Social Entrepreneurs

Global: Social Entrepreneurs interviewed in person by CSEF


Social Entrepreneur: Nicky, Dicky and Lucky Chhetri

Country: Nepal

Organization: 3 Sisters Trekking and Empowering Women Network




 Note: This profile was prepared by Barrett Bingley in December 2004.


 3 Sisters and Empowering Women Network

 "I asked Lucky to map out the future plans of EWN for me and she described for me an organization with 'one foot out the door', poised for growth in a number of areas. Lucky feels that tourism is the best platform for women's careers in the future and she is aiming to make EWN a key player in this area. Being an Ashoka Fellow is proving important in this respect: two projects are in the pipeline with other Fellows, one with Mahabir Pun on supporting community development in the Nangi Region by developing eco-trekking and another on creating a bird-watching training course with Raj Indra, head of the Sarus Crane Sanctuary in Lumbini. Additionally, Lucky is working to bring the EWN training to more women all over Nepal. This will be done by creating a mobile training center in conjunction with Village Development Committees and by starting an EWN training-branch in Kathmandu. EWN is also looking to standup an adventure training centre for women in Pokhara, which would enable women to enter the rafting, kayaking, and mountaineering sectors. Eventually Lucky would also like to see women become the trainers in each of these fields. Lucky also spoke about her wish to partner with Canadian schools and training centers as a way to further the capacity of EWN, particularly in adventure sports training. She is already in talks with CEIC (Canada) about developing eco-tourism in western Nepal, the poorest region of the country."

 Measuring Impact: Social Entrepreneurship in Nepal

 Social entrepreneurship is a new concept in Nepal, only recently gaining recognition through the work of the Ashoka Foundation there. I asked Lucky how she thinks Nepali society feels about this new phenomenon. Lucky replied that Nepalese feel that social entrepreneurs are very clever but are ultimately in it for the monetary rewards. This is because Nepalese, who have had so many generations of hardship, cannot understand sharing on a society-wide basis, rather than just at a family or tribal level. Lucky feels that a social entrepreneur in Nepal must possess patience in order to build their organization and work past the multitudes of naysayers. This also requires a high level of dedication. She also feels that a high level of creativity and the willingness to take risks is important. She told me that, "Copying is easy, creation is hard." Surely these are necessary characteristics for a social entrepreneur anywhere in the world who is endeavoring to fulfill their vision.

 3 Sisters and EWN can be reached at and on the web at


Social Entrepreneur: Bir Bahadur Ghale

Country: Nepal

Organization: Ashoka Fellow


Location: Nepal

 Note: This profile was prepared by Barrett Bingley in December 2004.


Bir Bahadur Ghale

 "Bir Bahadur Ghale is known as the “Light of Barpak” for bringing electricity and its many benefits to his isolated village through the use of a 50 kilo-watt micro-hydro power plant. Using this initial project as a base he has grown his idea in depth and breadth, spreading the advantages of micro-hydro throughout Nepal. This work earned him an Ashoka Fellowship in October 2004. 


I met with Ghale and his technical advisor Manoj Khadka in Kathmandu to discuss the future of micro-hydro in Nepal. He began by filling me in on the genesis and growth of his ideas. In 1989, Ghale installed his first power plant, in his home village of Barpak, providing electricity to 546 houses. This was initially established as a business, with Ghale selling the electricity to the villages. However, he found there was not enough demand for the electricity, particularly during the daytime. Ghale’s solution to this was to help the villagers set up a bakery, a hand-made paper workshop and a furniture factory. This new portfolio of business and employment opportunities was key to helping the village take full advantage of the benefits electricity offers. Like so many other social entrepreneurs, Ghale realized that his innovation would not survive on its own but had to incorporate organic change in the rest of the system as well, this particular system being village life. The economy of the village improved dramatically and others began to take notice. Ghale said the remoteness of the villages meant no government projects were forthcoming and he felt responsible for spreading the technology. Since that time Ghale has helped villagers install 22 micro-hydro plants in five districts in Nepal. In 1996 Ghale was responsible for installing the Rangung-Barpak Ropeway, which is a sort of cargo gondola that runs on electricity, bringing goods to villages no road can reach. It was the first of its kind and is a much-lauded, and imitated, innovation.


