Athens

What is a social entrepreneur and why it matters to us

Article published on June 2, 2014
Article published on June 2, 2014

The story of Guillaume Bapst a French social entrepreneur who is inspired by economic theories to create social change.

Inspired by the 19th century German economist Ernst Engel’s law, which states that the lower a family’s income, the greater the proportion that is spent on food, Guillaume Bapst has revolutionized the way low income households access and purchase food. Putting Engelian theory into practice, the French social entrepreneur, has created a network of grocery shops where people below the poverty line, can buy products from 10 to 30 percent below market price. Apart from the obvious possibilities offered to those needing food, Guillaume’s project also allows people to choose between different products, proving this way, that people, despite their financial circumstances, should always feel and be in the position to choose.

I met Guillaume during his recent trip in Athens, invited by Ashoka, the global organization that seeks to promote social entrepreneurship.

On a sunny spring day, along with Aphrodity, -the launch director of Ashoka in Greece-, and Guillaume, we headed uphill, towards the Acropolis, for a chance to hear more about his noble undertaking.

Our Frenchman, has always been close to society or, more accurately, to those on low income and in need. An entrepreneur since the age of 23, he started working for the French State after selling his 8 year old pony business. His main task is to seek funding for the associations that help the integration of immigrants coming from the southern Mediterranean shore to work in France. Following a 1976 President Giscard d’ Estaing [1]law, facilitating immigrants’ family regrouping, Guillaume notices the struggles of people who can not afford to pay the rent for their house, a problem that Guillaume, still, acknowledges as the source problem of poverty in Europe.

Challenged by how to help those families, he came across Engel's curve, the line which shows the relationship between the various quantities of goods consumers are willing to purchase at varying income levels[2].

Resting for a while on the slopes of the Acropolis, I wish to hear more about the issues Guillaume has raised as he draws wisdom from the economic theories that nowadays, rarely inspire social innovation. “When you are rich, you buy clothes, cars etc but when you are poor, you are mostly buying food”, Guillaume says to me. “What if we can help people by lowering the cost of food supply, so that they can better live, have a better standard of living”, he says with a merry twinkle in his eyes while trying to arrange himself on the scattered stones near the 2.500 year old Athenian temple.

The need for systemic change

On 1995, Guillaume created the first grocery shop. Back then, President Jacques Chirac visited him along with his ministers and decided to back Guillaume’s project. Just as one swallow does not make the spring, the agile entrepreneur recognized the need for systemic change: one shop was not enough, so he created a network of solidarity grocery shops and consequently a new food distribution system to reverse the dependency of poor people, on the state or charitable organisations. In 2000, he created ANDES, Association Nationale De Dévelopement des Epiceries Solidaires, a network of “solidarity grocers,” that unites solidarity grocery shops all over France. Since then, his dreams are similarly occupied.

At this writing, there are almost 300 grocery stores in the French network. Mostly, it’s the municipalities that take the initiative to open a grocery shop and then ask ANDES to implement the project. As far as income is concerned, besides consulting, once the grocery shops are created, they pay a fee of 50 euros per year to ANDES whose resources also come from private companies, the State and local communities and also from products sold to the wider market, such as a premium product voted as best soup in France in terms of quality and viability. 

The role of Ashoka

The State has always helped us. We are one of the associations that every year, are proposed to do more. There are several reasons why this is happening: the rise of poverty but also the culture of impact that Ashoka has trained us to work with” says Guillaume. To have impact is a key goal for Ashoka: “Quite simply, how much you spend and how much the State saves. And this is even more important when there are external experts and researchers who are measuring this, especially at a time when credit is rare” notes Guillaume. That last point, took us back to the social exclusion problem.

While poverty in western societies is multifactorial, especially in the big cities, for my interlocutor there is an essential, crucial issue: accommodation.  “For example, you have this problem with the seniors. In many European countries, we do not have this culture of buying homes as you have in Greece. The rent is high, as long as you work you pay it but for pensioners, it’s possible that they cannot finance the rent. Our society was also wrong; they showed us that is in the cities that there is wellbeing, culture, comfort, access to shops and people got “thirsty”. And now, they have a problem going back, a la campagne.

By the same token, ANDES model also educates clients in preparing food and in eating a healthy and balanced diet with a special focus on fruits and vegetables. An attitude that has got them as far as the mechanical heart of Europe, Brussels, where in 2008 they were able to change the European regulation over the conservation of the said products. Who said nothing is impossible? With a little help from Michel Barnier, Minister of Agriculture at the time, Guillaume and his team, managed to change the terms of conservation of these highly nutritional goods on a pan-European level. “When there is a surplus of fruits and vegetables, we destroy them. Brussels gives better budgetary compensation to the agricultural growers. Our proposal, gives an incentive to the farmers to give us the products instead of destroying them. We follow the same strategy with fish.

Now, ANDES is adding pages to that same playbook by educating people on the virtues of cooking and eating together. The wider idea of the cooking workshop method is that “we do not follow the logic: I am going to teach you but how we can share our savoir. To this end, we created a book where there are six cooking recipes. Actually better say, six cooking techniques. As soon as you get it, you can make the food! Cooking has a tendency to know only one model and we want to open that. In this way, we are also working with the parents and their kids and also with the different cultures in parallel, once a food is forbidden in one culture.”

Next steps for Guillaume’s team: To work on a European scale, “We are mostly active in France. We have given some help in Belgium, Luxembourg, Austria, Spain and now maybe Greece. We want to develop an urban network around this idea.

This is the story Guillaume has been able to tell and one of the many Ashoka stories in 2014 life.

Back in the 19th century, another Engels this time, Friedrich Engels, along with Karl Marx, did not believe that capitalism would produce socialism of its own accord (quite understandable for that era). As Marx and Engels once argued, "history does nothing...it ‘wages no battles.’ It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims."[3] In 1844, Friedrich Engels after his long stay in Great Britain[4], decided to return to Germany. On the way, he stopped in Paris to properly meet Karl Marx. I can already imagine a third person joining their vivid discussions at a Parisian bistrot: Guillaume, a social entrepreneur who brings business into the social arena. Of course, this is just a metaphor of choice; the time has come for the bridge between the social and the business, maybe that’s the whole point of our story.

[1] Valéry Giscard d'Estaing is a French centrist politician and served as President of the French Republic from 1974 until 1981.

[2] a conclusion based on a budget study of 153 Belgian families and was later verified by a number of other statistical inquiries into consumer behavior, Britanica.com

[3] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Holy Family, Chapter 6, Section 2a

[4] where he wrote his first book: “The Condition of the Working Class in England”