SEED Research

A central and defining feature of the SEED programme is its commitment to research so as to increase:
  • knowledge for enterprises and,
  • the understanding of how social and environmental start-ups grow, which barriers they face, their economic, social and environmental impact and in turn their contribution to sustainable development.

Like the rest of the programme, SEED’s research programme expanded over the years and in 2009 SEED embarked on an extensive 3-year study. This consisted of following SEED Winners from 2005-2011 as well as applicants of the SEED Awards 2010-2011 and looking in detail at:

  • the social, economic and environmental targets they set
  • the extent and rate at which they met those targets
  • the support they needed
  • the barriers to their success and how initiatives like SEED could contribute to their growth.

Based on the results, SEED and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), SEED’s research partner in 2007-2012 have:

  • drawn out trends,
  • developed resources on crosscutting themes such as developing and measuring critical success factors, including triple bottom line performance; how to grow a start-up sustainable development enterprise; managing partnerships; and other support needs
  • developed tools to help the global community of social and environmental enterprises, and
  • generated insights targeted at policy- and decision-makers on enabling conditions for these enterprises to contribute to a greener economy in their countries. 

This research will continue and will be augmented by impact studies.

Latest findings

There is little doubt from the data collected over the three years of the study that the majority of enterprises within this community of social and environmental enterprises are changing the model of how to deliver sustainable development on the ground. The SEED winners in particular are demonstrating significant capacity to establish and deliver on social, environmental and business targets and indicate a level of progress beyond that of the survey group as a whole. Below is a summary of the main findings:

1.) The “Green” economy is also a “knowledge-based” economy.

Small and micro social and environmental enterprises need access to the technology, skills and research and technical partners, and support their efforts to take innovation to market, with special attention to women and women-led initiatives to ensure equal access.

  • Access to technology is an important requirement for social and environmental small and micro enterprises. This requirement has been increasing in importance from year one of the study to year three; and may continue to increase in importance to SMMEs over the next few years. These small and micro enterprises are making a significant investment in the introduction or development of new, more environmentally friendly technologies and production processes.  Policy makers should undertake a more in depth review of the types of technologies and processes in demand by small and micro enterprises in order to determine:
    1. whether channels for information and communications about technology and processes to the small and microenterprise sector exist at national levels
    2. whether there are barriers to the importing or transfer of technology to small and microenterprises for use at the local level and how these might be overcome.
  • Access to technical expertise and research partners is also critically important for these enterprises; respondents noted significant levels of concern about the absence or only partial availability of research partners and technical experts. How national policy makers can connect these local level actors with the innovation, research and development bodies in their countries is a matter worth further attention.
  • Each year, nearly 100% of respondents indicated that they were involved in some type of training or skills development at the local level. More attention should be paid to supporting small and microenterprises in the development of skills within their communities:
    • by further exploring the skills gaps at the local level and reviewing current development programmes to strengthen the skills base at the local level, in particular with respect to new, more environmentally friendly technologies and production processes.
    • by providing programmes for small and microenterprises to improve their own capacity to deliver a range of training and skills development activities on the ground.

2.In building the green economy, NGOs and CBOs need training and other services and support in order to adopt and develop more business approaches in their work.

The increased interest in business approaches by not-for-profit organisations suggests new windows of opportunity for policy makers to build business and entrepreneurship capacities in the NGO and CBO sectors. National small business development offices should consider targeting NGOs and CBOs to use their services, in addition to reaching out to the more traditional small business sector.  This will serve not only to strengthen the financial sustainability of these entities that are starting up small enterprises; it will also serve to increase their contribution to economic development in the communities in which they work.

In light of growing interest internationally in shifting to a green economy, national policy makers should review how these social and environmental enterprises are contributing to that economy, and provide training and other means for these enterprises to build more sustainable businesses.

3.) There may be gender-based barriers to the success of small and micro social and environmental enterprises.

As the Cohort 3 group demonstrates, it is possible to have gender parity in these types of enterprises; and it is possible to have women-led enterprises involved in the introduction of new technologies and production processes.  However, women-led enterprises appear to be more aware that they do not have all the enabling factors in place:  awareness of business regulations and government programmes for SMMEs, as well as not yet having many of the necessary building blocks in place, such as business management skills, business plans, marketing strategies and access to markets. National policy makers should work with their programmes for small business development to ensure that they are reaching out to women-led enterprises, and in particular to those women-led NGOs and CBOs that are beginning to adopt business practices.  Whether there are barriers to women-led enterprises to access and use technologies should be also explored. Finally, particular attention should be paid to linking women’s enterprises with research and technical experts.

4.) Local level environmental communications, monitoring of local environmental conditions, and monitoring and enforcement of environmental laws and regulations, need to be strengthened, in order to create an enabling environment for local actors to achieve their goals.

  • The presence of national environmental legislation and regulations is one of the top four enabling factors. But, among the most significant barriers to success is the absence of local level environmental monitoring and enforcement:  45% of the respondent group states that this factor is absent or only partially available.  There is a clear role here for policy makers to:
  • help these small and micro enterprises with community awareness rising;
  • work with these enterprises to identify and monitor key locally relevant environmental indicators
  • focus on monitoring and enforcement, in order to improve the conditions under which social and environmental SMMEs can achieve their goals and grasp potential competitive advantages through compliance with prevailing rules.
  • International agencies also have a role to play in raising public awareness and providing tools for monitoring environmental challenges at the local level in order to create conditions that are more receptive and enabling for small and micro enterprises. In particular, agencies such as UNEP can work with national authorities and MEA Secretariats to emphasize the need for compliance with regulatory requirements.

5.) Social and environmental entrepreneurs could benefit from training and support for triple bottom line planning.

There continues to be a real challenge for small and micro enterprises in setting clear and measurable targets, even with the most ambitious and innovative start-ups.  Simple tools for Triple Bottom Line planning should be incorporated into capacity building programmes developed and offered by the multilateral financial institutions (such as the World Bank and International Finance Corporation), development agencies (such as UNDP) and international NGOs working with small and micro enterprises on the ground (such as IUCN and World Wildlife Fund).

6.) Partnerships with international research and technical institutions are of critical importance to social and environmental enterprises.

Small and micro enterprises consider partnerships with research and technical experts to be one of the most significant factors in their success.  How international agencies can connect these local level actors with the innovation, research and development bodies internationally is a matter worth further attention.

7.The not-for-profit sector contributes to income enhancement and local economic development, but this contribution may not be recognised in national and international economic analyses.

Over half of the respondents indicated that they have been able to supplement the income of members of the communities in which they are working.  It is difficult, however, to quantify and validate this contribution to economic development. Bearing in mind that most of these enterprises still see themselves as not-for-profit, it may be that their contribution to the creation of new income streams within the communities is being overlooked by national economic planners. Certainly it warrants more attention, with consideration given to methodologies to capture and report on this data in national economic analyses.

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