Health and Healthcare Systems

Social entrepreneurs and COVID-19: stories from the frontline

Waste picker Virgilio Estueta, 60, walks with his cart filled with trash amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, July 7, 2020. Picture taken July 7, 2020

Waste pickers are one of the groups being supported by COVID Response Alliance members Image: REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

Marie Penelope Nezurugo
Research and Analysis Specialist, World Economic Forum
Lorelei Logel Demoulin
Project Manager, Yunus Social Business
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  • A thriving social entrepreneurship ecosystem is an essential engine for an inclusive and sustainable recovery from the pandemic.
  • The pandemic is having devastating effects on social entrepreneurs, who work to safeguard the livelihoods of underprivileged populations.
  • The COVID Response Alliance is supporting social entrepreneurs through the crisis by adapting their business models to the new reality.

The swiftness and efficiency with which social entrepreneurs have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts has made one thing clear: their on-the-ground presence and ability to act as first responders in support of vulnerable communities are incredibly important to global COVID-19 response efforts. We must urgently support this under-recognized cohort of leaders who are operating at the forefront of the pandemic response, and who have critical lessons to impart on building a more shockproof, inclusive and sustainable economy in its aftermath.

In May this year, 60 leading organizations from the social entrepreneurship sector launched the COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs with a goal to align and strengthen their support efforts for social entrepreneurs during the crisis and its aftermath. Together, the coalition supports more than 50,000 social entrepreneurs, who in turn impact close to 1 billion lives in more than 190 countries.

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Stories from the frontline

Social entrepreneurs have reached and served vulnerable populations effectively for decades, generating decent jobs and bringing them vital products and services at prices they can afford — be it water, healthcare, sanitation, nutritious food or financial services. It is not surprising that social entrepreneurs were in a prime position to jump in as ‘first responders’ to the crisis. Their experiences send a powerful message about how business and impact can be combined, and – perhaps even more so – begin to paint a picture of what our societies and economies could look like if it were up to social entrepreneurs. Here are some of their stories.

1. Preserving the income of marginalized women through ethical fashion.

NESsT supports 189 entrepreneurs in central and eastern Europe and Latin America, and is improving the lives of more than 660,000 people.

Retalhar, a textile-recycling social enterprise that NESsT has supported since 2015
Retalhar, a textile-recycling social enterprise that NESsT has supported since 2015 Image: NESsT

The pandemic has had devastating socio-economic consequences across the globe. However, due to persistent inequalities in wealth, employment, housing and access to healthcare, vulnerable populations have been disproportionately affected. Alliance member NESsT has been investing in social enterprises that empower vulnerable communities to access quality jobs for the past 23 years. In early March, the pandemic hit Estrafalario, an early-stage social enterprise from Peru that produces a line of trendy ethical fashion. They urgently needed working capital to pay their suppliers, which NESsT was able to provide. This allowed the enterprise to stabilize its cash flow and continue to provide both job-oriented training and psychological support to previously incarcerated women from low-income populations. NESsT is also supporting the enterprise to strengthen its online marketing capacity through digital community engagement, in order to increase sales in the long run.

2. Ensuring continuous waste management and stabilizing the livelihoods of waste pickers

Fundación Avina amplifies the financial support available to 18,000 entrepreneurs in the Global South (Latin America and Africa).

While recyclers and waste pickers play a key role in waste management throughout Latin America, they often work informally and in unstable, low-paid jobs. As national and local governments have temporarily suspended municipal recycling programmes, Alliance Member Fundación Avina is supporting RedLacre, an organization working to promote grassroots recyclers and strengthen their collective action in Latin America and the Caribbean. At the beginning of the crisis, Fundación Avina supported this social enterprise to build a contingency plan for at least 10,000 grassroots recyclers whose livelihoods depended on their work. This includes direct transfer of resources (as compensation for their lack of income) and delivery of personal protection equipment. Through these interventions, Fundación Avina seeks to ensure the long-term continuity of waste recycling programmes in Latin America.

The looming recession will hit women, the poor and the young hardest
The looming recession will hit women, the poor and the young hardest Image: OECD Employment Outlook 2020

3. Empowering disadvantaged young people to access jobs despite the crisis

The UN Development Programme’s 'Business Call to Action' (BCtA) is assessing needs and sharing best practices across its more than 270 members – from social enterprises to multinationals, covering 73 countries and reaching more than 330 million people.

The recession looming in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis is expected to result in the loss of five to 25 million jobs worldwide. Young adults, especially those living in urban and rural poverty and lacking the required education and opportunity, will be most affected. UNDP’s Business Call to Action (BCtA) is supporting social enterprises like Empower Pragati, an India-based social enterprise that offers skills training to and generates job opportunities for India's disadvantaged youth. Empower Pragati is currently increasing the employability of more than 2 million young people from underprivileged communities through resumé preparation and mentoring, ensuring that these youth have equal opportunities in accessing decent job opportunities.


Social entrepreneurs have been acting as frontline responders throughout the pandemic, providing services to those most severely affected. They have also been hit hard by the crisis, however, and we cannot afford to lose them. In September 2020, the COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship will publish a call for action through its report COVID-19 Action Agenda — Leaders on the Front Line: Why Social Entrepreneurs Are Needed Now More than Ever. The report makes clear that social entrepreneurs are at risk of failure, and in need of significant capital to keep effectively supporting the vulnerable communities in which they operate.

The Action Agenda will be officially launched on 16 September this year and will kick off a targeted campaign to mobilise support for social entrepreneurs and advocate collectively for a green and inclusive economic reset.

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Health and Healthcare SystemsSocial InnovationJobs and the Future of Work
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