At a recent social entrepreneurship forum we were amazed by the ideas and technologies being presented; mobile phone based eye diagnostics, safe and affordable infant incubators, and even affordable sanitary pads. Inspiring stuff.
What was less inspiring were the business models. Despite a clear realization of the high-impact each product could have, the massive market potential, and the obvious lack of large distribution networks, each technology was coupled with a non-profit designation and an “open-source” distribution scheme.
Now let’s be clear, when it comes to computer programming or scientific knowledge we support open source models (in particular the non-profit kind). Both are freely (or very affordably) distributed and have the benefit of existing distribution networks. But when it comes to products that are going to require that someone build a distribution network, create a marketing campaign, and ramp-up production capacity; open-source is probably not going to get it done.
People might think of this as callous or unimaginative but that is just an easy way out. We are not insensitive to oppose models that get peoples hopes up but never deliver. We are not cold-hearted to object to models that fail and leave people without a product they have become dependent on. Unfortunately, those of you who work in development probably can’t count the times that these scenarios have played out in the field
So what does this have to do with bees? Bees are remarkable creatures. They exist in complex societies and create far more good than harm. Yet their most important contribution to earth (and one of the most important contributions of any species!) is pollination.
Through pollination alone, bees contribute somewhere between $32 and $50 billion each year to U.S. agriculture production. Despite our modern agri-business, today bees help pollinate 1/3 of U.S. crops. Think about the shear scale of that task.
Yet the interesting thing about their impact is that bees are doing this out of self-interest; not out of benevolence, guilt, or a sense of responsibility. They are the most productive pollinators on the planet and yet they don’t do it for the fruits or the flowers. Bees do it for the honey.
Social entrepreneurs, investors and aid organizations should stop and think about what we can learn from bees: Their self-interest not only does-no-harm, but actually does-good (a lot of it). They create value at both ends of the production cycle (pollination on one side and honey on the other). And, most importantly, they create tremendous benefit through scale (the average bee hive supports over 60,000 bees).
Bernard Mandeville long ago claimed that without private vices there is no pubic benefit. He too used the self-interest of bees as a metaphor for the benefits of self-interest (in a much less flattering light than we are). For social entrepreneurs that self-interest can be a powerful tool for achieving public benefit. Especially when we harness it from those we are trying to benefit.