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What Social Entrepreneurship in a Rural Community is Like

Image: Gunumeleng by Dominique Byron

For many city-dwelling Aussies, rural Australia conjures up images of sweeping red plains, arid backcountry and stoney old pubs sitting tall and proud on the main drag, milling with locals in wide-brimmed hats. But anyone who has spent significant time in a rural town knows these townships offer far more than just a re-fuel pit stop for road tripping families and a few cliche freeze-frames. 

I had a yarn to Alexie Seller, the woman heading up Impact North, Northern Australia’s social enterprise council-equivalent. Alexie was a born and bred city-dweller, so she understands the differences between rural and city life better than anyone. We spoke about not just the barriers, but the beauty found in rural communities. 

It’s difficult to meet the right people.

As entrepreneurs, we’re always encouraged to ‘build our network’. Entrepreneurship blogs, podcasts and conferences labour the point. “It’s not about what you know, but who you know” we’re told. “You’ll create a greater impact if you work together” they say. That’s all well and good if you have the opportunity to meet people. “Nobody is coming to your town of a few thousand to host a conference about social entrepreneurship”, Alexie laughs. 

“Sure, but what about the internet?” I ask her. “Especially during COVID, there are a bunch of online conferences and webinars…”

“If you have an internet connection, sure. If the videos can load.” Alexie responds. A suburban Sydney-dwelling Millennial like myself could not compute. I started to consider the valuable relationships I had formed in my short career. While I met a lot of people online, most of the trust was formed face-to-face.

It’s more expensive to start an enterprise. 

In cities, if you need a position filled, you just make a post on a Facebook Group, or create a job listing on LinkedIn. In a rural town, you don’t always have someone with that skill-set in your community. If that’s the case, where do you go? What incentive usually encourages people to up and leave the comforts of their city-dwelling life? Money.

That’s why it’s more expensive to start a social enterprise in rural communities. “It costs more to move people around, to bring people here. You can’t access support immediately so you need to plan”, Alexie says. 

The supply chain issues are unique to each community. 

It’s difficult to empathise with supply chain challenges unique to rural areas. According to Alexie, “often, an enterprise will be looking at ad hoc ways to get things done. It’s totally unique to a community. They can’t just book with Australia Post. The great thing is, it makes communities more resourceful”.

For Samra Billy, Co-Founder of Gulbarn Tea in Minyerri, NT, the strength of the community has been essential in managing supply chain issues due to COVID-19. With no community access from outside, it has been difficult to find solutions to moving tea from Minyerri to Katherine, Darwin and Sydney. “We’ll just ask around to see if someone can get it out” she tells me. “I feel proud of myself and how the locals are helping out with the harvesting, helping me to try and transport the tea to Katherine so we can get it to our cafes. Doing everything by yourself is really hard, I’m really glad I have the support from the community to grow this business.” 

“Some of the high school kids have been helping out as well – there’s not much to do here. When I help them harvest, they sit with me, and watch me weigh everything up and write a sheet with all the people and how much harvesting they did. I write out another sheet with bank details. I tell them how it’s done. I’m teaching high school kids about business as well. My three girls have been working with me from the start. They really know how it works, and they get really excited..”

Resourcefulness is a strength.

Resourcefulness, and the connectivity of a small community, means that social enterprises are agile. “Pivoting” is just problem solving, and they have to do this every day. Resilience breeds in these environments, and it is this resilience that keeps these communities strong and their impact great.

Robbie Dann from Kimberly Cultural Adventures in Broome has had to pivot significantly during COVID. With tourism drying up almost completely, Robbie has had to change his focus. The boab picking season coincides with the tourism season, so Robbie has focused his efforts on the fruit. Robbie tells me how he “picks the fruit, turns it into power and sends it to Perth, where it’s made into cheeses, ginger beers and syrups”. He runs the entire operation, Bindam Mie (website not yet active) on his phone, as he doesn’t own a computer. 

When I asked Robbie whether it was difficult to change his focus, he laughed it off with a shrug “I’m a small operation. I’m not running thousands… more hundreds… so it wasn’t too hard.” Last year he was picking boabs, but Kimberly Cultural Adventures was helping fund it. Now it’s paying for itself, so will help re-launch Kimberly Cultural Adventures when the borders re-open. Robbie hopes to increase business enough to get “the whole tribe involved in selling bush foods… I can barely sleep a wink, I have so many ideas!”. 

Entrepreneurship is a community effort.

In a capitalist environment, we see an entrepreneur as an upwards growth model. The Founder/CEO/Chief Gamechanger/Director/Elaborate LinkedIn Title as the person responsible for change. The owner of that impact, if you will. 

“That mindset doesn’t really resonate with the communities we’re working with”, says Alexie. “There are definitely leaders… but they don’t need to feel in charge of the business in order to feel successful. Their community is their essential priority. Value comes from the community, not the self”. 

Similarly, the language around ‘social entrepreneurship’ doesn’t resonate (hence the language around Impact North rather than ‘NT Social Enterprise Council’). According to Alexie, “What I hear time and time again from our Aboriginal partners and networks is that in Aboriginal communities, any enterprise is social. They exist to support their communities, to share and strengthen culture, or to create opportunities for family. That’s something everyone can learn from these communities. Things don’t happen as a singular silo business. Often, if you’re not conscious of the whole community’s system… you can’t solve problems.”.

So how can we better support our social enterprises in rural communities? 

If your program is national, consider rural communities.

For those developing accelerator programs, consider access for those who can not physically participate. “I know face-to-face is important, but it just doesn’t translate in the territory. All messaging is posited to urban entrepreneurs and solving those problems. You need someone who has sat on both sides who can translate that.. but most people would shrug it off. That’s part of the challenge and why we [Impact North] want to play a role in helping people understand what the needs of enterprises in the territory are”, says Alexie.

Take the time to listen. Then support.

The primary way we can support our remote social enterprises is through procurement. But before then, we need to listen first to the stories from social entrepreneurs in rural areas. Every challenge, every community, every business operates differently. While procurement is important, often enterprises need other forms of support before they can get to that stage.

Hello Xolotl, an up-and-coming tour operator, for instance, is partnering up with Aboriginal organisations in the Northern Territory to provide virtual tourism experiences. For National Reconciliation Week, they are collaborating with Top Didj Cultural Experience to host a live Q&A session with Manuel Pamkal Godjok, an Indigenous man from Arnhem Land, NT. 

The upcoming event, to be held at 7pm ACST on 3 June, will open a conversation between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous peoples to promote intercultural understanding. At the same time, it will provide an alternative source of income to members of Top Didj Cultural Experience, who have been impacted by current COVID-19 travel restrictions. If you’re interested in attending, you can RSVP here. Also, if you want to stay up to date about upcoming events organised by Hello Xolotl, subscribe to their newsletter here

Impact North would love to hear from those interested in delivering support to this region. They would also love to hear from any social entrepreneurs or those interested in social entrepreneurship in northern Australia. You can reach Alexie at alexie@elp.org.au

Jay Boolkin
Jay Boolkin

jay@socialchangecentral.com

I'm passionate about positive social change and the power of social entrepreneurship to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems. I believe that for-purpose business models can become part of the mainstream and I am enthusiastic about advocating for business models that are genuinely built around a social or environmental mission.

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