Image credit Change Fusion
What sets Thailand apart from the rest of East Asia, in social enterprise terms, is genuine government backing. So says Tommy Hutchinson, founder of i-genius, a global network of social entrepreneurs. “And, perhaps outside China and India, it has the most sophisticated structural support for social enterprise. There are lots of people building the sector.”
In 2008, when i-genius held a world summit on social entrepreneurship in Phuket, Hutchinson sensed that the sector was about to take off there.
The following year, the Thai government and a number of civil society organisations formed the National Social Enterprise Committee to increase awareness of the sector and access to finance.
“There have been two or three years of good government support now, and the King is also a huge backer of social enterprise,” says Hutchinson.
It’s the younger generation that seems to be really embracing the movement, according to Hutchinson.
“We have one of our biggest networks in Thailand, and the members are, on average, younger than in the other countries. They are quite international in their outlook and are very sophisticated users of social media,” he says.
Sunit Shrestha, director of Change Fusion – a social enterprise foundation and investment organisation – is working to keep the youth momentum going. He has created a community of youth-led social enterprises, linking them with professional mentors and funders.
Shrestha is also a prominent Ashoka fellow and has brought UnLtd office into the country with Thai government funding ($100,000).
Through Change Fusion, certain sections of the government have started to contract youth-led social enterprises. “There are a number of different contracts and partnerships, for example with Open Dream, a technology social enterprise focused on providing universal web access for visually impaired people,” he says.
The Thai Social Enterprise Office also contracts a social enterprise called MiniMe for its communications. Various government agencies have commissioned social enterprises to carry out preparation for disasters.
While Shrestha feels that the new prime minister – who came to power last June – has had less time for social enterprise than the last, there does, on the whole, appear to be a lot of political support for the sector.
The TSEO is now halfway through its five-year master plan and there is much happening in the world of social investment in the country, including work with Thailand’s stock exchange to encourage investment in social enterprise and ethical business.
It’s estimated that there are about 116,000 social enterprises in the country, many of which are in their early stages and needing investment. Some, such as the social entrepreneur Kongkiat Kespechara, aim to make deep changes to life in Thailand.
Another Ashoka fellow, Kespechara has developed a management information system called Hospital OS, which helps small hospitals in rural areas be more efficient in helping disadvantaged people.
Other prime fields for Thai social entrepreneurs are sustainable tourism, healthcare, alternative energy and recycling. The highest numbers are in the agricultural and forestry sectors, according to Change Fusion’s Thailand Social Enterprise Landscape Report, out this month.
Most are set up in a similar way to UK social enterprises. However, in a definite departure from the structure here, some have been formed by the government itself.
Social enterprises set up by private companies as a separate entity also exist, a type of business which will perhaps also become popular in the UK in the coming years.
By the end of this year, the social enterprise movement in this part of South East Asia could look quite different again, with several further developments planned, particularly in the area of social investment.
As well as working with the stock exchange, the TSEO is looking into tax incentives for investors and for social enterprises themselves. It’s also working on common social impact measurement standards.
In addition, TSEO has said it will spend at least 30 million baht on a pilot loan and equity funds scheme this year, which supporters keenly hope will help develop the capacity of the sector.
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