I asked Ghale and Kadka to outline the benefits of electricity brings to rural communities. Kadka began by noting that 80% of Nepalis live in difficult to reach rural areas. Only 20-30% of the total population has electricity access and only 7% of the rural population. This lack of access is particularly hard on women, a group already disadvantaged by the social structure of Nepali society. Ghale explained that micro-hydro improves employment by fostering cottage industry, reduces the dependency on fuels such as kerosene and wood for cooking and heating, which in turn improves health, particularly in the case of respiratory ailments. Micro-hydro also allows improves education by allowing children to study at night and the use of technological teaching aids in hard-to-reach mountain schools. Like all top-notch social entrepreneurial ideas micro-hydro has the potential to improve an entire system through a small but important innovation. 


Currently, Ghale is setting up a new 100 kilowatt power plant, doubling the village’s power supply. He is also the Chairman of the Nepal Micro-Hydro Power Entrepreneurship Federation, which grew out of the district networks Ghale had created while installing micro-hydro plants in various parts of Nepal. He established the Federation in 2002 to provide a common forum for sharing problems and successes in the emerging micro-hydro field. Ghale also hopes to use the Federation to further his primary future goal of spreading the idea and reality of micro-hydro power to every corner of Nepal. He intends to use the district-level networks to distribute Federation newsletters and government information materials on the subject. Additionally, the Federation serves as a link to the government to whom its members provide advice. One of Ghale’s long-term goals is to see all villages connected to the national electricity grid with the option of selling their excess electricity from the micro-hydro plants back to the grid. This vision of changing the whole system of electricity access and use, rather than just the fortunes of one village, is one of the key attributes that earned him the Ashoka Fellowship. 


Ghale’s response surprised me when I asked him how he measures the impact of micro-hydro power in the villages he has worked in. The surprise was the emphasis on statistics and collating data, something no other social entrepreneur I talked to in Nepal seemed particularly interested in or equipped to do. Ghale said he measures the amount of electricity used by each household, counts the number of new employment opportunities generated and new businesses started in each village to gain an understanding of how the introduction of micro-hydro affects life in a rural village. One year after the plant has begun operation Ghale also asks the villagers how much kerosene and how many batteries they have saved due to electricity access. Ghale observed that money saved on kerosene and batteries is ploughed back into the community, further encouraging development. 


When I inquired how the villages fund the start-up of the power plants Ghale replied that the plants are paid for with a combination of loans, government subsidies and grants from international donors. The international donors include the UNDP, Danida and the Canadian Council for International Co-operation. He feels that one of the biggest risks to micro-hydro power is if the government or donors lose interest. As such he would like to see all aspects of micro-hydro, from installation to sustainability, become a government priority a position he encourages through the Micro-Hydro Foundation.


Continuing on the topic of risks and challenges Ghale remarked that the lengthiness and difficulty of the subsidy and loan procedures made it overly difficult for villages to install a power plant. The present red-tape heavy procedures require many trips to Kathmandu, a difficulty not to be underrated when one considers that this often involves days of walking in the lower Himalaya and bus rides on terrible roads that are often blocked by Maoist transportation bandhs (strikes). In fact, just such a bandh is keeping me in Pokhara for an extra two days while I write this article. The Micro-Hydro Federation is working on simplifying the financial procedures related to micro-hydro applications. 


Ghale said that so far the Maoists are not directly harming the efforts of micro-hydro power entrepreneurs because the efforts are community-based. There is continuing dialogue with the Maoists to ensure this remains the case. The bigger problem posed by the conflict is transport: fearful helicopter pilots refuse to fly micro-hydro equipment into Maoist areas. The government has also accused some people transporting power lines for the projects of aiding the Maoist insurgency by doing so.


The media has not been a particular help to micro-hydro entrepreneurs as the projects are in remote locations, far from reporters, editors and their main market of Kathmandu. The Ashoka Fellowship has helped improve this situation by garnering positive media coverage for Ghale and his efforts. 


Despite the myriad challenges faced by Ghale he concluded our interview saying that he felt he needs only five to ten years to create a big positive change in the Nepali electricity access situation. Ghale believes micro-hydro has an incredible potential to improve the lives of disenfranchised high-altitude communities."


