Social Entrepreneurship is Above All a Business

On March 10-11, participants of Biz4all social entrepreneurship training programme gathered in a large conference hall of the “U Fontana” hotel to learn how to create a minimum viable product. “U Fontana” is a social enterprise, where more than 50% of employees are visually impaired. As per tradition, the training kicked off with analysis of home assignments and a number of project pitches.

Biz4all-2 training is part of the "Social Entrepreneurship Incubator”  programme organized by ODB Brussels (Belgium) in partnership with TNU Network University (Netherlands) with financial support from the European Union. 



Pitch by the team of “Children’s Art House LuGrinDia” (Borovlyany)

Service providing additional income to people of pre-retirement and retirement age "Blizkiya" ("The Dearest") (Hrodna)

Reduce risks and start selling

Masha Charakova, social entrepreneur from the Netherlands and a permanent Biz4all trainer, during the training on March 10-11, 2018, Minsk

During the morning of March 10, Masha Charakova, social entrepreneur from the Netherlands and a permanent Biz4all trainer, introduced the teams to the concept of “minimum viable product”. Eric Ries, creator of the lean start-up model, uses this term to mean “a version of the product or service that allows you to gather as much verified data about customers as you can with the least effort”. “Minimum” here means that the product is only a first rough version, but it is already viable, i.e. it can successfully function. This product will be enough to draw in first customers who are ready to pay, so you can test it in the real world.

According to the expert, the business receives a number of important benefits when it creates a minimum viable product: e.g., you will not need large investments and will be able to start making money right away, which is much better than to invest in business, start to sell big and then realize that no one actually needs your product. “Even if you have not started making money yet, the minimum viable product gives you a perfect chance to learn: produce, sell, communicate with your customers and grow your network of contacts. You minimize risks. Since you do not invest a lot of money in the beginning, you have time to adapt and rework your product without losing everything”. Importantly, your minimum viable product also helps to build trust: “It shows to the world that you are not just a dreamer — you are a doer. Investors and customers love people who actually do something”, underscored Masha.

EkaEja (“Eco Food”): business as a living organism

At the end of the first day of training, the participants heard from Nadzeya Sabaleuskaya,  founder and manager of EkaEja ("Eco Food"). The project was founded in 2012, and Nadzeya has gained a lot of experience in the six years since, which she gladly shared with the teams. “At the time, developing the project was simply an adventure to me — I just wanted to realize my passion. I was on maternity leave and got obsessed with everything that had to deal with food. After a while, I thought that I could found a company that would promote healthy organic products and people who make them”.  

Nadzeya Sabaleuskaya, founder and manager of EkaEja, during the Biz4all training on March 10-11, 2018, Minsk

The founders used their own money to launch EkaEja and then spent six years to gradually grow it. Today, EkaEja is an online store where people can buy organic products of Belarusian farms, and a supplier of organic products from abroad. Back in 2012, Nadzeya and her team used the social media to attract people who were interested in organic products. However, this was not enough: they had to retain these people and create a community. “We managed to bring in our first customers very quickly, but then a lot of people started leaving, so we had to hold their attention. We set up our own social media profiles on Facebook and VK. Facebook was the most popular and relevant at the time, and it was the platform that best matched our target audience. Time has shown that this was the right step and the right solution: we started to educate people and build up loyalty. We do not need to have a wide reach; we have a limited number of products, so instead of a large number of one-off customers we need people who will come back. We used social media to develop our own customer base. We did not just post about our goods and products, we started to write about organic food”. For six years now, EkaEja team have studied best cases from other countries to post interesting informational materials about healthy organic food on their social media pages. They have built up a loyal core audience, which, according to Nadzeya, has enabled the project to survive.


Participants of the Biz4all training on minimum viable project on March 10-11, 2018, Minsk

Nadzeya shares candidly: “Small businesses have to build close relations with their customers. It is a long, time-consuming process: it took us 3-4 years to establish deep relations with people and use the social media to show them what we were. We immediately got genuine interest, so we had to prove that we were there to stay, that we wanted to change something and actually did something good. In order to demonstrate that, you have to stick to your concept over quite a long period of time”.

Over the years, the team understood that they no longer could expand their product range, but the company founders did not want to deviate from the established concept. So they started to import organic fruit, nuts and oils to Belarus from Europe. Now the list of imported organic products and goods constantly grows, and the online store even offers organic household cleaning products. Nadzeya advised the participants to treat the business as if it were a living organism. The market context changes constantly, so you need to watch it, feel it, listen to your customers and adapt your business to survive: initially, EkaEja grew used the profits from the framing online store to increase their imports, but now the situation has reversed. On the other hand, even though the business dictates some terms, the company also has to position itself very clearly, so that the customer trust it. Now, the “EkaEja” online store has up to a hundred of regular customers every week, and the total number of customers has reached several thousand. The project plans to open a small store selling only organic and farming products that would meet all organic standards — there are no such shops in Minsk at the moment.

For reference: organic products (eco-/bio-) are products made, harvested, processed, delivered and sold in accordance with strict technical requirements/standards. In the European Union, these standards are stated in the EU Directives 834/2007 and 889/2008, and use of the terms "BIO" and "ORGANIC" is  legally protected. Very few farms in Belarus grow products that fulfil the requirements of these standards: at the moment, Belarus has 16 farms that make organic products. However, these products cannot be certified in Belarus, so farmers have to receive their certificates in Ukraine, Lithuania or Latvia.

Text by: Valeriya Nikalaichyk

Photo by: Alyona Lis

The goal of the programme is to develop a package of social entrepreneurship training programmes in Russian using innovative international practices, as well as the experience of Belarusian diaspora representatives who have become successful entrepreneurs in European Union countries and the USA.

The material was prepared within the framework of the "Social Entrepreneurship Incubator", implemented by ODB Brussels in partnership with TNU Network University (Netherlands), Belarusian Youth Public Union "New Faces" and International Civil Association "Union of Belarusian of the world “Motherland", with support from the European Union.