Align or Perish: Orchestrating Social Enterprise Networks in Sub-Saharan Africa

Exploring how social enterprises build and orchestrate beneficial social network arrangements over time as the social enterprise grows, and what drives these changes, is essential, especially in societies where collectivism prevails and networks replace weak formal institutions, often creating social obligations. In their research in Kenya, Christian Busch and Harry Barkema collected longitudinal data for more than a decade and identified four new mechanisms that allowed successful companies to adjust their networks as they evolved.


Social networks are crucial for social enterprises because they can help mobilize resources to solve societal problems. However, while the literature has provided important insights into the types of networks needed to develop and increase (“extend”) social impact, it tends to assume that networks are developed for specific, already existing, or existing projects. that organizations have the power to develop networks easily, usually because they are already large/reputable. Yet social enterprises tend to require changes in their networks based on different resource needs, challenges, and projects over time. Thus, exploring how social enterprises build and manage (“orchestrates”) beneficial social network arrangements over time as the social enterprise grows, and what drives these changes, is essential.

This exploration is particularly important in the context of the emerging economy of sub-Saharan Africa, where previous research has argued that collectivist tendencies prevail (i.e., prioritizing the group over self), and where networks serve as a substitute for weak formal institutions, while often creating social networks. bonds too. Given the lack of systematic knowledge on how social enterprises evolve using social media in this context, in our new article we asked: “How and why social enterprises in the context of the emerging economy of sub-Saharan Africa successfully orchestrate their networks as they evolve? »

Research context: Kenya

Our research setting was Kenya, a sub-Saharan African country characterized by collectivist tendencies and relatively weak formal institutions that has pioneered innovative inclusive business models in emerging economies. Given our limited collective knowledge of how social enterprises orchestrate their networks as they evolve in this context, we used an inductive theory building approach with a multiple case study design. We have collected longitudinal data for over a decade – from April 2011 to September 2021 – through interviews, emails, Skype calls, archival data such as growth plans internal and observations, for example, in local “show farms” which sensitized farmers to the effects of fertilizers. .

Our final sample included six social agricultural enterprises, which engaged low-income residents, particularly farmers. All of the businesses provided farmers with essential supplies such as fertilizers and aimed to help them increase their income. All companies have faced the challenge of the poor customer business model, forcing the company to seek out a wide range of potential funders early on, such as international development organizations, NGOs and grant-based collaborations, while generating their own income by selling their products. to farmers and supermarkets. Other challenges included seasonality, low profit margins and scale restrictions due to regulations; for example, honey or fertilizer certifications were less developed in Kenya, limiting export opportunities and increasing local competition, reducing prices.

Network Orchestration

Our results show how and why the orchestration of social ties at the scale of a social enterprise is associated with success or failure. Two scaling phases, capturing strategic actions and network changes, emerged from our data, which we called “scaling phase 1” and “scaling phase 2”. . Each phase showed characteristics and challenges common to all enterprises and helped explain why social enterprises had to adjust their networks as they evolved (see Figure 1). While Phase 1 network scaling issues tended to be related to integration challenges (i.e. building capacity of beneficiaries (i.e. farmers) in conjunction with productive actors such as international donors, and aligning with the goals of government officials, which were particularly relevant in this context).

We’ve identified four new mechanisms that have allowed successful companies to adjust their networks as they evolve. First, entrepreneurial contextual gateway focused on transferring new meanings and practices to a context in a locally sensitive way while establishing legitimacy and credibility. Given major disparities across Kenya, such as tribal separations, successful companies have mediated between different groups and considered the local languages ​​of customers and local partners. They have been successful in convincing locals of their legitimacy and recruiting them into their network, for example by having local representatives and partners make frequent public engagements in front of local villagers.

A second mechanism we identified was circumvention of social responsibility, which consisted in productively circumventing the constraints of structural integration. This mechanism was important for de-anchoring oneself from the local context when scaling up operations while preserving local legitimacy. For example, involving effective family members in the organization, on the basis of merit, while creating opportunities for ineffective family members outside the business, avoiding nepotism. A third mechanism we identified was capacity building aligned, that is, motivating partners to participate in coordinated efforts to develop and strengthen the skills and resources of key beneficiaries. For example, successful companies often supported the creation of new markets, for example by facilitating agreements with crowdsourcing platforms that funded their customers (farmers). A fourth mechanism that emerged from our data was align incentives with political actors; that is, engage public officials in a way that aligns with their goals, for example, related to Kenya’s ‘vision 2030’.

Figure 1. Social enterprise network orchestration

Understand sustainable entrepreneurial interventions and solutions in resource constrained settings

This research contributes to a better understanding of how and why social enterprises in the context of the emerging sub-Saharan economy orchestrate networks as their enterprises evolve and require different resources over time. Capturing social enterprise network dynamics over time contributes to our understanding of how and why agentic network actions can help succeed as enterprises evolve in this context, and how design and implementation failures orchestration can be circumvented through efficient network orchestration. This has important implications for our understanding of sustainable entrepreneurial interventions and solutions in resource constrained settings by explaining how stakeholder interests can be aligned over time to “keep things together” and to build ecosystems. effective ones that outlive donors. For example, companies often fail to develop strong relationships with low-income communities, and insights from our study could help these companies develop more inclusive engagement strategies through approaches such as making public commitments to members of the local community.

Managing the “dark side” of social networks

Our study also contributes to understanding how to deal with the “dark side” of social networks, for example, expectations from family, friends and politicians who do not contribute significantly to the company. Since the legitimacy of social enterprises in collectivist contexts tends to be based on achieving social goals and being locally rooted, instead of using simple decoupling mechanisms such as severing ties, enterprises that have succeeded in our study have decoupled these social ties from social enterprise while providing value to them.

In summary, we provide new insights into how and why successful social enterprises develop and align networks in an emerging economy context over time, which improves our collective understanding of how agentic network actions can help. overcome structural constraints as businesses evolve in this environment.

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