Collaborating in a Sea of Unknowns

I’ve been recently contemplating on the idea of collaboration in the social business space. The problem is that traditional business culture does not advocate associations and sharing of knowledge. It’s every man for himself and one’s business IP is tightly guarded. If someone with ill intent gets hold of your data, they can undercut your prices, copy your designs, your value chain, or do even worse. In a dog-eat-dog world, collaboration is not easy. There are limited resources and everyone wants a piece of the pie. However, in social business, it is not solely about survival. The stakes are higher as we try to solve the world’s most pressing needs. But how do we transcend our legacy of business culture? 

This comes down to the phenomena of a prisoners’ dilemma. Imagine there are two prisoners breaking out of prison to find their hidden treasure. If they help each other they split the treasure. If one backstabs the other, the victor gets out with everything. How do you trust someone in this atmosphere? Therefore, working together but being alert to aspects of backstabbing has become a prevalent cultural norm.

James van der Walt, Founder of SolarTurtle  at an epNetwork workshop

American psychologist  Abraham Maslow’s theory “Hierarchy of Needs” points out that you focus on basic needs first, which are very self-centred. As you move up the pyramid, you have the luxury of expanding your definition of what makes you – “You”. The climb helps you move away from anarchy and the borders that separate you from others falls away. “You” and “They” become one “We”. Bonds are made, borders are removed, trust is built, and healthy individualities are born.

Typically a business is built on similar mechanisms like the human personality. A business needs an identity to navigate through the market. At nascent levels, they compete – fighting for survival. At higher levels, the need for collaboration is clear – mergers, partnerships, joint ventures, or even buy-outs take over.

Businesses are built by humans, who are beautifully fallible, so these systems are not perfect as well. Like the prisons dilemma, if greed or ego comes into the market you need to be cautious. People and businesses are not all trustworthy. So we swim in a sea of unknowns. What do we do when alone at sea? Reach out, look for support, build trust! Similarly, businesses have this common dilemma. All of us can flourish if we can only work together by overcoming our fears and begin to trust.

So, here I am starting a social business and I’m surrounded by like-minded businesses – staring at uncertainty. Everyone agrees that if we cooperate, we will all have fewer resources, but if we collaborate by splitting the resources and manage them with trust, then we can change the world. Unfortunately, life does not work that way.

The world’s resources are still limited and we might never have a unified front to tackle the challenges. As our trust grows so does the perspective that sees beyond personal survival, and looks at the overall global needs. Because like it or not, the Earth is our prison and we are in a dilemma. If there is too much backstabbing then we have nowhere to go. We all fail! Often egotism can send our society over the edge – if we think: “we have a bigger right to the resources than those others and we are entitled to what is ours”. We need to evolve our thinking to: “I have enough and can give away freely”. Sooner or later the culture will start shifting. Trust will be built, and the resources will be sufficient! We need to lift people up the pyramid. But, how do we share these resources fairly in a world without trust?

James at the launch of SolarTurtle’s first fold-away solar container with Charlene Barnes, Project Coordinator at SolarTurtle and collaborators


Look at the nature for answers! Patterns always seem to repeat in the cycle of life organically and evolve in an ocean of darkness: by reaching out, collaborating, forming new organic and inorganic structures. How do we replicate this in business?  Humans form the base of business culture. So what do humans do? We have families, partners, friends and societies that brings us together.

James receiving epAward from Siemens Stiftung’s Managing Director Rolf Huber and epNetwork’s Head Carola Schwank

Let’s start with the idea of a parent and siblings. If a start-up had a parent company that incubates its growth then its chances of survival are increased. Each parent has strengths and weaknesses to give the start-up a broader perspective and a greater network. The parents know their start-ups very well and look out for their best. The family includes a host of start-ups or siblings. Often our parents have limited resources but they distribute it among the siblings wisely: in the forms of education, office space, networks etc.  Siblings in turn also support one another by advising, sharing business leads, collaborating, and often emotionally. Of course, there are limitations to this model! Too many parents and siblings chasing the same resources can lead to chaos. Size matters as our trust is limited. Too many people and connections can break down a system.

So make quality friends and not run after the quantity! We need to create families in our businesses. This helps build trust, heal wounds and co-workers/ networks realize they are a family. Trust is the basis for everything: at home and the world and it’s hard earned. So make sure you treat your siblings well and listen to your parents.

James van der Walt is a social entrepreneur and engineer from South Africa, who quit his job as a software engineer in Ireland striving to do something more meaningful in his life. In 2012 he moved back to South Africa and founded SolarTurtle, a social business with the vision to provide energy solutions to underserved people in South Africa. He took the basic business concept to Stellenbosch University to research and develop it. In 2013 he completed his Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering specializing in renewable energy. The product of his thesis is SolarTurtle, a secure and mobile solar kiosk.  With support from government and university research funding, he raised enough to build a prototype. He won the empowering people. Award in 2016 and today his enterprise serves remote communities in South Africa and Lesotho.

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