance to hear and learn from different social enterprises that are tackling challenges around the world. I encountered ambitious entrepreneurs and young people who are willing to cooperate and make changes together. Moreover, I reflected on my own studies, experiences, abilities and future goals, and discovered what I can contribute to this sector.

Origin from “the Land of Origin”

From 23 to 25 October 2019, up to 1,200 delegates from 70 countries came together to share ideas and build networks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Located on the 2,200-meter plateau, the city serves as the headquarter of the African Union and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). It is also regarded as the land of origin, the cradle of humankind, the birthplace of coffee, and the starting point of the Blue Nile river. Apart from being embedded in deep cultural roots with strong traditions and an unique biodiversity, Addis Ababa also focuses on the development of social enterprises today, hosting the 12th annual SEWF.

This was the first time for SEWF to be held in Africa, and also my first visit to Africa. I still recall the memory from last year’s SEWF in Edinburgh. During the handover ceremony, I wished to participate in the forum again and to visit Ethiopia. At that time, I did not know this wish could come true. However, it was like a small seed planted in my heart that slowly sprouted and finally was realized through the support of the OPES-LCEF scholarship. With excitement, anxiety and a bit of nervousness, I set off on my journey. Although I could not imagine what was ahead of me, I believed that the origins lie in the land of origin.

Local Traditions & Fresh Perspectives

The title of SEWF 2019 was “Local Traditions & Fresh Perspective”, which encourages everyone to rethink the traditions in life, the approach from our local cultural, political and economic perspective, and to search for new solutions for present challenges. Throughout the three days, we had discussions under the themes of “Employment and Impact”, “Inclusive Economic Growth”, “Social Enterprise Ecosystem”, “Leadership”, and the tracks of “Policy and System Change”, “Markets”, “Growing Social Enterprises”, “Future of Business” and “Celebrating Diversity and Inclusivity”. The topics relate to the definitions, developments and potentials of social enterprises in the world today. The examples of social enterprises ranged widely from poverty and inequality, tech as a tool, gender equality, youth engagement, refugees and immigrant, indigenous culture to climate-smartness.

Aside from the panels, we further had the chance to network with each other through the exhibitions and events. I met new friends as well as old friends. A friend from Sudan works on environmental protection by involving different techniques in agriculture, while another friend from Ethiopia empowers women through start-up programs. People from different countries and various fields shared their ideas and thoughts, and discovered future collaboration opportunities. From those inspiring individuals, I got to see the world through different aspects and the power of connectivity.

What is “better” and how to get there?

During the full panel of “Social Enterprises Leading the Way in Tackling Inequality”, Lord Victor Adebowale from Turning Point and Social Enterprise UK pointed out three important focuses that the social enterprise sector can reflect and work on: Branding, Economic Model and Policy Making. Branding relates to the communication with general public and consumers. For economic models, he emphasized upon the dialogue between economists and the importance of creating economic philosophies, so that there can be a base for the sector to grow; in the last point he called for more creation of dialogues in order to involve governments and policy makers to join the movement. In another panel of “Climate-Smart Social Enterprise Solutions”, Karen from Belu Water also suggested that as social entrepreneurs, we need to show the public what “better” looks like and bring them there.

Although each panel had a different thematical focus, they all related to the importance of collaboration and communication. As social enterprises and social entrepreneurs, we have to look at the bigger picture of this sector, and understand the people and environment influencing decision-making in either effective or invalid ways. Furthermore, we have to improve the communication within and between the sectors, social enterprises and also the general public, consumers, economist and governments. To address the question on how to generate understanding towards social enterprises, much emphasis was placed on involving different actors of the wider system, creating a platform for dialogue and creating possibilities for change.

The Continuous Journey

As my stay in Addis Ababa was short, I had troubles acclimatizing to the atmosphere as well as the altitude. I saw different projects in the city and had the chance to enter UNECA for the forum. I gained a glimpse into local traditions and creativities ranging from food, dance, music to craft. The feeling of energy and flourishing was omnipresent in the busy market places along the streets, through the passion of sounds and in the eyes of a child. I also noticed the contradiction between development and preservation; rich and poor; foreign markets and local values. We have long been taught from the perspective of developed and developing countries guided by numbers and capitals. We had the images from news that conflicts, diseases and famine are the stories of this continent.

Through dialogues with local friends, I kept on rethinking and rebuilding. Is that what we know the whole story? Can we really identify the needs of people and problems to solve? Do we understand how local people live and think? These questions  made me reflect. I
suddenly realized my own shallowness and ignorance in understanding the world. And I was grateful that this trip acted as a reminder that gave me many insights. This life-changing experience happened thanks to all the people I met in the forum, to the social entrepreneurs who are willing to share their experiences, and to OPES-LCEF that supported my learning. Most of all, to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia that opened up another perspective towards social enterprises, and so this journey to the origin continues.

Through dialogues with local friends, I kept on rethinking and rebuilding. Are those what we know the whole story? Can we really identify the needs of people and problems to solve? Do we understand how local people live and think? These questions aroused many reflections in me. I suddenly realized my shallowness and ignorance in understanding the world. And I was grateful that this trip acted as a reminder that gave me many insights. This life-changing experience happened thanks to all the people I met in the forum, to the social entrepreneurs who are willing to share their experiences, and to OPES-LCEF that supported my learning. Most of all, to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia that opened up another perspective towards social enterprises, and so this journey to the origin continues.

Brought to you by Yu Po.