Social Entrepreneur: Inthy Duansavan

 Country: Laos

 Organization: Wildside Eco-Tourism Company



 Note: This profile was prepared by Barrett Bingley in September 2004.


Wildside Eco-Tourism Company

"Laos. A sparsely-populated country of karst mountains, powerful rivers, ancient ruins, intruiging hilltribes and laid-back cities. A country ripe for an explosion of tourism but also a country extremely vulnerable to the negatives that accompany such an explosion. This is what I had just experienced after backpacking through Laos for two weeks. During that time I did three white-water kayaking trips with Wildside Eco-Tourism Company and I was impressed with their commitment to not only making a profit but also protecting the environment of Laos and the culture of the peoples that make this country so interesting. On my last day in Laos I sat down with Inthy Duansavan, a Laos entrepreneur who founded Wildside, to talk about the genesis of his company and his dual challenges of making a profit and making a difference.


Inthy Duansavan told me that when he began Wildside Eco-Tourism Company four years ago with his partner, Australian Michael O’Shea, the idea was only to offer an adventure tourism company. In fact, Inthy had never before encountered the concept of sustainable eco-tourism but that all changed when his company collaborated with the New Zealand Eco-Tourism Project. The project involved opening Nam Ha Bio-diversity and Conservation Area (N.B.C.A.), in the far north of the country, up to tourism in a way that benefits the local people and supports the protection and responsible management of the park. Inthy was so impressed that he decided to make eco-tourism principles a core part of his emerging business. 


Wildside now runs eco-tourism based treks, river rafting and kayaking trips, climbing and mountain-biking excursions throughout the country. Quite extraordinary considering this sort of opportunity for travelers simply didn’t exist five years ago. 


When I asked Inthy what the goals are for Wildside he gave a two-sided answer. On the business side he said he wants to focus on marketing in the future, both marketing Wildside and Laos as a destination. So far the focus has been on surveying new adventure routes and training the guides up to a very high standard. He is proud to note that he has a guide in Colorado for river-rafting and kayaking training and that Sai, who was twice my guide, has been to Germany and Greece for international kayaking competitions. 


On the social change side Inthy outlined a number of challenges and goals. He noted that Wildside is hoping to work much more closely with the government in the future on protecting the environment and developing sustainable tourism practices. He says the government has made taken some steps to protect Lao culture from the corroding influences of Western tourism but that the communist bureaucracy lags behind in understanding that tourism and other industries must be managed in a way that doesn’t degrade the environment. Part of Wildside’s mission is to prove to the government that national parks are beneficial to the country, preserving traditional ways of life as well as bringing in tourism dollars. Wildside is also hoping to expand it eco-tourism practices, opening up treks and river adventures in two remote provinces. 


Another challenge is to inform the Lao people of how sustainable tourism practices can benefit them; but only if they are willing to protect the environment instead of stripping it for resources, stop hunting out all of the native wildlife and move away from slash and burn agriculture practices. The first step in accomplishing this is educating Wildside’s guides in the principles of eco-tourism. Wildside tries to use exclusively local guides, one way their company benefits the isolated hill-tribes, and these guides disseminate their eco-tourism knowledge throughout the communities they live and work in. The message is reinforced with economic incentives when Wildside brings small tour groups through the villages and the villagers are paid for the accommodation, food, and blankets and any sort of traditional entertainment such as dances or concerts they provide. Tourists also provide a ready market for their traditional handicrafts and supplies an incentive to continue with these practices when many communities are being flooded with cheap Chinese and Vietnamese Western-style goods. 


Wildside also makes an effort to educate its customers about the importance of preserving the environent and having a low impact on traditional cultures. Inthy said most Western tourists are quite knowledgeable in this area and he says he really focuses on the Lao people, who just this year are beginning to take an interest in the adventure tours offered by his company. In another effort to educate the Lao people, Wildside awards fourteen top college students with a free adventure tour in Vang Vieng at the end of every school semester. These students not only get an great adventure experience but also learn about the principles of eco-tourism and preserving the environment. Inthy said Wildside also buys newspaper space to announce the winners of the trips and push the message of sustainable environmental practices to a wider audience. 


