The Illusive Nature of Social Enterprise at the Base of the Pyramid: Case Studies of Six Kenyan Social Enterprises

Karen Panum, Michael W. Hansen, Elder Davy

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Purpose: Based on six case studies of self-proclaimed social enterprises (SEs) in Kenya, this paper aims to critically assess the ‘social enterprise’ concept in a base of the pyramid (BoP) context.
Design/methodology/approach: The paper draws on multiple case studies to challenge traditional notions of ‘social enterprise’. Six social enterprises operating at the BoP in Kenya are analysed. Interviews are conducted with entrepreneurs from each enterprise, during which the enterprises’ business models are mapped and scrutinized.
Findings: Based on the six case studies, the paper argues that the SE concept is challenged in a BoP context: The six Kenyan SEs viewed social and commercial orientation as equally important and mutually supportive; they viewed social orientation as a competitive advantage; and they did not consider social objectives as harmonious. These findings corroborate key claims of the BoP literature, e.g. that it is not possible meaningfully to distinguish social and commercial missions at the BoP as they are intertwined; that any company succeeding at the BoP will have a social impact; and that the pursuit of some social objectives may undermine the achievement of other social objectives. The overall conclusion of the paper is that in BoP environments, the concept of SE becomes illusive.
Originality/value: This paper adds perspective to existing literature on social enterprise at the BoP and provides empirical evidence that can help shape the understanding of social business activities in East Africa. The paper demonstrates that in BoP environments, the boundaries between social and commercial enterprise become illusive.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Entrepreneurship in Emerging Economies
Issue number2
Pages (from-to)249-276
Number of pages28
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • Social enterprise
  • Base of the pyramid
  • Kenya
  • Case studies
  • Business model canvas

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