Aug. 3, 2017

Island Dreams: Dominica Offers Ideas and Opportunities for Social Entrepreneurship

For budding social entrepreneurs, Dominica provides tremendous opportunities: young business students, abundant natural resources, and multiple avenues for changing the economy.

A full-immersion experience for 13 UVA students gave them insights and exposure through Batten’s second Global Field Experience: Social Entrepreneurship in Dominica.

The two-week course in May in the Caribbean country prompted students to see potential business successes by educating budding entrepreneurs and recommending solutions for environmental problems.

Jianda Liu, then a first-year student, described the experience as “the struggle between doing something that is inherently good, and producing something that provides more financial value.

“When we are looking at social entrepreneurship, we are trying to put a monetary value on it.”

Jianda Liu at Trafalgar Falls, Morne Trois Piton National Park (photo by Adam Koeppel)

Determining value often is difficult. For example, thousands of indigenous Dominicans believe “no one should own the land,” said Bevin Etienne, the course leader who is Lecturer at Batten and Assistant Professor at the McIntire School of Commerce, teaching social entrepreneurship.

This conviction of approximately 4,000 Kalinago, descendants of the island’s first inhabitants, “creates huge challenges from an entrepreneurial point of view.”

Without title to the land, “there is nothing to collateralize to raise capital for investment in entrepreneurial projects,” except for grant funding and support from non-governmental organizations, known as NGOs.

Bevin Etienne with student Natalie Wall, examining a cashew apple, also known as cashew fruit, with a cashew nut attached to the fruit (photo by Claire Wellbeloved-Stone)

But it is that appreciation for the land that points to a potentially successful enterprise: waste management. Students researched how residents could take nearly two-thirds of the country’s waste, which is biodegradable, and turn it into organic fertilizer through a widespread, successful composting program. They also proposed an extensive recycling program to keep bottles out the landfill and reuse them, saving a significant amount of money over the cost of new bottles.

Another proposed effort is better education of young business visionaries. Etienne’s students advocate creating a non-governmental organization for “Dominican Entrepreneurs in Training,” to be called DENT.

Left to right: Students Catherine Chilton, Mariel Messier, and Natalie Wall meet with entrepreneurs with the Dominica Youth Business Trust (photo by Claire Wellbeloved-Stone)

Olivia Davis, a rising fourth-year who is a distinguished major in government, wrote that DENT would successfully educate young, business-minded Dominicans through “competition and skill-based learning.”

Dominica currently relies on an established, government-funded youth business trust; the proposed UVA model would be an alternative program.

DENT would “capture the social value inherent in successfully educating a group of young people” to “exert positive change on the island through new social ventures, while remaining financially sustainable,” Davis wrote in her reflection paper. She is entering the master’s degree program at Batten.

Social entrepreneurs also need to learn how to win over existing businesses, often a daunting task. Getting small and medium-sized hotel owners to embrace renewable energy, for instance, requires persistence.

“When you talk with them about energy efficiency and renewable energy, they don’t necessarily see the economies from that. What they see, from their model, is heads and beds, which generally leads to increase funding for marketing, guest comfort, and property ambiance. Yet the fact that they can reduce operational costs with energy efficiency and renewable energy doesn’t register as an investment opportunity,” Etienne said.

Other technology gains could come from software designed for Dominican businesses. One entrepreneur is working on an application that uses GPS to track schools of fish and improve safety for fisherman.

Camille Larmoyeux, now a third-year student at Batten, commented on that entrepreneur, and others, in her written reflections.

“I loved meeting with the young entrepreneurs; they were the real inspiration for my group’s project on revamping the” government-funded youth business trust.

“A few of them had such innovative ideas that we wanted to help them foster their dreams into a successful venture…for the rest of them, we definitely thought that they needed a different learning experience in order to establish realistic goals.”

In addition to speaking with entrepreneurs, Etienne’s students also met with some of Dominica’s government decision-makers.

“The students get an opportunity to talk to some of the politicians, the members of parliament, to understand from the members of parliament their own view of some of the challenges that they face.”

Originally from Dominica, Etienne has a long-term interest in supporting, promoting and developing social ventures in Dominica and the wider Caribbean region. He is active in the research and development of renewable energy resources and energy efficiency in the Global South. 

Successful social entrepreneurs need to learn to work with stakeholders such as government and community leaders, product designers, end users, employees, and financiers to advocate for policies that promote sutainable goals, such as better waste management and improved entrepreneurial education, Etienne said.

In their meetings with politicians, students had the opportunity “to question them and ask them, ‘Why are these policies done that way? Why haven’t you looked at other policies? It’s a two-way street. They learn from each other.”   

The challenge remains creating “sustainable business models for entrepreneurs to work with in small island developing states,” Etienne said.

Students and Assistant Professor Bevin Etienne above Boiling Lake in Morne Trois Piton National Park (photo by Keith Etienne)

At Morne Watt, in Dominica’s Morne Trois Piton National Park (photo by Keith Etienne)

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