As a dual business-environment goal is to qualify Wildside for membership in Green Globe 21, which is a “worldwide benchmarking and certification program which facilitates sustainable travel and tourism for consumers, companies and communities.” (See The qualifications for membership are difficult to achieve and Wildside would be the first Laos company ever to become a Green Globe member. Inthy and his staff are quite focused on this and think they can achieve this within the next six months.


When I asked Inthy about measuring the impact of Wildside’s eco-tourism efforts he was nonplussed. Laos is the sixth poorest country in the world and very little information is available to develop starting points and benchmarks to judge whether Wildside’s investments in education and training are paying off. Inthy expressed interest to me in developing ways to better measure the impact that Wildside is having in Laos. 


Given the adventure opportunities available in Laos I can certainly see myself returning to this country for more intense experiences. I am glad to know that Wildside will be here in the meantime endeavouring to protect that which I find so attractive about the country: its cultural diversity and its natural beauty."


For more information on Wildside visit or email


Country: Cambodia

Organization: Friends (Mith Samlanh)


Note: This profile was prepared by Barrett Bingley in August 2004.


Friends (Mith Samlanh)

 "As I walked along the riverside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I was immediately faced with one of the most heart-breaking challenges faced by this country: the ever-increasing number of street children. First, I see the six-year old girl who has to take care of her naked two-year old brother while begging money off passing tourists. Then its two boys, both about twelve, who forego school and the chance of a better future so they can sell papers on the streets to support their family. The underage prostitutes, the kids addicted to glue sniffing, and orphans from homes destroyed by AIDS all need help and for a long time had nowhere to get it. 


In 1994, into this void came Friends, or Mith Samlanh in the Khmer language. In 10 years of existence it has helped thousands of children and become a first-class example of social entrepreneurship. Late in August I spoke with Gustav Auer, whose role is the technical assistant to the Friends business projects, about the Friends organization and what it takes be a social entrepreneur in Cambodia. My understanding of Friends was complemented by a tour of the facilities provided by Lek Sin Rithy, the Friends Public Relations Officer. 


I met with Gustav and Lek inside Friends Restaurant, one of the best restaurants in Phnom Penh, and the third and final stage in the Friends training program for street children who want to work in the restaurant/hospitality industry. It is a cheery place, filled with bright colours and art done by street children. The premises exude the optimism of the founders of Friends, Sebastien Marot, Barbara Adams and Mark Turgesen. 


Friends runs 13 programs, including community outreach, a boarding house, a HIV/AIDS Awareness Program, and a training center. It helps 1800 street children, or children at risk of becoming street children, every day. The training center is composed of numerous training businesses which generate income for Friends while providing the students with useful skills for the future. Students keep 60% of revenue generated while 40% is put back into Friends to support their training and other programs. Options offered include mechanics, electronics, haircutting, beauty, sewing, welding, and running a restaurant. While Lek was showing me the workshops areas for each of these programs I observed Khmer children and teens concentrating hard on their various trades. I saw a lot of smile and twinkling eyes. Clearly Friends provides these children with hope and happiness. 


Each program is based on three levels and once the street kids graduate from the third level they are assisted in finding corresponding employment. One of the most interesting features I found about Friends is its strong encouragement of entrepreneurship. Friends helps its graduates to develop business plans and secure micro-credit to start up businesses either in Phnom Penh or in the villages they originally came from. Lek informed me that the proportion of entrepreneurs to those seeking employment with an established business is 50/50. In a country where 85% of the people are below the poverty line and the average wage is $20US per month, fostering entrepreneurship is important for the entire country. I asked Lek how many of the graduates succeeded in their plans and he replied that 65% of graduates were successfully running their businesses or gainfully employed three months after they left Friends. He emphasized that Friends is very conscious of the need for follow-up and that the 35% who don’t succeed initially are welcomed back to Friends for additional training, counseling and education. Friends also increases its impact by sending its graduates out with life-skills packages, focusing on health and HIV/AIDS awareness, with which they become peer-educators, spreading their knowledge throughout the cities and villages of Cambodia.


