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Harnessing the power of enterprise to reduce poverty and conflict

January 26, 2011

This article appears courtesy of the Richard Ivey School of Business

The success of a blacksmiths’ cooperative in war-torn Sudan has lent strength to a study testing the power of enterprise development in regions mired in poverty and conflict.

Ongoing research by Professor Oana Branzei with PhD candidate Samer Abdelnour at the Richard Ivey School of Business is prompted by the belief that entrepreneurship in impoverished and conflict regions can empower individuals and communities to help rebuild their societies after war.

Their work shows that enterprise is resilient in conflict zones. Involvement in entrepreneurship can even help ex-combatants reintegrate into society and reduce the likelihood they will return to combat as a survival strategy. These findings are part of a larger research program led by Branzei, funded by the Social Sciences Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Investment Climate and Business Environment Research Fund (ICBE RF), and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

Hope for the future

“It’s a paradox that enterprise can blossom under extreme conflict and scarcity; it helps restore the social fabric of communities and instils a sense of purpose and hope in the future. Our findings surface important pro-development, pro-peace functions of business activities,” said Branzei.

Abdelnour and Branzei are pioneering field research focused on enterprise emergence and growth within displaced communities. They also played a key role in organizing, in partnership with the World Bank, the first high-level Forum to examine Grassroots Enterprise Capacity in Darfur and Southern Sudan.

This initiative fostered close relationships with war-displaced communities, entrepreneurs, academic and training institutes, community members, government, donors, and the international development community.

Richard Ivey School of Business, York University, Dalhousie University, and the Foundation for Sustainable Enterprise and Development in Canada and Afhad University for Women, Upper Nile University, and University of El Fashir in the Sudan were key partners of the project, which received financial support from Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, and IDRC.

Small interventions, positive changes

During a trip to the Sudan this summer, Abdelnour saw positive changes stemming from the blacksmiths’ participation in the Forum. As a result of the publicity they gained from showcasing their work, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations offered the blacksmiths two major contracts to provide tools to communities in Western and Northern Sudan.

Typically shunned and associated with the lower castes of society, blacksmiths in the Sudan have traditionally struggled to make a living. The conflict in Darfur displaced the blacksmiths and ruined their businesses. However, due to small interventions in their legal status and business model, the blacksmiths were able to harness their enterprise capacity, emerge successful, and gain respect within their society.

“Their entrepreneurial success has now led to a social transformation that will empower future generations,” said Abdelnour. “It’s a perfect example of how the wealth of entrepreneurial activity that existed before the conflict can be harnessed and used as a powerful tool for integration and poverty reduction.”

“Our research and resulting Forum on sustainable approaches to enterprise development made a material difference for the blacksmiths even without direct consulting,” he added. “It’s proving to be a model that communities affected by war can follow.”

Abdelnour said he also sees a lot of potential for entrepreneurship in Southern Sudan using natural resources, with the largest potential in the fields of agriculture and livestock. There are also opportunities to create farmers’ markets in diverse niche industries, such as honey production.

Fostering grassroots knowledge

Another positive spin-off from the Forum was a work-internship program, which has grown to include students from four universities across Sudan and spanning disciplines such as business, law and engineering. There are also strong research linkages between the Richard Ivey School of Business and the Ahfad University for Women, fostering the development of grassroots knowledge and teaching resources, added Branzei.

The study has already caught the attention of Corporate Knights, a Canadian magazine about responsible business. Karen Kun, Corporate Knights’ publisher, joined Abdelnour in Sudan in late August and early September to travel with him and observe his research at work. It was his fifth trip there in 2-1/2 years. Kun is featuring Abdelnour’s impactful stories in a cover article which appeared in Corporate Knights’ October 28 issue

“I was really inspired by Samer’s research and wanted to see what’s happening on the ground,” said Kun. “I genuinely feel the Canadian population wants to know more about the Sudan and I believe people will begin to care more when they see such positive stories.”

The recently published report, titled Examining Enterprise Capacity: A Participatory Social Assessment in Darfur and Southern Sudan, can be downloaded at:  

About the Richard Ivey School of Business The Richard Ivey School of Business at The University of Western Ontario offers undergraduate (HBA) and graduate (MBA, Executive MBA and PhD) degree programs in addition to non-degree Executive Development programs. Ivey has campuses in London (Ontario), Toronto, and Hong Kong. Ivey recently redesigned its curriculum to focus on Cross-Enterprise Leadership ― a holistic issues-based approach to management education that meets the demands of today’s complex global business world.