While working on my business plan for a social enterprise I was planning to start-up last year, I was looking up social enterprises in Sri Lanka especially as I am fascinated by how enterprises define themselves as a social enterprise. Many of my online searches came across articles that referred to Good Market as a social enterprise. Having visited the lovely Good Market shop on Reid Avenue, I was even more interested in learning from its founder, Dr. Amanda Kiessel, about how Good Market came to life.
- Three words that you would use to describe Good Market.
People. Planet. Fun.
- It is always fascinating to hear about how interesting ideas come to life. So, do share your ‘eureka’ moment when the idea for Good Market came to you and when did you decide to make it a reality.
I’ve been in Sri Lanka for 14 years and I’ve been fortunate to work with amazing local organizations. I knew groups throughout the country that were doing great work on health issues, social services, and environmental sustainability. They were producing organic food and socially responsible products. At the same time, you’d find people in Colombo that were interested in mindful consumption, but didn’t know where to find the products. The idea was to have a space that would bring those producers and consumers together. We thought there would be 10 to 15 vendors. The big surprise was the response. We started in December 2012 with 32 vendors, which was far more than we expected. There are now over 300 Good Market approved vendors and new applications coming in every week. The customers are incredible. They ask great questions and push the vendors to constantly improve.
I think the eureka moment came after the market started when we realized that people were looking for public spaces and community.
- What were some of the challenges that you had to overcome in making Good Market a reality?
The initial challenge was finding a venue. We were looking for a space that would be available on the weekends, centrally located and easily accessible by public transport. Some venue managers didn’t think people would come to a weekly market. Others had high payment expectations. We didn’t want to use external funding or sponsorship because we’d seen too many donor-dependent initiatives that started off with a bang but stopped when the funding stopped.
- How do you define Good Market as a social enterprise?
There are many different definitions of a social enterprise, but for the Good Market, a social enterprise is an organization that is mission-driven and self-financing. We have Good Market vendors that self-identify as social enterprises. We also have vendors that are non-profit organizations that are trying to be more financially sustainable or responsible businesses that are trying to expand their social or environment benefit.
The Good Market is registered as a Guarantee Limited Company and operates as a not-for-profit social enterprise. The focus is on financial sustainability. If there is any surplus, it is reinvested towards the mission to expand services for consumers or vendors.
- What does Good Market focus on? How has it evolved since it was started?
We focus on curation and connection. Good Market is a curated marketplace which means all of the vendors go through an application and review process, and the products and services have to meet Good Market standards and be good for people and good for the planet. Our goal is to help vendors connect with like-minded consumers and with each other.
We started with a weekly event as a way to bring people together. We now have weekly events in multiple locations and a shop that’s open daily. We’re currently working on a web app that has the potential to promote vendors beyond Sri Lanka. The services have evolved, but the core focus is the same.
- How has the trend for social enterprise start-ups in Sri Lanka evolved over the past decade?
Sri Lanka has a long history of socially and environmentally responsible initiatives. Some are community-based, some have come out of religious groups, and some (like the cooperative movement) have direct government support. According to the World Giving Index, Sri Lanka is one of the top 10 most giving countries in the world. The term “social enterprise” might be new, but this type of start-up is part of Sri Lanka’s culture and history. The biggest change we’ve seen is greater recognition that these initiatives are part of a larger international movement. As international aid for NGOs declines, we’ve also seen greater interest in social enterprises as a sustainable alternative to aid dependency.
- What do you consider some of the factors that could be improved for a better environment for local social enterprises?
Other countries are developing special forms of registration for social enterprises (e.g. CIC in the UK and B Corp in the US). A special form of registration would help raise awareness and create a better environment for local social enterprises. Currently, most people assume that a company registered as a Private Limited is profit driven and a company registered as a Guarantee Limited receives donor aid.
It would also be helpful to have preferential services and investment funds for social enterprises. This is something that many groups are currently working on (e.g. Lanka Social Ventures, Social Enterprise Lanka, Lanka Impact Investment Network).
- What do you consider the impact of Good Market on local communities?
Since most producer groups that sell through the Good Market have fewer than 50 members, I’m not sure that we’ve had impact on geographical communities. There has certainly been impact on interest-based communities. There are frequent meetings between people working on similar issues (disability awareness, organic agriculture, etc.)
- I understand that socialenterprise.lk is another initiative of yours. Please briefly describe what the site aims to do.
Social Enterprise Lanka (socialenterprise.lk) was started by Eranda Ginige. His goal is to build the social enterprise sector in Sri Lanka. While not all Good Market vendors are social enterprises, we feel those who are deserve special recognition and support, and we’ve been linking them with Social Enterprise Lanka. We are very excited about this initiative.
- To wrap up this interview, do share one of your favourite quotes or verse that inspires you whenever you are in need of a pick-me-up or some inspiration.
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
[Photo credits: Dr. Amanda Kiessel]