Gustav has been with Friends for 4.5 years and he came up with the original concept of educating street children in restaurant skills. Gustav began by telling me about the genesis of Friends Restaurant. He opened it with a grant from the EU Commission. It was initially making only $100US per day and was not self-sustaining. Friends Restaurant now grosses around $1000US per day, is completely self-sustaining and has contributed over $60,000US to the support of other Friends projects. Friends has also branched out, now running Condom Café, PopZone and Café du Centre as well as the Friends cafeteria. All of these contribute to Friends annual operating budget of $1,200,000US. Lek was proud to inform me that Friends is 20% self-sustaining, meaning that if every one of their numerous individual, private business and governmental donors dropped out, Friends could still keep running at 20% capacity. However, Gustav was careful to underline that education of street children is the primary goal, not the generation of income. 


Gustav was keen to explain that Friends Restaurant does not simply teach cooking, cleaning, and serving. Like the other programs, it prepares students to run their own establishment, by giving them a foundation in basic accounting, dealing with suppliers, staff relations and other managerial skills. Success stories in their latest annual report prove just how effective the Friends training regime is. 


Gustav identified a number of different challenges faced by Friends. He said that other NGOs, of which there are many in Phnom Penh, were initially very skeptical that the training programs could work. Additionally, despite 10 years of successful existence, the Cambodian government has only last year begun to co-operate with Friends in joint programs to help street children and to stop children from taking to the streets in the first place. The government is now taking small steps to deal with this challenge, aided by organization like Friends which have a deep knowledge of this complex issue. Sadly, Gustav also noted that Cambodian citizen’s indifference, and even hostility, to street children, is a big challenge for Friends, one he says will take years to overcome. Gustav pointed out that the target market for Friends Restaurant was exclusively foreigners because Khmers would not eat there. Sadly true; on the two occasions I dined at Friends Restaurant I did not see a single Khmer customer. Gustav says part of this indifferent attitude is due to the overall poverty of the country. Cambodia is racked with corruption and all of the family and social support structures were destroyed or disrupted when the Khmer Rouge massacred 2 million of their own people in the late 1970s. 


Cambodia does not seem to me an easy place to be a social entrepreneur, given the multitude of challenges faced by anyone with such aspirations. When asked what were the key qualities for a social entrepreneur in Cambodia Gustav replied, “Respect and patience.” Respect because too many foreigners come here trying to tell the Khmers what to do, not seeing the value in the Khmer way of life. Gustav said many Cambodians have very low self-esteem from years of hardship and are afraid to even attempt to try jobs requiring a more difficult skill-set. Without respect this process will only get worse and Gustav fears that Cambodian culture may disappear entirely in the coming years. Patience because the Khmer way of life is not fast-paced (nor are the government apparati), the education system is a shambles and often the ‘target market’ face inherent disadvantages that slow their learning and uptake of new skills. As an example Gustav said it can take one full year for a Cambodian street child to learn basic cleanliness skills necessary for food preparation. This is because the kids live above open sewers, have no knowledge of why cleanliness is important due to a lack of education, and may drop out of the program a couple times to return to prostitution or other money-making activities that supports their parents or younger siblings. 


Gustav continued by saying that the one thing any social entrepreneur in Cambodia must be prepared to provide is education. The extremely low level of education severely hinders the country, from the poorest street child to the established business looking to hire qualified people. In a country with millions of unemployed Gustav had exactly zero applications for two Basic Cook positions he advertised. He says it was a combination of few people being qualified and those who are qualified not being confident enough to apply. 


I asked Gustav how he measured the success of Friends Restaurant. He said that success to him was being away for two weeks and coming back to find everything running perfectly well, in the complete absence of any foreign supervision. This is the goal of the entire Friends organization in fact. Of 240 staff, only four of those employed are foreigners. One of them, founder Sebastien Marot, is leaving this month to work on full-time on Friends International, which will provide training to other NGOs working with street children as well as initiate new programs of its own. Currently Friends International is working in Laos and Thailand with plans to expand to most other South-East Asian nations.


Just before I left, I asked Gustav what is the best part of his job. Gustav said working with Friends was the best thing he had ever done in his life and the best part of it was working with the kids. Watching them transform from street-children with very little hope to capable employees and confident entrepreneurs was very satisfying. Though Gustav puts in many 14 hour days, he said that he gets far more back from working at Friends than he could ever put in." 

For more information of Friends see or email