Impact First; The Story of Wonder Welders
(*Editors Note: This piece was originally published in Stanford Social Innovation Review Blog on 6/17/11)
For close to a year, I’ve been taking a first-hand look at East African social enterprises, as part of The (BoP) Project. I’ve encountered a wondrously diverse ecosystem of enterprises and entrepreneurs, including smaller pilot endeavors like Egg-Energy and old-timers like KickStart. I’ve seen some remarkably innovative approaches and models built to profitably serve the needs of those at the base of the economic pyramid in the region—from mobile phone payments for clean water to pay-per-use toilets and showers in slums around Nairobi. Yet despite the variances in sectors, target markets, funding sources, and so on, they all seem to have two quite distinct commonalities: a comprehensive, impact-driven business model, and a plan to “scale big.”
Paul Hicks, founder of Wonder Welders, has neither—yet he has trained and now employs 35 local, physically disabled staff at a welding and crafts workshop in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
A photographer by profession, Hicks never really intended to take a “market-based approach to creating opportunities for the disabled,” or to develop a social business model that has the potential—with the right kind of help—to scale. But he has.
Back in 2003, Hicks would pass by several disabled individuals at an intersection on his way to work each day. Many were victims of polio, which if left untreated and in severe cases can lead to a paralytic disease most commonly affecting the leg muscles, causing them to become weak, poorly controlled, and finally paralyzed. Others he encountered were born with various birth defects, resulting in stunted development or complete loss of control of their legs. Eventually, they started asking for some kind of work. “I was a photographer; I couldn’t give them a job,” he said.
A Wonder Welder’s employee puts the finishing touches on a metal pig.
But after toying around in a friend’s welding shop one day, Hicks realized that there was nothing preventing the disabled people he met from welding or doing other types of crafts work. In fact, he saw their often-tremendous upper body strength as an advantage. So, in 2004, with seed funding from Goat Race charity, he launched Wonder Welders with just a handful of disabled workers, to make “Hip, Recycled Art” out of scrap metal, glass, paper, cans, pineapple tops, and other donated items.
Despite being a social enterprise that has demonstrated near-complete self-sufficiency (they accept but don’t actively seek out, donations), Wonder Welders does not specifically brand or market itself a “social business.” Apart from its website, there is no indication that products are made by disabled workers, and the organization has never even bothered with an impact assessment. Hicks, originally from the UK, has never attended a social enterprise conference and never called himself a social entrepreneur. In Tanzania and other parts of Africa, people with disabilities often are not considered hireable—Hicks simply hired them.
Metal crocodiles for sale at Wonder Welder’s Workshop in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
“If everyone knew the products were made by disabled workers, many would buy them just to support the organization,” Hicks says. “Instead, we’d rather people buy them because they’re high-quality, recycled pieces of art. And they do!”
But Wonder Welders has hit capacity. While Hicks has no doubt the model can scale across Tanzania, and even to other parts of Africa, its approach will certainly have to change. The business will need investment, and to attract investment in this space, so the pattern goes, they will need to produce two things: detailed impact reports and a plan to “scale big.”